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The good, the bad and the blended

25

Jun 2019

The good, the bad and the blended

Podcast and audio recordings

Blended learning has been around since the 90s, so why are we still talking about it? This month the Kineo team, along with a special guest from The Oxford group investigate just that.
 

Transcript

James Cory-Wright:
Welcome to Kineo's stream of thought, a monthly podcast that features informal chat from the Kineo team about all things learning. I'm James Cory-Wright, Head of learning design and today we're speaking about blended learning. Today I'm joined by: Krista Woodley, Learning Consultant; Andy Dent, Head of Business and Product at the Oxford Group; Mark Harrison, Learning Consultant.

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James Cory-Wright:
Okay, blended learning's been with us since the 90s. So why on earth are we talking about it now today?

Andy Dent:
I think it's a really interesting topic. I mean it's been around for so long and when I'm out talking to clients that they're still constantly asking how we can use blended learning within programmes but often it's the why just seems to be something that people ask about and don't really put the thought into what is actually going to sit behind that. That's my take on it really. 

James Cory-Wright:
Do you think that people actually know what it is in the first place? 

Andy Dent:
I think they have an idea of what it is and they've seen it used elsewhere. But in terms of how it's used most effectively that's probably the question that we need to ask in terms of how we can bring it into a learning ecosystem that's going to help embed and really make things stick. We find it's quite disjointed at times. 

James Cory-Wright:
So maybe let's just start by all agreeing what we actually mean by the term blended learning. 

Mark Harrison:
I think blended learning is quite a controversial idea because when it first came in the nineties people were saying well I've been blending forever I've been using lots and lots of different methods. I've always thought that blended learning is basically a term that focussed on the fact that there was something new in that time and that was elearning, that was online learning. And so it was basically a mix of different delivery methods but always there was some online learning, elearning inside the mix and I think generally that's what people agree is blended learning. 

James Cory-Wright:
Okay. That's a good working definition. Has it been done well?

Mark Harrison:
Well, I think echoing what Andy has been saying earlier, I think the issue is that everyone knows what the components in the blend should be. I think that's pretty clear. 

James Cory-Wright:
Like what?

Mark Harrison:
They should be face to face. They should be online, they should be coaching. There should be bits that you're reading, standalone and integrated. But the fundamental problem is that each of those components are being created by people who are experts in each of those fields. So you have people who are digital media experts and you have people who are face-to-face deliverers and there's an initial conversation you get the idea where it's all going to fit and then everyone goes off in the different directions and there's no one keeping it all together and suddenly you have the face-to-face course that has hardly changed from what it was. And the elearning that hasn't really paid attention to what the face to face is doing or the coaching or something like that. So there is a desperate need really for an integrated team right from the start to the finish. And I think that's what's missing. 

Krista Woodley:
I think that's a really important point. The ownership of the whole thing and bringing it all together. I would also go back to that definition because I think there’s a question isn't there? Can you have blended without any face to face or without any virtual classrooms? Can you have something that's an entirely digital blend? Can you have something that's still a blend but say entirely asynchronous, completely self-directed? Because I would say that you can and maybe I'm stretching the definition of what traditionally we might think of as being a blend but I still see that you could have a blend that is like that. 

Andy Dent:
Yeah I guess for me it’s all down to what is the outcome you want from the learning? That's where we should start from. What is the outcome and what is the best delivery method that's going to get us there? I think, you know, organisations are time poor now. So blended learning and elearning is a solution to avoid taking people off the shop floor as much. So it's very prevalent but it's making sure that what we include, the different modes of learning, really meets what that learner needs and taking them to the place that they've actually grown and developed over a journey. 

Krista Woodley:
And I think that is really interesting isn't it in relation to what Mark was saying about that oversight over the whole thing. If you can have one person who's affected. I mean it's a naff analogy but like the conductor of the orchestra, somebody who's bringing the whole thing together, who using the kind of sense of rhythm that you get from those different channels saying we're going to use that channel for this type of learning, for this kind of pace, for this purpose then we're using that channel and this is how they relate together. It's about looking at those relationships between the channels isn't it?

