In the 1970s British television broadcast monochrome programmes of academics writing on blackboards to accompany Open University distance-learning courses. At the same time, schoolchildren listened to radio broadcasts that instructed them to carry out exercises in complementary course books. We didn't know it then, but the students, young and old, were engaged in blended learning.
In a recent review of the technique, Dr Ruth Boelens and colleagues at the University of Ghent in Belgium described blended learning as combining "face-to-face and online instructional activities" and highlighted the goal of "stimulating and supporting learning".
A combination of classroom, on-the-job and paper exercises can be effective without an online component, but James Mansbridge, head of digital learning at the British Safety Council, says digital learning is a valuable addition.
Blended learning can combine a mix of face-to-face and distance-learning approaches and include the options below. Some techniques (such as video) are included in both approaches.
Classroom -- some classroom training focuses on "chalk and talk" presentation, but successful tutors use technology, group work, student-led presentations, role play and even games to apply new knowledge and change attitudes.
In the "flipped" classroom the learner studies material in advance and uses the setting to apply or discuss it. A tutor might ask learners to research a hazard and to present a toolbox talk on it to classmates. Or a student might complete an e-learning module on basic anatomy before attending a manual handling workshop and apply this understanding to physical tasks.
On the job, or simulated on the job -- a work task is carried out and observed by a competent person who provides guidance and feedback.
If training in the workplace is not safe or practicable, it can be simulated. Engineering tasks can be rehearsed in tool workshops, while management tasks such as accident investigations can be rehearsed through role play. Virtual reality can bring workplace simulations into a classroom and is used for risk assessment training by the British Safety Council and for driver training by Anglian Water.
The Construction Industry Training Board uses physical simulators for initial driver training on a diverse range of plant. To build muscle memory, foot pedals and hand controls mirror the instruments and mechanisms drivers need to use, while screens can be configured to represent the field of view from each vehicle.
Video -- the passive experience of watching a pre-recorded video can be transformed when the material is incorporated in e-learning or classroom training. Live streaming (for example, using Skype) allows a tutor to broadcast to a whole group or to hold tutorials with one or more students. Webinars are a variation on this, in which a live discussion can be supported with still images and a text-based question-and-answer interface.
E-learning -- what was once called computer-based training, often provided on floppy disks inserted into a desktop PC, has mostly become cloud-based e-learning accessible from anywhere, with a learning management system (LMS) collecting data on a student's performance.
People can learn at their own speed and repeat content according to their needs. Courses typically include text and images, and often video, sound, interactive exercises and multichoice questions. Although it has the potential for self-direction, many organisations still dictate which courses users should do rather than encourage self-enrolment.
Mobile learning -- this provides small amounts of training material through a smartphone or tablet. E-learning providers are adapting their courses to this medium by providing bite-size learning modules that can be consumed in five minutes. Bite-size is useful for those who need more repetition in initial learning and as a refresher to overcome skill decay. It is not suited to training high-level skills from scratch.
Newer mobile approaches include pervasive and ubiquitous learning in which, for example, information can be delivered by a head-mounted display that identifies the task you are doing.
Social media -- software platforms that allow learners to share ideas and problems and discuss assignments can help to overcome isolation problems. Forums can be open -- LinkedIn groups, for example -- or limited to students on a particular course or from the same organisation.
"When I was a classroom teacher, I had all the worksheets, practice exercises, instructional videos etc on an LMS [learning management system]," he recalls.
"Each student accessed these via a tablet. It had huge benefits in terms of student engagement and time saved in marking. The students received instant feedback to questions and could have individualised learning paths."
For Teresa Budworth, previously chief executive of examining board NEBOSH and now chair of the Chief Fire Officers Association, an online element is not essential -- but something else is.
"Blended learning is a combination of learning methods including classroom-based as well as distance learning and self-directed study," she says. Simply offering a pick-and-mix of training methods will not be enough if the learner is not self-directed.
Iain Evans, chief executive of distance learning provider NCRQ, agrees: "We describe our qualifications as self-directed learning. We guide and encourage our students to learn for themselves, providing a much deeper level of understanding. This really embeds the concepts and knowledge into long-term memory."
The "Blended learning" box describes some of the ingredients a blended learning approach may include.
One advantage of blended learning is realised by reducing time spent in a classroom.
"Blended learning can reduce time out of the workplace and save money compared with 100% face-to-face training," says Gary Fallaize, managing director at training provider RRC. "For international organisations it is particularly useful, overcoming otherwise expensive logistics."
Budworth agrees that cost is a factor. "When times are tough many employers choose to rein in their spending on staff training. Hence support for classroom-based courses may be withdrawn. E-learning tends to be less expensive than classroom-based courses, so that can be a real benefit for self-funding students too."
For David Towlson, head of qualifications and assessment at NEBOSH and previously director of training at RRC, "flexibility and accessibility are key".
He recommends that even classroom trainers should offer some online or offline content for students to look through outside class.
Learners should be able to access information in different ways at different times. The Boelens review agreed that, with a good blend, "learners have some level of control over time, place, path, or pace of learning".
