Monday, 28 November 2011

The New Blended Learning

Blended learning is often used as a euphemism for e-learning but that is a vast oversimplification.

Obviously. Who would make a foolish mistake like that? OK to be honest when I signed up for this training event at the BCS I thought it was going to be about e-learning. In my defence it was a British Computer Society event and e-learning is an important part of the blend.

The speaker was Clive Shepherd a learning consultant and an expert on the use of e-learning in training.

The presentation itself is available here.

So if blended learning isn't e-learning what is it exactly? What's being blended and why does it matter?

There are two overarching factors that are blended.
1. The social context - Individual, face to face, group.
2. Strategies - Exposition, instruction, guided discovery, exploration.

These two then shape the mix of the other factors that you have to blend. As the name suggests a blended learning programme should include a wide mixture of different learning experiences. Part of the idea is that traditional training / education doesn't include a wide enough range of experiences. So for example a degree programme shaped by the blended philosophy might include some work based learning and online collaborative projects as well as the more traditional methods.

Education is more varied than it used to be and to some extent this model seems to be about projecting that trend forward and imagining the possibilities. On the other hand Clive pointed out that education hasn't changed anywhere near as quickly as he thought it was going to when he entered the field.

Once you've decided on your mix of social contexts and strategies you use that to shape your blend of methods and media. So if you want to use exploration as part of your blend and you want the students to learn as a group you might set up a collaborative research project. That could then be organised online or in real world classes.

When we try to decide on the right media we should think about timing. Do you want the training to be synchronous (in real time) or asynchronous (not in real time). So a lecture or a seminar would be synchronous. A training video or a recording of a webinar would be asynchronous.

We also covered the pressures that training organisations face. The main pressure unsurprisingly is the need to cut costs in the current difficult economic climate. But training departments also face an increasing demand for just-in-time training. People want to know how to perform a particular task and they need to know now. In the long-term environmental pressures are likely to become increasingly important. All of these pressures mean that organisations are rethinking the way that they train their staff.

OK, stick with me here because this bit sounds counter-intuitive at first particularly if like me you work in education rather than workplace training. At the moment the default for training is face to face and synchronous. Other approaches have to be argued for. Clive thinks that we should shift to a new default. The starting position for training should be online and asynchronous.

It's important to note that he's not saying all training should be online and not in real time. You start there when you're planning the training but then you decide if you need to move on. Some kinds of training will be more effective in real time. So the second option is online but synchronous. In some situations face to face sessions will be the best way to engage people so in that case you move on again. That third and final step is the current default: face to face and in real time.

The implication is that face to face training should only be used when we think it will have a particularly powerful impact. Interestingly he used the analogy of music and drama. Be honest what percentage of the music you heard this year and the drama you watched was live? On the other hand those live events that you did attend were probably far more intense experiences than the recordings or the broadcasts.

Is the conclusion for training providers that face to face sessions should be special occasions to inspire people but online learning should be the default? Given current economic pressures this might well quickly become the reality of training in most workplaces.

Where does that leave education? What are the implications for librarians in the educational sector and elsewhere? It's definitely something that we need to think about.

It's easy to see university education moving in this direction. It has already done so to some extent. Schools will always have a greater emphasis on face to face in their blend, for educational reasons and for practical ones. FE colleges will probably be somewhere in the middle. But at all levels online learning is going to become more important. This is generally accepted but it might accelerate if we find ourselves preparing students for workplaces where almost all training is online.

The growth of virtual learning environments at all levels of education gives us the infrastructure to move towards a far greater use of e-learning in our educational blend. In theory this should be a development that benefits librarians. Within educational institutions we are often at the cutting edge in terms of VLEs, online resources and related learning technologies.

Clive also advocated a shift in the balance between resources and courses. At the moment training provision focuses on providing courses. Resources are provided to help people to complete their courses. A training department that's thinking in terms of blended learning would reverse the focus. Courses would inspire people and give them the understanding and intellectual tools to explore the topic / skill set. After the course the training department would give trainees the resources they need to explore on their own. The resources would be at least as important if not more important than the courses.

Again Clive's focus is workplace training so even assuming he's got the trends right we need to think about how this will translate into education. If it does make the jump then it definitely sounds like an opportunity for academic librarians. Even if it remains in the world of workplace training this vision of the future needs our skills.

Education and training do benefit from using a wide range of different social contexts, media and methods. E-learning is going to be an increasingly important part of the mix but that shift gives us the opportunity to think about each element of the mix.

Thank you to Clive Shepherd for a thought provoking evening. You can find out more about his ideas on his blog or on the onlignment website.

Thank you to the British Computer Society as well. I recommend looking at their events calender if you are looking for CPD opportunities. Like many of their sessions this was free to everyone including non-members. They also supplied free wine and cheese during the break which was very nice of them. I will be looking out for future events (not just for the wine and cheese).

So that's blended learning. Not just a euphamism for e-learning after all.

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