Blended Learning: Have It Your Way

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I recently wanted to buy a dog. How hard can this be? I take my family down to the local pet store or shelter. We find the cutest, friendliest and most affordable puppy on the lot, put a few dollars down, and we’re set, right? A match made in heaven. Wrong! I had no idea how hard this was going to be. I also had no idea how many puppies are returned each year because uninformed buyers like me run out and purchase with our hearts and not our heads. Enter Purina.com and its amazing “Breed Selector” program. This wonderful technology, and I’m sure there are others, takes you through a five- to 10-minute, multi-question, sliding-scale assessment that cranks out, in rank order, the top 150 breeds for you. All are perfectly matched based on 10 categories that you tailor to your specific lifestyle and preferences. It’s amazing. Here’s the interesting part. The breed my family had thought was so cute and “perfect” for us wasn’t even in the top 100. We definitely dodged a bullet there!

Oh, if only other choices in life were so easily calculated. Every day we make decisions, we wish there were a “Breed Selector” we could use. Continuing our professional advancement through training has become just as complex an operation. With more “breeds” of training out there than ever before, too many of us are deciding based on our heart and not our head and are ending up with a match we wish we could return to the store. This article will explore the many categories you should consider as a learner when deciding on a training path. Now more than ever, the path you choose can have tremendous consequences in your professional life. Just walking down to the local training center and signing up for a five- to 10-day certification course may not be the best solution for you and your lifestyle.

The training industry calls these options “blended” or “integrated” learning. It simply means that you no longer need to stick to one form of training. There are many available, and you, as a learner, can mix and match these options based on your learning preferences and proposed outcome. Let’s start with your overall options and work down to the most critical factor, your learning preferences.

Know Your Options
The learning modalities that exist today can be divided into two main categories: synchronous or asynchronous. (See Table 1.) I’ll start with synchronous since this is a category most of us are already very familiar with. Synchronous instruction can be defined as any type of training where an instructor and/or peers are present in real-time, or at the same time as the instruction. The most familiar example in this category is the classroom. Many of us have at least 12 years of experience navigating this environment. It’s clearly the most supportive and directive modality out there, and understandably the most expensive in many cases.

As recently as five or six years ago, this was your only option in this category, but with the advent of the Internet, a few more realistic and effective choices have emerged. We often call these options electronic learning, or e-learning. They are technology-based training solutions. Some are quite new, while others have actually been around for years. They include such technologies as Web conferencing and chat. Web conferencing is an environment that allows you to participate in an online session with an instructor and/or other students. These technologies allow you to see slide presentations, watch demonstrations, surf the Web, work in small groups and even control different systems, either on your desktop or the instructor’s, remotely. They also take advantage of various communication options, such as a conference call, audio streaming via the Web (also known as IP audio), yes/no voting, online polling questions and chat. You can even share how you’re “feeling” or how the class is progressing by doing such things as clicking on icons representing applause or laughter, requests to speed up or slow down and “I understand” or “I don’t understand.”

For many, instructor and student alike, this is a new environment and one that needs to be approached with an open mind. Unfortunately, many have nothing to compare this modality to or to base their learning strategies on, so you may want to be careful when entering this option. Be prepared for a learning curve associated with mastering the environment as well as the content. You will also want to be sure that the technology you’re using to access Web conferencing can handle the technical requirements. Each of the hosting vendors will provide you with the minimum requirements to participate. Going one step above these requirements wouldn’t hurt. There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to learn when your screen doesn’t replicate as quickly as you’d like or when the audio gets delayed or broken because of a slow Internet connection.

We’ve probably all seen or used some version of chat to communicate online. It’s an environment where you talk back and forth online in real-time using a text-only application. You can communicate one-on-one with an instructor or peer, as well as entering chat rooms to communicate with two or more individuals. Some of these technologies allow you to send files, such as a word-processing document or photo. They may also allow you to add other peripherals such as a microphone and video camera. Although chat is rarely used as the sole training environment, it is quickly emerging as a common interface for support and ongoing learning. I’m mentioning it here because, as we’ll talk about later, every training intervention isn’t used to learn things from scratch. There are times when you need a refresher or you’re simply trying to apply what you’ve learned back on the job. These instances are still instructional moments and actually represent a classic example of a blended solution. Chat can serve these needs very nicely.

Asynchronous learning environments are just the opposite. They are self-study modalities where you do not communicate with other peers or an instructor in real-time. That’s not to say that these resources aren’t available in other ways, as we’ll discuss shortly, but you’re on your own at the actual point of instruction. This category offers many options to choose from, with some being very familiar and often ignored. For instance, books, videos and audiotapes are still fairly prevalent in the IT training space, yet they are not seen as being as “flashy” as the other options mentioned earlier. Nonetheless, these modalities are a highly familiar and cost-effective way to learn if you have the focus and motivation to make them work. In fact, a book is the most portable and self-sufficient learning tool around. Again, it depends on the learning outcome you’re striving for. Blended learning means using all the tools at your disposal in the best way possible. These “low-end” modalities still have their place.

As with Web conferencing, the advent of the PC and the Internet has brought other asynchronous e-learning tools. Computer-based training (CBT) has been around for years. It’s a CD-ROM-based tutorial that is highly portable and often very cost-effective, particularly on an individual basis. CBT on the Web is known as Web-based training (WBT). It often looks like CBT on the screen with some very specific differences, most of which are behind the scenes. First of all, since WBT is Web-based, you need to be online to participate. That takes away some of the portability of this environment. But because you access a server each time, the content can be updated literally every time you log in, guaranteeing the latest and greatest in instruction. Another difference is that WBT is often hosted on a learning management system (LMS) that offers a whole host of features, such as assessment and tracking, which CBT does not often provide. Again, the use of either of these modalities should be based on your training situation

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