Converting to Blended Learning: Best Practices

August 13, 2011 at 6:08 pm Leave a comment

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Frustrated by the quality of communication among trainees during in-person training, a training manager decides to convert all training modules to a blended learning format. This would allow participants and trainers to interact in both a face-to-face and online environment. He is considering putting all of his training materials on a server so participants have access to course resources and assignments at all times.

Girl Mixing BatterTraining managers may have a variety of motivations for pursuing blended learning approaches – frustration with in-person courses, lack of time and resources, or pressure to try something new. Blended courses have several advantages over face-to-face training alone. Findings from a Department of Education meta-analysis of research in online learning found that blended learning approaches had stronger outcomes than face-to-face courses without online components (Means, et. al., 2009).  This was attributed in part to students in online courses spending more time learning and engaged in active learning experiences (Means, et. al., 2009). Online discussions may encourage more thoughtful responses from participants because they have time to reflect on what the content, access additional resources, and craft well thought out responses resulting in deeper learning (Center for Online Learning, Research and Service; Simonson, et. al., 2009). For participants, blended learning can be more convenient and flexible while still offering the group interaction sometimes missed in completely online courses (Moore, 2004). For organizations, one of the limitations of in- person training is lack of transfer of knowledge and skills from training to the job. Blended learning offers the opportunity to extend learning as participants go back to work. This can provide cognitively-oriented performance support as the employees begin to apply what they have learned (Moller, et. al., 2008).

However, adapting a course for blended learning is not simply a matter of setting up a chat room and putting all of the course materials online. Blended learning presents opportunities and challenges for learners and facilitators that must be taken into account when planning a course. In a blended learning environment, 30% to 70% of the content is delivered online while the rest is delivered in-person (Simonson, et. al., 2009). However, Dzubian, et. al, argue that blended learning should not simply be defined by how much content is offered online, but should instead be approached as a “fundamental redesign of the instructional model” (p 3) which shifts from faculty-  to learner- centered instruction and increased interaction among participants with peers, the instructor and outside resources (Dzubian, et. al, 2004). In a blended learning environment, the facilitator must be prepared to step back from the role of “sage on the stage” and create a supportive environment in which learners are self-directed and engaged in collaborative learning. These arguments are supported by the Department of Education study which found that online instruction that supported learner reflection, self-regulation, and self-monitoring led to more positive outcomes (Means, et. al., 2009). The study also suggested that there might be learning advantages to giving participants control over online resources (Means, et. al., 2009). These strategies are core principles in models and theories such as andragogy (adult learning), connectivism, and the theory of interaction and communication (Davis, et. al., 2008; Simonson, et al., 2009).

In adapting an in-person course for blended learning, the training manager will have to adopt strategies to promote independent learning, participant and facilitator interaction, and participant collaboration. Key factors for the success of blended learning include a theory based instructional model, learner support, and trainer preparation (Dzubian, et., al., 2004) . Theories and models such as adult learning theory, connectivism, and the theory of interaction and communication provide useful guiding frameworks for planning the redevelopment of course content and developing strategies to support learners and facilitators.

Adapting face-to-face courses for use online requires careful planning to effectively integrate the in-person and face-to-face components (Moore, 2004). The course materials and activities may need to be redesigned, new activities and resources will have to be developed and instructors will have to be trained to work in the new environment. The training manager will also need to fully understand the technical capabilities of the organization and the learners who will need to access the online components of the course.

Course Content

Examine course content and identify which sections would be suited to in-person instruction and which would be suited for online learning (Moore, 2004). It is worthwhile to examine training evaluations to identify portions of the course that might be improved by online strategies. Online learning is well suited to facilitating discussions, reflection, group activities, games, and the use of multimedia resources (Center for Online Learning, Research and Service; Simonson, et. al., 2009).  Connectivist learning strategies that encourage learners to collect and synthesize knowledge from across information networks are also well suited to online learning (Seimens, 2008). Consider the different types of technology that can be used to support these strategies such as wikis, blogs, and podcasts (Seimens, 2008). The in-person time can be spent engaged in activities better suited to face-to-face interaction such as orienting learners to the technology, building relationships to support the online learning community, hands on practice, oral presentations and learner assessment (Simonson, et. al., 2009).