In practice there are limits to this control. In 17 of the 20 studies that Boelens and colleagues looked at, "the decision or responsibility for the realisation of the blend was made by the instructor".
This is what happens in most workplaces -- classroom and on-the-job training times are likely to be fixed by the trainer's availability, and e-learning packages mandated and checked off a list when completed. For genuine self-directed blended learning, learners need more choices.
A blended approach reduces the problem of transferring off-the-job training to the workplace. Including workplace simulations (see box on p 25) makes the training easier for individuals to apply on the job. Training supervisors to reinforce new skills and behaviours helps to maintain them. Providing bite-size mobile learning or more traditional materials for follow-up material can stave off skill decay.
All the same
Balancing individual choice with consistency and compliance can present challenges. E-learning courses trade on their consistency. Everyone sees the same material and answers enough questions correctly to pass and be signed off.
A self-directed blended approach dilutes that consistency. Kevin watched a video, Sam watched someone in the workshop, and Jane tried it out for herself. Have they all learned enough?
On-the-job application to reflect on your experiences and learn from them is critical. If you don't apply what you learn, you've wasted time and money
To ensure competence, some level of external but personalised direction is needed. A trainer can assess current competences and job roles, and work with the trainees to agree individual learning plans (ILPs).
An ILP will include modes of learning that accommodate the requirements for competence, as well as the circumstances of the learner, such as time and resources available and their access to technology and classrooms. As a classroom teacher, Mansbridge used technology to plan work for different students. "It was very easy to make sure that each student had their own sets of problems to solve," he says.
Towlson explains how a tutor can help trainees to seek out the resources they need to complete their own blends. "When I was teaching NEBOSH courses, I'd help each student to identify how to fill the gaps in their experience. Sometimes I'd suggest a YouTube video they could watch. In one case, I advised a student to go to a DIY shop and handle some of the power tools there because he'd no previous experience using them."
Not everyone is self-directed by nature. As Boelens politely put it: "Increased flexibility and learner control are especially beneficial for high achievers or students that possess self-regulation skills, while low achievers may not yet possess the required skills for independent learning."
Fallaize agrees: "A lack of commitment from learners who do not progress the online work leads to less effective classroom sessions."
"The biggest challenge is that students actually do the work outside the classroom," Mansbridge adds.
For Budworth, motivation is more than just doing the work: "Whether training is e-learning or classroom based, on-the-job application and learning to reflect on your experiences and learn from them is critical. If you don't apply what you learn, you've wasted time and money."
The best way to keep a student on track is the personal element, whether face to face or by email, phone or video. An ILP could be the starting point for the interaction. Times should be agreed for progress discussions and assessment. Don't wait for a student to realise they are stuck and having to ask for help. The tutor retains a key role, says Budworth: "Tutor support is important to correct misperceptions."
The personal element will also help to overcome the social isolation that distance-learning methods alone can cause. Boelens explains: "Many learners want the flexibility offered by the blended learning method but do not want to lose the social interaction and human touch they are used to in a face-to-face environment."
Mansbridge says a technological solution to this problem is on its way: "In the near future it will be possible to create virtual classrooms where students will be able to interact with each other as if present in the same room."
E-learning has many acknowledged benefits but its overuse in a blend can be counter-productive. It takes effort to create material that can change attitudes, and e-learning cannot assess behaviour or physical skills.
"Online work should focus on knowledge," says Fallaize, "but classrooms and workshops should be used to see how to apply the knowledge gained."
NCRQ's Evans adds: "E-learning can be useful for short, simple training where there is limited academic depth required.
"For lower level qualifications [...] e-learning can be effective. However, we don't feel it can be used effectively on its own for learning at a higher academic level."
The Boelens review referred to "a deliberate blending" of training methods, but an effective blend needs to be more than a random mixture of all the resources you already have.
In her book Developing Technical Training, Ruth Colvin Clark set out four questions for determining the mix of computer-based, video and instructor-led training. These questions remain relevant to choosing from the larger basket of learning modes now available:
What facts, concepts, processes, procedures and principles are needed?
What must trainees be able to do at the end of the training?
What instructional methods are needed to deliver 1 and 2?
What media will most efficiently and effectively deliver the instructional methods in 3?
Stating that you want a course in manual handling doesn't help you to decide on the best way to deliver it. If the performance outcome is to handle boxes safely in a warehouse according to a fixed procedure, a combination of videos, demonstrations and hands-on practice is likely to provide a suitable blend. However, if the goal is to risk assess different manual handling tasks in different environments, a more theoretical classroom or e-learning course might be needed as a primer followed by practice in carrying out assessments.
Even then, the choice of how to practise assessments will depend on practicalities. In a large organisation, assembling a set of videos or virtual reality simulations showing different handling situations and asking trainees to assess them would provide consistency and a way to compare students' performance. In a small organisation, direct supervision of a trainee carrying out an assessment in the workplace might be more cost effective.
Whatever combination of blended learning you choose, it must take account of the need to build knowledge and skills, to carry out realistic assessments of competence, and prevent the decay of that skill and knowledge. Mansbridge adds the best blend will be found "by trial and error. Adapt over time and be very responsive as a teacher."