Blended learning is a hot phrase in the training world, and it usually refers to a mixing of traditional face-to-face classroom facilitation with computer-based modules — usually self-paced online training. Proponents of blended learning point to several benefits of the approach, including:
1. Blended learning extends training beyond a single “event.”
2. Blended learning allows trainees to absorb training on their own time, leaving valuable classroom time for more skill-building activities.
3. Blended learning saves money by reducing the travel and work-stoppage costs of classroom training.
There’s merit in many of these points. But there are also some holes in that logic that can’t be ignored:
1. The blended learning model doesn’t exactly extend training beyond an event — it simply extends the event. There’s an important difference there.
2. The blended learning model allows for some lessons to be delivered online instead of in a classroom lecture. But whether any of that information is actually absorbed is another question.
3. Done right, a blended learning program can reduce can produce cost savings. But that has nothing to do with learning and performance effectiveness, only money.
Blended learning has really emerged as a buzzword in the last decade. In 2003, the American Society for Training and Development identified blended learning as one of its Top 10 trends to emerge in the knowledge-delivery industry.
And that’s precisely why I’ve never been a fan of blended learning — it's really not about learning at all.
Look again at what the ASTD describes the industry as: the “knowledge-delivery”industry. There’s a big difference between knowledge delivery and learning. Amazon can deliver a book to my house, but I still have to read it to learn anything.
Webster’s defines learning as the "act or experience of one that learns; knowledge of skill acquired by instruction or study; modification of a behavioral tendency by experience."
What part of that definition do you think describes how the majority of workplace learning takes place? Without question, it’s the “modification of a behavioral tendency by experience.” (Practice!)
Most real workplace learning takes place within people's work, on the job. It happens through informal sharing, observation, and coaching from peers. It’s learning by actually performing.
Let’s return to the definition for another question: In which section of the definition do you think the work of trainers resides? I believe most of the work of trainers falls in the middle section, “knowledge of skill acquired by instruction or study."
Most of what trainers do involves transferring knowledge and explaining its potential applications on the job. Explaining something isn't the same as doing it. And doing it — performing it — is how people really learn.
So in reality, what we’re talking about when we describe blended learning is just how us transferring the responsibility of "delivering content" from a person to a computer. Again, this isn’t a learning strategy; it’s a training strategy.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
If learning professionals can start focusing more on improving people’s performance than on simply "delivering content,” we can create a true “blended” learning model — one that gets away from the “knowledge-delivery” industry.
Most blended learning models today consist of classroom training and self-paced online courses, which are made up of information on a screen, occasional quizzes, and sometimes some student-to-student (or student-to-instructor) interactions.
As I said earlier, that’s a training delivery strategy. But that’s hardly the only way people learn to do their job.
People learn from one another, from job aids, Internet searches, blogs, webcasts, and countless other places. The challenge for most trainers is that these resources aren’t “approved,” and can’t be tracked and reported on by an LMS.
Approved sources and tracking learning activity are training concerns, not performance concerns. If we really want to enable workers to succeed, we need to focus more on what will really help the most. It’s usually not a course, and it’s usually not a knowledge-delivery system.
We need to start seeing at our role as one of performance support, connecting workers with the resources they need at the time that they need them. Ironically, once we start doing that, we’ll have built a true blended learning model.
David Kelly is the director of training at Carver Federal Savings Bank and ember of the ASTD National Advisors for Chapters. He is also the author of the blog Misadventures in Learning, where he discusses the future of the learning field and curates the backchannel of learning conferences.