By Owen Davis
Once upon a time, education came in one form–a teacher and a classroom. Although this traditional learning environment is still utilized, today’s workplace has changed so dramatically that relying exclusively on the classroom setting for employee training is no longer effective.
More emphasis on productivity means less time available to sit in classes. A mobile workforce that operates from remote locations makes centralized classes counterproductive. Younger workers that are more accustomed to gaining information through a variety of channels are bored by a single delivery system of education. Put it all together, and the prospect of continually training employees using the same old methods seems unlikely to succeed.
Today’s teleservices employees can learn more effectively with a blended learning approach. Blended learning uses a variety of methods that reinforce each other and engage learners in different ways. Blended learning takes advantage of the power, flexibility, and ease of online learning delivery, while still utilizing the best features of classroom interaction and live instruction.
As traditional training methods become less feasible due to cost, geography, and time constraints, and less effective because of the learning preferences of new entrants to the workforce, blended learning is emerging as the best option for successful workplace learning.
Blended Learning in Action: Employees learn best when they have some control over their learning schedule. At the same time, having a high-level scheduled framework with assignments due on specified dates can help to hold learners accountable. Blended learning programs are designed to give students the control they desire and the accountability they require. webinars, conference calls, online collaborative distance learning programs, and teleclasses are utilized to engage learners in a classroom-like environment where they can encourage and challenge each other, forming relationships that can extend beyond the class environment. Blended learning may also involve interaction with a live facilitator through group conference calls and one-on-one phone or Web coaching to address individual needs.
Students may begin with a live class in a traditional classroom and then receive the majority of the learning content through self-study workbooks or via the Internet. They may reconvene for demonstrations, role-playing, or a final wrap-up. Alternatively, the program may be conducted totally through phone and email communications with a facilitator who spends live call time with the participants as a group or individually.
A key success factor in blended learning environments is creating high quality student-instructor interaction, as well as student-to-student interaction. The best programs combine directed and self-paced study while providing an effective way to answer questions, provide assessment, and collaborate with peers.
Learners who have completed a blended learning program can be encouraged to continue participating and learning through access to white papers, knowledge bases, and update sessions. “Alumni” can be encouraged to stay in touch, facilitating better peer collaboration, and intra-group networking.
Overcoming the Challenges: Because blended learning changes the way employees, managers, and trainers think about education, some natural challenges arise in the effort to shift behavior to the new model. Employees who are used to more passive traditional learning may find the level of interactivity expected in a blended environment to be daunting. Workers who have snoozed through classes in the past may be surprised at the visibility individuals have in the blended learning environment. Collaboration, one-on-one coaching calls, homework posting, and contribution to knowledge databases and forums force students to be engaged and to participate in the learning process.
Managers also face challenges with the blended learning environment. Traditional classroom learning means that employees are in a designated spot at a designated time. Their managers know exactly where they are and what they’re doing. With blended learning, employees combine scheduled calls and webinars with self-directed study offline and virtual group collaboration. This requires managers to trust employees to be active participants outside of a classroom setting. Managers must be supportive of the at-work time requirements for calls, collaboration, and knowledge sharing.
Trainers without experience in online education may not be proficient in the new environment without additional skill building. Educators who are used to a traditional lecture format, supplemented by printed handouts, may initially feel overwhelmed by the choices available to them in the form of online and off-line learning tools.
All of these challenges can be overcome. To assure a smooth transition, employees who are expected to learn in a blended environment should be introduced ahead of time to the blended learning concept and, if necessary, receive training in online skills prior to beginning a course. Assisting managers to understand the benefits of the new blended environment can decrease anxiety around their perceived loss of control. Trainers who have been training with a fully developed system of binders, handouts, and off-line tools will need preparation time and, quite likely, technical support to create a fully realized blended environment. Making sure that corporate trainers have the technical support and time to prepare for the new blended learning environment can reduce their stress and resistance to change.
The Payoff Can Be Huge: Blended learning offers the benefit of working with top instructors and a global network of classroom colleagues without ever leaving the office. Multiple delivery vehicles for content minimize scheduled group time, which in turn minimizes the time that employees are away from their jobs. Learners are able to complete assignments, meet with other group members for collaboration, and post to forums at their own pace as their schedules permit. High residual value can be created through the collaborative networks formed among students in blended classes, networks that continue to help with knowledge transfer long after the class is over.
Blended learning offers companies of all sizes a chance to make the most of their resources. Employees gain and retain new concepts and skills efficiently, while benefiting from participation in growing personal networks. In today’s teleservices training environments, blended learning is gaining a reputation as the high-performance, low-cost option of choice.
Owen Davis is managing director of U.S. Operations of TrainingFolks, which specializes in performance consulting, leadership development, and designing and executing employee-based development systems. He can be reached at 704-998-5530.
[From Connection Magazine – November 2008]