How long is a piece of string?

I recently presented at a blended learning conference in Auckland to an audience of mostly corporate learning and development people. This was a new experience as I’ve only ever presented to predominately academic audience conferences, so it was very interesting to get a quite different perspective on the role of training and development in the corporate world as distinct from that of life in the tertiary education sector. More on this at another time.

Following my presentation. which was about Key Learning Design Principles for Blended Learning, I was asked what was the best ratio of eLearning to face to face teaching for a blended learning course? This is not the first time I’ve been asked this and I reflected that if it was a simple matter of defining an optimal ratio then the job of a learning designer would be a whole lot easier, perhaps not as rewarding, but certainly easier.

This is your classic how long is a piece of string question to which the only answer you can respond with is “Well it depends”.

Depends on what? There are many variables, so many in fact, that a primary skill for a learning designer is the ability to find the right balance among all the variables in order to produce the most effective course possible.  So, what are some of these variables?

The variables, some of which are significant constraints, run the gamut from budget, to time available, to available technology, to the skills and experience of both learners and instructors. Probably the two most significant variables is time and budget, both of which have a direct impact on everything else including quality.

This graphic gives you some idea of some of the options one might consider for a blended learning course development arranged in terms of time for development and deployment and cost implications.

Time & Cost matrix for Blended Learning

This is only one way to see the relationships between variables. Others might be around how often the content is likely to change and whether the learner is expected to work collaboratively with others or independently and self-directed; another might be the  location of the learners or instructor and the urgency of the training need; yet another relationship might be the digital literacy of the target audience (and /or the instructional designers or instructor / facilitator), and the digital literacy  complexity and demands of proposed eLearning course components.

Designing for Blended Learning could be described as: “Finding the right balance of learning components that best fits the learning strategy required to deliver the desired learning outcomes for the identified training need, within the given context and constraints of the organisation’s culture, infrastructure and circumstance”.

Following this question I was asked if I could give an example of an effective blend of face-to-face and technology supported training. Fortunately I had thought about this beforehand and I was able to describe a scenario in which such a blend could be effective.

Imagine a large warehouse type of retail outlet with many sections and staff responsible for each section spread throughout the place. Now a new member of the staff is to be inducted and oriented. Typically this usually involves writing till there’s a sufficient number of new staff to make it worthwhile to run an induction programme and then it’s commonly run as a classroom based exercise. In the meantime the new staff member pretty much feels like a spare wheel with little or no real function early on, or is dropped in the deep end and expected to cope.

Here’s my take on how to make induction an active, useful and purposeful learning experience.   For very little outlay you can design a simple eLearning course that does the job of providing basic information about health & safety, company policies etc. One of the most important elements of any induction process is an understanding of where significant things are, who’s in charge of what,  what different people do and why things are organised the way they are. So here’s the key – a sort of modified treasure hunt.

The eLearning course can introduce the new staff member, via photos and voice recordings of section leaders giving some very basic information of who they are and their areas of responsibility. Then armed with a checklist, the new staff member is sent off to hunt down each of the section leaders and to briefly interview them about their section and responsibilities, they make notes and when they have completed the task, they return to the workstation and add pertinent information to a set of electronic file cards on each of the section leaders that they can save in a personalised directory or personal learning portfolio they can access when needed.

This has several virtues, it’s an effective way of getting a new staff member to develop a mental model of the who, why, what and where of their employment environment in a very short time. The fact they have a task to perform, means they are actively involved in gathering information that, if  taken around by the HR person or store manager or his/her delegated underling and introduced in the most commonly used manner, results in a totally passive experience that has little chance of recall.

The interviewing of the staff members deals with the embarrassment and/ or lack of confidence that many new inductees experience in getting to know the ropes and the inputting of information reinforces the who, why, what and where of the place. Doing this as an independent learning process also intensifies the experience thereby increasing the likelihood that there’s adequate uptake and transfer of learning.

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