Learner Needs

When considering the needs of your participants, identify needs related to the learning outcomes and related to technical support issues.

Learning Outcomes

An existing course is likely to already have learning outcomes, however these should be reexamined when preparing to transition to a blended course. The blended course will need to be focused on the essential content learners need in order to meet the learning objectives. Consistent with principles of adult learning, content should also be focused on the needs of the learners (Simonson, 2009). Extraneous information can eat up limited time in the in-person portion of the course, and cause learners to lose motivation and focus in the online portion of the course (Simonson, et. al., 2009). Craft interactive activities and engaging discussions that help learners process information, connect new content with existing knowledge and experiences, and share what they have learned with others (Kop, 2011; Siemens, 2008).  Go beyond text based resources and incorporate video, audio, and animation where appropriate (Simonson, et. al., 2009). The training manager must also recognize that learners in the online environment are responsible for tasks traditionally fulfilled by the instructor in a face-to-face course such as time management, motivation and assessing progress. Think through the metacognitive tools and resources that can be provided to support self-directed learning and self-assessment (Moore, 2004).

Technical Support Needs

The training manager will also need to assess the learners’ technical support needs. The online component of the course will be ineffective if learners cannot access the resources. This means considering different operating systems, hardware and software specifications, and security settings (Simonson, et. al., 2009). It also means considering access issues for learners who may have disabilities and use assistive technology such as screen readers and closed captioning.  Click here for more information about accessibility standards for online content.

Facilitator Needs

Similar to participants needs, there are also two dimensions to facilitator needs: content and technical support.

Preparing to Facilitate

In a blended course, the instructor will be engaged in fewer activities where he or she is pushing out information to students and taking on a more supportive role of a faciliator who guides autonomous learners who are actively engaged in collaboratively constructing knowledge (Simonson, et. al., 2009). Facilitators should be prepared to employ learner-focused teaching methods based in adult learning theory, connectivism and the theory of interaction and communication (Simonson, et. al., 2009). Facilitators will also have to be prepared for the practicalities of managing the online components of the course related to engaging students in discussion, providing feedback, responding to questions, managing appropriate online behavior, and assessing learner progress in the online environment (Moore, 2004; Simonson, et. al., 2009). The training manager will have to identify the best ways to prepare facilitators to work in the blended learning environment. One potential approach is to offer facilitator training as a blended course to model best practices (Kaleta, et. al., 2007). The training manager must also work to ensure that facilitators have adequate administrative support, particularly if they have other job or teaching requirements (Moore, 2004).

Technical Support Needs

On the technical side, instructors need to understand how to manage the online learning environment. This includes posting assignments and discussions, managing participants, uploading resources, and other administrative tasks required by the content or learning management system. The facilitator should also understand how to provide some basic technical support to the learners in the course, or at least how to direct them to appropriate support services. The training manager should ensure that the facilitators have adequate technical support to use the online tools.

Organizational Needs

The training manager must be aware of how the environmental issues within the organization impact the development and implementation of blended learning courses (Moore, 2004).  The designer must consider the systems within the organization that can support or be a barrier to blended learning, as well as the bigger picture issues of how blended learning fits in with the goals and mission of the organization.

Organizational Systems

Understanding the organization’s information technology systems is key to planning strategies that will be used in the blended learning course. It is not only important for the training manager to understand the current capabilities, but to also understand how the organization is planning to evolve the IT infrastructure over time (Moore, 2004). Engage IT managers as stakeholders in the development and deployment of distance learning early on in the planning process (Moore, 2004).  Their buy-in can help support the development process, and may even help the training manager identify untapped resources.

Meeting the Needs of the Organization

The manager should also consider organizational goals and objectives for blended learning. What is the organization trying to achieve and how is blended learning integrated into the organizational mission? Aligning the blended learning plans with the direction of the organization is key to growing and maintaining support for blended learning initiatives. The needs of the organization also have implications for how the training manager measures the value and benefits of blended learning courses (Moller, et. al., 2008).