Mark Harrison:
Yeah I still think there's an issue about blended learning and the concept of it. It was useful in the nineties because it basically said there's something different here guys, pay attention to all this stuff that's coming up with the interactive technologies. And it was a clarion call to bring everyone in the same room. It was a clubhouse for everybody. I think that clubhouse is gone. You may even question why blended learning is even being used now. Essentially what you've just said Krista is, is it's just a mix of medium that you're using. And as long as we're sophisticated enough we shouldn't bother about terminology in the future. We just get whatever's right and match it because it's the right thing for the topic, it's the right thing for the target audience and for the operational constraints that the organisation has, like budget. 

James Cory-Wright:
So picking up on that what sort of blends do you do Andy?

Andy Dent:
One of our flagship programmes, 5 conversations, we've got a blended programme where we've got three modules. First module is elearning, lots of different modes of elearning included. And the idea of that is that it kicks off some of the key concepts that we're going to go into in the live classroom environment, which is the second module. So the delegates go through about 45 minutes to an hour's worth of content delivery and that's through videos, PDFs, interactivity and then they hit the classroom, the live environment and hopefully what that means is that we can fast forward through some of the theory of neuroscience in this case, and also engagement, and dive straight into some real interactive pragmatic conversations and really get them to practise what we know they need to for the follow up in the workplace, what is going to be the outcome of the programme?

Krista Woodley:
And I would also add because I worked on that programme with Andy. One of the really powerful things about that programme is that as part of that first module it sets up and builds the kind of social learning community. So all of the learners are not only experiencing those digital assets, they're answering questions online, on the platform, responding to each other with ideas, suggestions, questions, actions, that sort of thing. And I think that's one of the things that we quite often miss in blended learning design is building a community around those assets that takes that learning forward in a kind of knowledge sharing, it sets up a knowledge sharing initiative or agenda that just continues driving after the learning event might have happened. And that it drives it through the organisation. 

Andy Dent:
Yeah. And just to build on that once the delegates and participants have been through the live environment we also then have some follow-up elearning as well. And that's all centred around reinforcement of learning some activities and some scenarios for them to work through that would be reflective of barriers that they may overcome in trying to embed some of this learning in some of the conversations so that they feel a bit more courageous to go there and to actually do the thing straight after they've gone through the programme. The other way that we use, it's called a 21 day workout and it's essentially nudge theory where we send 21 emails over a period of 21 days just nudging them in the right direction to make sure you're reinforcing what's gone on in the delivery but also prompting them, provoking them to go and do some of these conversations, think about the content of the learning and really again to embed the learning. 

James Cory-Wright:
How does that sound to you Mark?

Mark Harrison:
Well I think it works really well. I've seen it's been very successful. I think it brings up a thing as a designer that you've got to think about is there's a core element that is almost is mandatory. You will not get the best out of this programme unless you engage and you choose elements. But that's missing slightly the point of blended learning in the respect that it’s meant to cater for different learning styles and different personality types. Traditionally you could say that more extrovert characters prefer being in the classroom and the people are more reflective and quieter sometimes like to learn individually on their own. The idea of blended learning was to give all of those opportunities. The reality is that we've often faced is that the people who are more suited to being in the classroom and more enjoy it don't do that pre-work. They don't get involved in those things. And you've got to be able to design something I suppose that can still survive. I did a programme some time ago where we actually did the rather ambitious idea of you didn't have to do the pre. You could do it post but you all turned up regardless. And so some people in the room didn't know what the hell was going on but they were prepared to do that because that's the kind of person they are and the people who wanted to prepare had the ability to see elearning before they went along. The people at the end would then, the extrovert characters would go, gosh I didn't understand half of that, let me now learn about it. It was successful but it's a really ambitious programme to do it and it puts a lot of emphasis on that tutor because you don't know who in the room knows what you're talking about. But it was a very exciting programme. 

James Cory-Wright:
Listening to what you've been saying about the programmes we are talking about. Aren't they a bit long winded? I mean it sounds like sort of a revamp of traditional courses that would have all been done as a stand up have become blended so that now the mix that you talked about Mark, they've sort of introduced a technological element but they still follow a very traditional sort of model and then today's day and age it's all long winded and formal and very traditional. 

