Blended learning: What it is and why it’s important

Is elearning or instructor-led training more effective? In this article, Steve Penfold discusses the two and presents a case for using blended learning, a combination of them both.

blended learning

In the 1980s, there were a lot of high expectations of elearning and this new thing called the Internet. This marriage was going to open up a world of learning opportunities that weren’t available to us before. As a result, the pendulum swung towards elearning, but a lot of money and effort went into initiatives that often didn’t deliver, for all kinds of reasons:

  • The technologies and tools were immature.
  • L&D (and other learning institutions) weren’t skilled at applying the new technology.
  • Learners were still shy of the relatively new technology.

In short, elearning got a bad rap, and the pendulum swung sharply away from elearning in many quarters, back to an instructor-led mode.

But over time, technologies and tools improved, and L&D recognized that learning doesn’t have to be all elearning or all instructor-led. They realized that it was possible to mix the two modes, and the term blended learning was born.

Why blended learning is important

Not only is it possible for a single learning initiative to have elearning and instructor-led components, but it’s often better than using only one approach or the other. By taking the best attributes of both approaches and applying them in ways that maximize their respective benefits, learners can be more engaged, learn more, and learn in less time.

For example, imagine a conventional one-day workshop for managers on Handling Difficult Employees. This would probably work well enough. The problem is that it takes managers away from their desks for a full day. Two hours will be used to bring participants up to speed with the terminology and background knowledge on which the rest of the day will then build. And then the rest of the day will be taken up with doing things around hypothetical situations that may, or may not, apply to all of the participants.

A blended approach to this same event would see the managers do all of the terminology and background learning via elearning before they attend the workshop. This elearning could include video and activities to demonstrate to the managers how important this training is. Perhaps the elearning would also include activities where managers could practice some of the skills that they’ll be refining during the workshop. The elearning could end with a questionnaire asking the sorts of situations the managers are most likely to encounter or feel least prepared to face. These could feed through to the workshop facilitator, who could then tailor the workshop scenarios around these pain points.

Now, when the managers attend the workshop – which is only half a day because the participants are already enthusiastic and primed – they can spend their time practicing nuanced soft skills customized to their needs, which might be more difficult to practice with elearning. This is liable to stimulate conversation and to leverage the learning, as learners ‘compare notes’ on their real-life challenges and exchange what has or hasn’t worked for them in the past.

On returning to their desks, the managers would also have some online interactive resources to help them through tough employee situations that they may face.

It’s easy to see that the blended model gives a more customized experience that’s more efficient, comprehensive, and powerful.

Blended learning best practices

Knowing what to put online and what to put into an instructor-led event in a blend can be tricky. Often the deciding factors are whether a piece of content is something that people need to know or need to do, and whether it’s a soft skill (e.g. people handling that has lots of grey areas) or not a soft skill (e.g. using a piece of machinery that you either do correctly or incorrectly). The table below summarizes how this information can be used to see where it might fit best in a blend.


Another way of looking at this is as a flipped learning approach. To understand where the flip occurs, let’s consider how a conventional instructor-led event would work: learners come to a training event and get told how to do things by an expert. The learners then go back to their work stations and (hopefully!) practice it by themselves.

In a flipped approach, the learners effectively teach themselves how to do something via elearning, online readings or activities; then, they go to the expert and practice with that expert to get finer points and pick the expert’s brain. This uses the expert’s experience and expertise to best effect.

A side advantage of this is that the elearning can be reasonably straight-forward to build. Simple branching scenarios and responsive job aids available on learners’ mobile devices, using built-in tools like Elucidat, can be created quickly and with very little technical expertise.

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In conclusion

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it makes you wonder why it took us so long to see the power in these simple approaches!

And as the elearning authoring tools get easier to use and learners’ appetites for engaging learning grows, incorporating blends into your learning offerings only makes more and more sense.

Have you seen any good examples of blended learning initiatives? Share how these worked in the comments section below.

Steve Penfold

Steve Penfold is the Chief Executive of Elucidat. He helps large companies and training providers speed up and simplify their elearning authoring.
Steve Penfold

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