There is no shortage of reasons to adopt blended learning, but anyone who has tried something new knows that the unexpected can happen despite even the most thorough planning and preparation.

When it comes to blended learning, there is so much available and so many possibilities that it can seem overwhelming. Some organizations shy away from trying anything in case it fails. Instead of holding back, look at your first experience with blended learning as an opportunity to learn and you'll find that the benefits will far outweigh any difficulties encountered along the way. Don't be afraid to ask questions; better yet, partner with a provider that has more experience and can help. As the learning and development field moves further along on the learning curve, the quality and effectiveness of blended learning solutions keep improving.

Blended learning has captured the attention of many organizations as a versatile, effective learning delivery solution that addresses today's business realities. These realities include tight training and travel budgets, demand for reduced time away from work, changing generational learning preferences, and a wide range of available delivery options.

But blended learning is not an end unto itself—it is a valuable process. Blended learning is a means to deliver just-in-time learning so that learners can apply knowledge sooner or as they acquire it. This is a paradigm shift from traditional, event-oriented instructor-led training.

There is no shortage of reasons to adopt blended learning as well as best practices for its design and implementation. However, anyone who has tried something new knows that the unexpected can happen despite even the most thorough planning and preparation.

Based on my experience working at ESI International with global clients and witnessing best practices—and missteps—first-hand, this article will take a behind-the-scenes look at blended learning and highlight potential risks and trouble areas that will enable you to minimize headaches and maximize learning outcomes and investment.

Building your blended learning solution

There are multiple areas to keep in mind when developing blended learning programs. Technology, learning outcomes, business objectives, and organizational readiness are just some of the considerations. Keeping in mind the following basic tips will help you steer clear of potential trouble spots that can occur during implementation.

  • Design for success; its all about the learner.
  • Identify and document goals and requirements early.
  • Design a scalable approach.
  • Identify and partner with an executive sponsor.
  • Partner with your IT staff.
  • Prepare stakeholders for what is to come (managers as well as individual contributors).
  • Don't be afraid to ask for help from outside vendors or resources that already have successfully gone down this path.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing organizations is establishing requirements and identifying what issues they need to address. Detailed surveys of diverse, global customers have identified the main issues of importance to most organizations, which include the need to

  • minimize downtime
  • show, not just tell, learners how to apply what they've learned on-the-job
  • bridge performance gaps across distributed teams and different cultures
  • supply multiple touch points for learning at the moment of need
  • document business impact (How do we know training was effective?)
  • address the implications of a highly mobile, multigenerational workforce.

Once requirements have been identified, its important to stay focused on the learning outcomes that address a business problem or goal. While technology can be your best friend in blended learning, it is the enabler, not the driver of the solution. Regardless of the potential and excitement around blended learning and the urgency within the organization to dive in, its OK to start small and not think that you have to spend millions of dollars at the outset.

While ESI recently made a significant investment in a content management system that enables us to quickly customize content and render it in various modalities, we did so after implementing simple solutions that allowed us to successfully identify our business requirements. This was a viable option for us at this stage, but your organization can start out with something as simple as a webinar or podcast to prepare learners for their experience. Resist the urge to get distracted by the shiny objects. Starting out small is often necessary not only to test and fine-tune your customized blended framework, but also to achieve buy-in from a senior champion or executive sponsor, as well as managers.

Example: A conservative financial services client didn't have the executive buy-in needed to ensure the success of a blended program. The company was advised to implement a pilot program, which allowed it to show quantifiable success to the executive team. Excited with the results, the executives got on board with the blended learning approach. Starting small in this instance allowed them to measure reactions and acceptance, build the solution iteratively, and strike a balance between innovation and productivity, facilitating a truly integrated, blended solution. Blended learning is not a one-size-fits-all approach, so identifying the right mix of media and technology for your organization can reduce the risk of using new components.

Keeping it basic can help increase your first-time success. For example, pilot a simple solution such as a blend of classroom instruction with online components as follow-up or as prerequisites. This will address the traps of a solution that is too big, too complicated, or not appropriate for the audience. Easy-to-use technology the audience may already be familiar with—such as webinars, web courses, podcasts, and e-newsletters—are good blended learning approaches. Just because someone is a Millennial, it doesn't always make him a technology whiz kid. Resist the urge to make assumptions. Anyone of any age can benefit from an applicable learning experience that is tailored to their specific learning needs.