Krista Woodley:
I think one person's long winded is another person's sort of learning campaign. So it depends entirely on how it's designed doesn't it? Something that feels long winded – I mean something that's only 20 minutes long – if it's boring it feels long winded. You know even if it's 10 minutes long. But you know if you design something that is really to the point, it might still be stretched over, you might have a six month campaign where you get something every day. If it's helping you and it's to the point then that's great. 

James Cory-Wright:
Can you have a 10 minute blend? 

Krista Woodley:
Yeah. I don't see why not. 

Mark Harrison:
It sounds more like an individual module to me. 

James Cory-Wright:
It sounds like a pudding. 

Krista Woodley:
But what if you had a one minute animation followed up by a two minute phone call with a coach followed up by a two minute learning? 

Mark Harrison:
Are we inventing a new concept, a mini blend now? 

Krista Woodley:
[laughing] I think that's a nano blend. 

Mark Harrison:
I mean I think the issue is actually it's an outrageous question James, because essentially a blend has to be a series of things or else it isn't the blend, it's a single event, but you're right, it can take a long time but I found when I've been in design workshops it is astonishing when you actually get your subject matter experts and everyone else in the room and say let's talk about the learners as people, amazingly, learning objectives change, the whole concept changes because they suddenly go “Oh my God, what's that person going to do”. And I think that's the key. It can't be long winded if it's right for the people. So if it's sales guys that you've only got tiny little bits of moments with then it'll never be long winded. 

Andy Dent:
I heard a great thing the other day, it was that a design team always have a seat for the learner in the room, which sounds really straightforward and simple but actually having representation of someone or an empty chair with the voice of the learner so that they're thinking about how they transition from one activity to the next is just something that's a very simple method of really making sure that the learner is front and centre because we can get carried away with all these whiz bang gadgets and different learning styles when actually it is really all about the learner. 

James Cory-Wright:
So take a leaf out of the Conservative Party and make it Boris Johnson. 

Krista Woodley:
The empty chair. 

Mark Harrison:
[Laughing] Yeah. But it is interesting; I think you should be more than one chair. That's the problem. I think you need about seven empty chairs in the room because that's the issue is that people often think of a single learner and that's wrong. In the end we're talking about a blend is a series of different paths and you can have a very structured path and sometimes the analogy I think about is that it's like an airport where you have to go from one place to the other. No one quibbles with that because that's the way it is. But if you went to a museum and they say no this is the first room you have to go to and you can't wander around people would say why? And I think because they're different types of people and a different type of situation you could feasibly have an airport where you could actually get on the plane first but it wouldn't make any sense. So you have to choose the right blend for the right situation. 

Andy Dent:
And I think that's a really good point because I've recently done some elearning myself and there was no requirement for you to do anything in a linear order. You literally dropped in, you had a menu of subjects and you could decide where you go in what order. And for me I found that really engaging because there were bits that I already knew, there were bits that I didn't know and there were bits where I was really interested in. So from an engagement perspective that worked really well. The challenge then comes when you get into a room full of 20 other people and the facilitator's got to pick up who's done what. I don't know whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. But actually for me in terms of the blend, the blend felt more in my style. It was much more productive for me as an individual learner. 

Krista Woodley:
Well I suppose that question about the facilitators is an interesting one isn't it? Because I was thinking about the opportunities for using A.I. in relation to a blend and I suppose if we assume that any day now or any time soon that a lot of the setups where we would traditionally have a facilitator in a classroom that might be replaced by A.I. then you would have... Mark your laughing... one day this might happen. That would much more easily and smoothly deal with those different people with different needs who are all experiencing notionally the same event. 

Mark Harrison:
Yeah I'm laughing because essentially I always feel when you talk about AI and new technologies that the people at the last lot of the chain, who're are ever going to have the money to invest in A.I. will be training and development, our unfortunate lot. And I think in the end, I'd just like to say for anyone out there who's a face-to-face trainer, you are okay because you will not be replaced by a robot. They'll be making sushi instead because that'll be far more profitable. 

