When To Blend Your Learning

By Justine La Roche

A common question I get asked is when to blend your learning i.e. mix a range of experiential, social and formal learning activities across in-person and digital channels. While there are many different ways to answer this question depending on your aims and what we know about making learning sticky, my general rule of thumb is that blended is best when you are targeting a strategic capability. That is, a capability that is critical to the successful execution of your business strategy. Strategic capability gaps are created through the organisation’s need to address a systemic business challenge and I feel require a holistic and multi-faceted approach to closing it.  A one-off learning asset or activity, no matter how well designed, is unlikely to cut it, or cut through to achieve lasting impact. Additionally, I find that blended learning does the best job of balancing the needs of individual learners with the requirements of the organisation. Another way to answer the question of when to blend is to consider the three primary drivers and types described by Charles Graham, who heads up the Instructional Psychology and Technology department at Brigham Young University. These are enabling blends, enhancing blends and transforming blends.

Enabling blends

These blends are all about providing convenience, flexibility and efficient access to enable learning that may not be possible if only one learning mode is available. An example of an enabling blend is a project I worked on for an iconic Australian organisation responding to digital disruption, who needed to support their employees through significant amounts of organisational change. This enabling blend comprised face-to-face workshops, eLearning and a participant journal anchored to four modules – understanding different reactions to change, responding constructively, sustaining wellbeing and supporting others. This modularised design promoted the flexibility required to cater for diverse work areas, operating rhythms and geographies, different language and literacy levels, as well as varied levels of experience. Each module involved a two hour face-to-face workshop with a 20 minute eLearn as a substitute (for example in remote areas where employees couldn’t access the training in person) or as a complement to it, such as a refresher post-workshop or if needing more time to digest information. Numerous combinations were possible, with the four individual modules sometimes run as four separate sessions, two half-day workshops or a whole day, with the option of an eLearning substitute for some or all of this training. This flexibility resulted in thousands of employees across the country participating in the ‘navigating change’ initiative over a four year period, with the program still offered to this day.

Enhancing Blends

These blends are for promoting richer, deeper learning experiences than would otherwise be achieved by employing only one type of learning. Enhancing blends recognise that no delivery channel is perfect – they all have their inherent strengths and weaknesses, and by combining channels you mitigate the negatives and build on the positives.  For example, eLearning often lacks context and has a reputation for being slow, buggy and even boring, with dropout rates reported to be as high as 60%. On the other hand, face-to-face learning can be costly, inflexible from a timing perspective, and seen as disconnected from people’s real jobs. These blends therefore aim for the ‘best of both worlds’ in order to enhance the learning that takes place. An example of an enhancing blend is a sales and service capability intervention I designed for frontline staff of an Australian food retailer. This blend included an engaging face-to-face workshop to grab people’s attention and position the ‘so what’ of the learning in a compelling and memorable way, seven eLearning modules each dedicated to a different technique for enhancing the customer experience, and an embedding kit containing job aids, quick reference guides and practical workplace activities to reinforce and extend learning. A combination such as this acknowledges the shortfalls in engagement, retention and transfer created if only one element of the blend is relied upon, and in this particular instance, the program resulted in an 11.7% sales increase compared to the same period last year.

Transforming blends

These blends are focused on creating a ‘step change’ in both what is learned and how it is learned. Here, the magic really is in the mix, with the synergy created throughout the learning ecosystem ensuring that the whole is truly greater than the sum of the parts. In this blend the aim if for the learning experience to be transformative. An example of a transforming blend is a leadership development program that I designed for approximately 300 leaders, a cohort that was formed after a recent merger. This program aimed to build a united leadership community who understood what is expected of them, in terms of creating an awesome employee experience every day. It included monthly peer coaching sessions, mentoring from senior leaders, a suite of online Learning ‘Bytes’, a People Leader Portal and app providing access to practical tools and resources, the use of social media and video to document and share learnings, and an immersive workshop that served to ‘catalyse’ the overall blend before bringing it altogether in a graduation experience to signpost the completion of the six month learning journey. This program resulted in a shared understanding and language of what it meant to be an ‘everyday leader’ as well as a deep appreciation of a leader’s role in creating memorable employee experiences. What’s more, there was a significant shift in how leaders approached their learning as a result of their participation, becoming more reflective and self-directed, and reporting greater comfort in using technology for learning and willingness to connect with peers to share ideas and gain support. This blend was ultimately seen to have begun the process of transforming the organisation’s learning culture, so much so, that the second phase of the program is currently in development to ensure the evolution continues.

Since coming across Graham’s work I’ve found I can map my various learning projects to it, though I’m curious if you’ve worked on a blended learning piece that doesn’t fit the model? If so, please LinkedIn me if your curious to get in touch.

Leave a Reply