Example: A global consumer products company wanted to train a large group of recently hired Millennials. Assuming that the younger demographic would prefer e-learning solutions, the company asked for 80 percent of its learning to be online. However, when some of the learners were questioned, they explained that the online delivery method wasn't as important as having relevant examples to which they could relate. In this situation, the modality was not the issue at all. Instead, the learners couldn't relate to the outdated examples from the instructor.

This case not only speaks to the appropriate combination of media and technology, but it is a reinforcing lesson about the need to identify and document requirements and know your audience. Organizations that don't take into consideration company culture, different generations and learning styles, global and cultural preferences, and the lowest common denominator in terms of technology do so at their peril. Improper planning for the required resources to support the solution and maintain momentum and learner engagement will have you missing your marks in terms of learning outcome and budgeting.

Matching the right instructor with the right delivery method is a unique learning consideration when blending real and virtual worlds.

Advertisement

Example: A global transportation company wanted to use the same instructors for both in-person, instructor-led training and its online modules. What the company didn't realize is that sometimes an instructor who is animated and engaging online is shy and doesn't come across well in front of a room full of people. The client was afraid to use different instructors for different modalities for fear of inconsistency. In this case, however, because different skills are needed, using the same instructor (even if she is a known quantity) was not the best option.

Preparing stakeholders for their roles

The implementation and communication of blended learning programs can be complex, especially in global organizations. Detail how a blended workflow will progress in terms of manager touch points, employee reminders, content access, reporting, measurement, and revisions. All stakeholders should be involved from the beginning so that they understand their roles and contributions toward the success of the blended learning program.

Example: Even the best laid plans can go awry, as in the case of a large global company building an integrated learning framework. One of the preliminary issues we discussed with the executive sponsor was the need to have buy-in from management to prepare students for the learning experience. However, when ESI sent out introductory email messages to the managers alerting them to prelearning podcasts and other materials for the employee learners to use, some emails were left unopened. Communication was the issue here. The managers hadn't been informed by the executive sponsor that they would be receiving these materials from an outside vendor, so some ignored the emails.

Another issue that needed to be considered was the organizations spam filter settings. Some of the emails contained attachments that were tagged as spam. A thorough assessment of firewalls and other technical specifications, as well as communication, must be completed during the planning of your blended learning solution. This will help mitigate even the smallest risks.

In addition to the factors that already have been discussed to this point, there's a host of considerations regarding a key stakeholder: the learner. The learner has the potential to trip up the most carefully prepared learning engagement—blended or traditional—so extra diligence is needed for the program to succeed.

Simple steps such as providing links, articles, and other learning materials, as well as email reminders, are critical. They need to be clear, prompt, and frequent. Incorporating numerous and varied touch points is one of the most important elements to remember when deploying a blended learning solution. They foster the vital personal connections that people need to be fully engaged in their learning.

Learners need to be excited about the blended learning engagement from the time they first hear about it. The first day of class is too late. Adult learners need to see the value of the proposed training or the commitment wont be there.

Example: At one multinational company, future students were shown a video a C-level executive had made that expressed his support for the training and its value for employees and the organization. The employees responded with terrific enthusiasm that a high-level executive in such a large company would take the time to acknowledge and encourage their upcoming training.

Sometimes with blended learning, you'll find it necessary to try more than one approach to achieve the desired result.

Example: A major financial institution sought to find ways to get employees excited about training because the enthusiasm wasn't there. The company thought its familiar instructor-led training program worked just fine and didnt want to change it. However, the far-flung locations of the employees necessitated a blended learning solution. A webinar was weakly received, so then we tried a drip-feed approach, co-hosting a webinar with the executive sponsor during which we provided details about what they could expect over the life of the learning engagement. Watched by employees while eating pizza together, the webinar generated the desired attention. This was a simple, yet effective approach.

Laying this groundwork also helps with the challenge of keeping people engaged over a longer period of time. One blending learning engagement conducted for an international financial services organization spanned four months, from precourse assessment through the 90-day post-assessment.

It was critical to communicate to the managers and the learners upfront that blended learning isnt an event, but a process. A mix of emailed precourse materials, instructor-led training, an online post-course reinforcement, and an online alumni network and community of practice provided a variety of touch points that kept interest and learning outcome levels high.

Its important to remember that although blended learning is clearly gaining ground and popularity, currently 65 percent of learning engagement hours still consist of traditional classroom instructor-led training. Using lessons learned from successful blended learning programs will enable you to better integrate various learning modalities with greater confidence.