Krista Woodley:
But there, is isn't there, the possibility that you could have a programme that analyses the syntax. For example, we talk about using face to face quite often for role play so that you can have that kind of qualitative feedback from a facilitator. A real human in the classroom. But we know that A.I. can analyse the syntax of what you're saying and give you that qualitative feedback when a decade or two ago we didn't know that.

Mark Harrison:
Actually, just on that one note, I think the idea of a coach suddenly getting involved, the personal assistant is an immensely powerful one. My favourite film is 'Her', which has basically got this operating system who is a voice in your head, who is artificial intelligent and becomes the best mate of the person who is there and is always there, always advising, always gathering knowledge. It could be in 20-30 years’ time we'll just have a coach. We won't have trainers anymore. We'll just have that coach in your ear, who knows who you are and who gives that advice because yes, voice recognition is so good that blends could be immensely different in the future. But, and I think this is the important point, is will that coach be trained on that particular process that we're trying to train people in the corporate sector? Ultimately things change so fast in the corporate sector that elearning or Siri type things, there is no point creating content around it. The human beings will still be in that mix especially if the numbers of learners are low. That's the core key. Blends will ultimately still be driven by the monetary issues of how much budget I've got to do this. It might be cheaper to run it than actually build it. 

James Cory-Wright:
Do you think, picking up here, that there’s some change happening and maybe that blend, the whole notion of blenders can sort of move with the times a bit and maybe introduce for example a social media dimension to it? It's interesting what you say Mark, that it becomes more about a coach and then maybe the content is sort of derived from elsewhere. Curated for example. 

Krista Woodley:
That’s what I was going to say. I was going to say that I already see it in some of the programmes that we look at. That it's got a huge dimension of curation because I think we all experience every day how much content is out there, we're bombarded with it and actually for a lot of people to recreate content that they already have within their organisations or they know is out there, for example in something like a TED talk, people don't want to waste their budget on that sort of stuff and that's a really important part of the blends that we create. 

Mark Harrison:
But that takes us back to where we started is that these assets are very useful in their own rights but do they link? Many, many years ago we had this idea of reusable learning objects and the concept was that you would reassemble things. Now we have clever A.I. systems that can pull the whole of the planet in, whereas before it used to be things that you'd create at the time but there was always this idea of a learning object that linked each of them together and that's where the real challenge was. That you had to be able to say now you've seen this, let's think about it in the context of who you are, what your job is and now we'll look at this next thing. If in the end all you're doing is pulling stuff in it could create a degree of chaos in people's minds. I mean Andy, you said you would like the idea of the open environment. There are just as many people who want structure; they won't get structure very well delivered in a pure curated environment because all it's going to do is say these are the 20 objects that are useful to you but I can't really build stuff in between those objects because I don't really know what those objects are. You have to create that content and I think that's the challenge. 

Krista Woodley:
No, I think creating that context and the sort of shells that holds one of those is the most important part of curation isn't it? Like you say it's really easy just to pull together a bunch of pre-existing assets but to tie them together in a thread, I mean that's why it's called curation. Going back to your analogy about the museum. That's what happens if you go to an exhibition isn't it? Somebody has spent years planning that exhibition and putting everything in the right order and this room is all gathered together because it all connects and it relates to the next room because it follows on in a phase. And so I think what you're saying Andy about your experience is an exploratory experience of learning is fantastic if you don't have to work through all of it or in the same order but it still has to make sense as a whole thing and I think you're completely right that that focus is the thing that brings it all together. 

Andy Dent:
I think one of the challenges we've encountered recently both from our clients and also from our facilitators is the assumption that if there's some pre-learning that needs to be done before a face-to-face learning experience there almost seems to be this assumption that the pre-learning won't be done. So there's this kind of starting from ground zero, which completely de-validates the learning that goes before it, that kind of blended piece. So I think there's a real challenge here around the journey piece. For me it's knitting all of it together so it's neat and that actually one transitions to the other and it feels like it's part of one journey rather than three or four isolated pieces of learning. 