Summary

Blended learning is likely a good option for our frustrated training manager.  Blended learning courses have demonstrated efficacy at achieving learning outcomes that are better than face-to-face courses alone (Means, et. al., 2009). Well-developed online activities support active learning, self-reflection and collaboration among peers. Participants in online courses spend more time processing new information and developing thoughtful responses to discussions resulting in deeper learning (Means, et. al., 2009).  For corporate training efforts, blended learning can provide on-the-job performance support improving transference of new knowledge and skills to the job (Siemens, 2008).

However, developing blended learning courses requires more planning than placing course materials on the server. Blended learning is not a delivery channel but an instructional approach that requires as much training as any other strategy.  The manger must review the course content to decide how to best integrate the online and in-person components. The course materials and resources will have to be revised and new interactive activities will have to be developed. The manager will need to develop resources appropriate for the online format that will meet the needs of the learners and the learning objectives. He or she will also have to ensure that learners have access to the online components and adequate technical support. Recognizing that facilitating instruction in the online component of the course will be different from instruction in the face-to-face component, trainers will have to be prepared for a shift in roles. Trainers may need to be trained to use instructional strategies more grounded in learner-centered theories such as adult learning theory, connectivism and theory of interaction and communication. Trainers will also need to be prepared to manage the online environment. In preparation for adapting the in-person course, the training manager will need to engage IT managers to understand the infrastructure in place to support blended learning. This is key to making decisions about how to develop and deliver the course content and prepare students and faculty to work in the online environment. It is also important for the training manger to understand how blended learning fits into the larger context of what the organization is trying to accomplish in order to develop appropriate evaluation approaches.

Best Practices for Adapting In-Person Courses for Blended Learning

In working through the process of adapting in-person training for blended learning, the information gathered in each domain will inform the approaches taken in the others.

References

Beldarrain, Y. (2006). Distance education trends: Integrating new technologies to foster student interaction and collaboration. Distance Education, 27(2), 139 – 153.

Center for Online Learning, Research and Service. “Designing a Blended Course.” University of Illinois Springfield. Retrieved August 10, 2011 from http://www.uis.edu/colrs/learning/pedagogy/blendeddesign.html#blendedbook

Davis, C, Edmunds, E, & Kelly-Bateman, V. (2008). Connectivism. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved August 9, 2011 from http://projects.coe.uga.edu/epltt/

Dziuban, C., Hartman, J., and Moskal, P. (2004). Blended Learning. EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research Bulletin. Retrieved August 7, 2011 from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ERB0407.pdf.

Image of woman mixing batter in a kitchen. Retrieved August 12, 2011 from http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/images/results.aspx?qu=whisking – ai:MP900427694|mt:2|.

Kaleta, R., Skibba, K., and Joosten, T. (2007). “Discovering, Designing and Delivering Hybrid Courses.” In Picciano, A (Ed.), Blended Learning: Research Perspectives. Sloan Consortium. Newburyport, Massachusetts.

Kop, R. (2011). The challenges to connectivist learning on open online networks: Learning experiences during a massive open online course. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(3), 19 – 38.

Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., and Jones, K. (2009). Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies. US Department of Education, Washington, DC. Retrieved July 25, 2011 from http://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/tech/evidence-based-practices/finalreport.pdf.

Moller, L., Foshay, W. and Huett, J. (2008). The evolution of distance education: Implications for Instructional design on the potential of the web. TechTrends, 52(3), 70 – 75.

Moore, J. ed. (2004). ALN Principles for Blended Environments: A Collaboration. The Sloan Consortium. Retrieved July 8, 2011 from http://sloanconsortium.org/publications/books/alnprinciples2.pdf

Siemens, G. (2008). Learning and knowing in networks: Changing roles for educators and designers. ITForum.

Simonson, M. Smaldino, S., Albright, M., and Zvacek, S. (2009). Teaching and Learning at a Distance (4th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.

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