Actually it is thousands of years old, depending on how you define it.

“Blended learning” was all the rage in articles, research, and a buzz phrase for marketing materials in the last decade mainly driven by the technology advances in the delivery of online media. Unfortunately, many people in both the corporate and educational worlds still think of “blended learning” as a two dimensional approach that simply combines instructor-led training and eLearning modules. It is certainly much more than that.

Josh Bersin’s book published in 2004, “The Blended Learning Book: Best Practices, Proven Methodologies and Lessons Learned” is in my opinion the best source for practical models and approaches to blended learning to date. He defines blended learning as the combination of different training technologies, activities, and types of events to create an optimum training program for a specific audience. He noted that blended learning programs use many different forms of e-learning, perhaps complemented with instructor-led training and other live formats.

If you take the technology element out of the equation, blended learning can be viewed as the optimal use of learning environments, instructional strategies, modes of delivery, and media to achieve a desired outcome. Now that’s a definition educators and trainers as far back as Socrates can relate. Engaging, effective training has always been blended learning.

Think about the best apprenticeships of the 20th century. They typically included self-study, demonstrations, hands-on, on the job training, peer collaboration, and mentoring. In other words, a mix of learning environments (classroom, labs, on the job), instructional strategies (lecture, discussion, and structured activities), and media (books, equipment mock ups, physical equipment, and job aids).

There is a lot to be said for the effectiveness of skilled trades training done in the past. However, most companies today face a “perfect storm” of challenges to maintain effective operations and maintenance workforce:

  • The Aging Workforce – A wave of retirements poses the challenge of transferring job knowledge from one generation of workers to the next.
  • Talent Wars – Labor demand already outstrips supply and will drive increased cross-industry poaching.
  • The Next Generation – Their expectations of learning are much different from past generations.
  • Economic Pressures – Do more with less.

Skilled workers need to achieve mastery faster than ever before to replace the skills drain, and at a lower cost per learner.  Next generation skilled workers are in high demand and also have high expectations of the quality of learning they will receive.

So where does technology fit into the picture? Technology enables us to scale, accelerate, and enhance many of the instructional strategies found in traditional skilled worker programs – instructor delivery via the Web; 3D models and animations to replace physical mock-ups   eLearning modules that replace self-study workbooks; on demand reference material; social media to allow peer and facilitated discussions with a geographically dispersed audience; simulations and virtual worlds to provide realistic scenarios; and more.

Too often, training programs designed for industrial skills start with the proposition that learning technology is the solution.  That approach rarely works.

Innovative blended learning programs offer a way to achieve a desired outcome.  Instead of thinking of blended learning as something novel, a better approach is to think about the blended techniques and strategies that have been used for a very long time to achieve an outcome successfully. Learning technology can then be used to execute those strategies in a more scalable, engaging way for the current social context.

More on exactly how to do that in my next article in this series!