Mark Harrison:
I think the responsibility is beyond the designers though, beyond the people putting together the blend. A few years ago I did a blended learning programme on coaching and the idea was that you would do some elearning on the coaching, the principles of processes etc. and then at 9:00 all of these actors came in for the day, the day was reduced from two days to one and the actors came in and you did your stuff and straightaway you practised and that was how it worked. At lunchtime I had a little debrief with people and said how it go? Did everyone do the elearning? And this guy at the back just popped his hand up and he clearly wanted to say something and I said well did you? He said no. And I said, well did you or did your manager give you time to do that? Oh absolutely yeah. He gave me as much time as I needed; he didn't reduce my workload though. And I think that's the fundamental problem that in the pressurized situation we are at the moment I'm surprised anyone does any elearning when it's left to them because the work that they're doing will always take preference unless somehow managers get better about micromanaging the workloads that people have. 

Andy Dent:
So we delivered a prototyping day recently on a new product we're about to roll out that had some elearning at the start of it. And there were about six or seven clients in the room that had been given access to the elearning and they encountered that very problem in terms of workload. Some had done some, some had done a little, some had done absolutely none. But the point that they were making was actually having been through the live environment they were far more motivated to go and do that learning because something in that live environment really resonated with them and they thought, actually you know what I'd like to go back and learn a little bit more about Moore's Law, it was his Digital Transformation Law, another topic. So we felt that in the back end of that there was something we needed to think about in terms of how we position a blend, Because we always seem to think pre / live / post. But I think there's much more to it than that. When is the best time, when have you motivated people enough so that they're going to want to go and discover for themselves? 

Krista Woodley:
And I think that question of culture brings us back to the question of having the chair for the learner in the room doesn't it? Because you can't design for something like that in a blanket way. You can't say nobody's ever going to do elearning before they go to a face-to-face classroom; that's not the case. You have to talk to the learners, you have to sit them in your meetings and involve them because maybe you're dealing with an audience who do have time or they have the motivation to fit it in, maybe you aren’t. But you need to go into your blend design armed with that information don't you? 

Mark Harrison:
Yeah. And I think the idea is what engages those individuals is what you have to work out. Why are they doing it? And your blend should anticipate those points and create it in there. So the idea is the workshop sometimes is a fearful place for someone to be if they haven't done the pre-work. If that's well enough kind of set up you've got a good chance people will do it. It's not a very positive way of doing it but at least they know they need to be there. But I know from experience and doing a film production course, what I find interesting is that I haven't done the pre-thinking before I go in and do the lighting tests etc. But boy at the end of it I'm looking at the videos on YouTube and everything else like that. With that understanding, as you said Andy, I’ve been sparked to do it. Now I am not a pre-planned learner, that's the point I have to be stimulated, engaged, I have to have it shoved straight in the face that you've got that wrong. And that's the way I work. I'm different from someone who says I'm not going to turn up in that room and unless I know backwards how all those lighting things work. You have to have a decent blend that matches both. But you mustn't make someone feel bad if they don't do the pre-work. So it's a bad point I think that your clients are making that respect when they say they don't do the pre-work. It may well be that they shouldn't be doing the pre-work for some of these people. Design a blend that they do it afterwards. 

James Cory-Wright:
Is blended design, the whole approach to it, being shaken up a bit and weirdly in fact sort of going way from the technology and back to the human? 

Mark Harrison:
Yeah, I don't think we've had time for the technology completely to take over yet but I think for some people, they get very excited about curation. I mean things like Anders Pink and things like that can generate lots of stuff that's generated by the wisdom of the crowd. However, I still believe that if we're not careful we'll get into a lazy syndrome of just getting that to create our content and gather it. 

James Cory-Wright:
Well, that's what I mean. I mean you do need the intervention in order to sift, sort, moderate, edit and so on. 

Krista Woodley:
Curation doesn't have to be done by technology does it?

James Cory-Wright:
No, far from it.

Krista Woodley:
Like in a museum exhibition the best curation would be done by somebody who's been working in that field for 40 years. 

Mark Harrison:
But, the point about the curation tools that we have currently is no one can know what everything is out there. That's the point. So you gather everything that's good. But then you look at it and you say what's relevant to us and how am I going to put this into a meaningful experience? It is A.I. working with humans in tandem. That's the future of blends. 

James Cory-Wright:
Are they aggregation tools, anyway, in the first place rather than curation tools?

Mark Harrison:
What's the difference? 

James Cory-Wright:
Well, there is a difference, a big difference isn't there? 

Krista Woodley:
Curation, there should be a quantity filter and then a quality filter. And so that's the question about human input isn't it? And I would also say, yes, going back to the human element in blend I think we're all constantly coming back to, actually, as everything becomes more digitised, the human element in all of our learning experiences is always the most important thing we have to keep coming back to that. How important that is to engage people with humour; you know those are things that have a really sort of delicate human touch don't they? We can't ever get away from that. 

Andy Dent:
No, I think context is key as well. Making sure that context is weaved into the journey adding to everything you've just said as well. 

Mark Harrison:
So no A.I. Robots running the show? 

Krista Woodley:
Not this week. 

Andy Dent:
Maybe helping. 

James Cory-Wright:
Not in my lifetime. 

James Cory-Wright:
Okay, that's a very interesting round the table discussion. I think we sort of made a bit of a journey from the 1990s at the beginnings of blended right up to the present day. So I suppose the last question I'd ask you all is where do you see it heading in the future?

Krista Woodley:
I would say my prediction for blend is that everything becomes more refined and more pointed and more tailored to the learner. So I would see more personalisation for different paths through the same programme. I would see more use of curation to really focus in on what's important. I'd see more intense human design and more intense sort of machine design as well. Does that make sense?

James Cory-Wright:
Erm, yeah. Clear as mud. [laughs]

Andy Dent:
So I think my prediction probably is that it will be used in the same way to an extent that it's always been used and that is dependent on the person that is curating and pulling this journey together. You've got some great learning designers out there that will think of the whole ecosystem with whatever tools they've got and they'll pull together a very good blend that's going to help the end outcome for the learner and be very learner centred. But equally there will be people out there that will just continue to use it as a sheep dip, which probably adds minimal value to anyone. So I'd say the more human and context focussed we can be and think about the journey is my hope for the future of blended learning. 

Mark Harrison:
For me I think as the next generations come through I think traditional models will be completely challenged. I think we will start from the online first; do we really need all these other things approach? And people will probably reinvent the wheel. I suspect what will happen is we'll have way too much the wrong way for a while. Then people say actually it was quite good when we all got in a classroom wasn't it, we actually had to talk a bit? And we'll finally go back again to a model where it's mixed. So it's a homeostatic curve that goes up and down and I think at the moment we're shifting more into a little chaos and I think it'll probably get a little worse before it gets better. 

James Cory-Wright:
Yeah, I think blended learning won't be designed by learning designers, it will be designed by the crowd. Anyway. On that bombshell... [laughs]

James Cory-Wright:
So thanks everyone: Krista, Andy and Mark for joining in. If you’d like to carry on the conversation, you can reach out to us on Twitter where we’re @kineo or via kineo.com. And if you’d like to learn more about the five conversations blend, check out the link in the show notes. 

Speakers

    Andy Dent

    Andy heads new business product development at The Oxford Group. His role involves working with subject matter experts to build leadership, management and coaching learning experiences/programmes that encapsulate The Oxford Groups 30+ years of experience and best practices in unlocking leadership and management potential for the world’s top businesses.

    James Cory-Wright

    James has over 25 years' experience of instructional design and video scriptwriting. He heads up our team of learning designers and consultants, overseeing learning content design across all client projects. James has a reputation for creativity and innovation in elearning, having worked on numerous successful projects and regularly attends industry events, presenting our latest thoughts.

    Krista Woodley

    Krista has been in the elearning industry for over 15 years and is a Learning Consultant at Kineo. She advises and defines creative solutions for blended, campaign-based and elearning-focused projects.

    Mark Harrison

    One of Kineo's founders, and the Director responsible for our consultancy services, Mark also looks after our growing network of international offices. With 30 years of experience in the elearning design and development world, he often provides strategic and design consultancy and support to our customers across the globe.

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