Blended Learning Is Dying. To Save It, We Must Change What it Means.
Training & Learning

Blended Learning Is Dying. To Save It, We Must Change What it Means.

Have you ever heard of Morton’s fork?

It’s an expression that describes situations with two options, both of which lead to the same bad outcome.

Picture a two-pronged fork, like the kind used to cook sausage over a campfire. If you’re a sausage, you might get stabbed by the left prong or the right prong, but you’re getting cooked and covered in mustard either way.

Blended learning — as we know it, at least — is a Morton’s fork. With blended learning, instructional designers split training into two categories:

  • teacher-led classroom sessions (e.g., lectures and presentations)
  • self-paced e-learning prepared by an instructor (e.g., video lessons, slideshow presentations, and text-based modules)

At first glance, these seem like two distinct options. But on closer inspection, they’re prongs of the same fork: they both rely on top-down training, or one-way flows of information from instructor to student.

Blended learning’s top-down tactics fall short because they center the teacher, not the students. In blended learning, an instructor prepares lessons in advance for learners who sit down — sometimes in a classroom, sometimes in front of a computer screen — to passively absorb the information. At best, there’s a quiz at the end of the lesson. Neither option is especially collaborative, engaging, or all that distinct from the other.

At first glance, these seem like two distinct options. But on closer inspection, they’re prongs of the same fork: neither option is especially collaborative, engaging, or all that distinct from the other.

Of course, not all blended learning is created equal. Many trainers have successfully incorporated engaging, interactive activities into blended learning plans.

But that’s the exception, not the rule.

It takes an unusual amount of time and creativity to achieve consistently great, scalable pedagogy to groups of 25 employees in hour-long sessions. And even among the most talented trainers, their time and talent might have a larger impact spent on high-level strategy and boosting engagement, not just course creation.

More often, we see corporate rolling out industrial versions that are stiff and off-putting instead. Take a look at the type of eLearning we associate with blended learning that doesn’t meet the mark:

The shift that’s killing blended learning

There’s been a distinct shift in the way we work and learn, and blended learning will struggle to keep pace.

COVID-19 put physical classrooms on hold indefinitely, and producing high-quality, 20-minute long videos is difficult from home.

But even before COVID, experts were pointing toward a future defined by collaboration and digital connectivity instead of top-down training. Today’s learners expect more collaboration, personalization, and flexibility than top-down training can provide, regardless of whether it’s in person or online.

Even on a cultural level, people are finding alternatives to the top-down mindset of yesteryear. For example, more Americans choose social media to get their news over newspapers or traditional old media. People are skeptical of politicians and overbearing managers, and grassroots movements are at the forefront of national (and global) conversations.

Blended learning shouldn’t be physical + digital

Today, we have an opportunity to completely rethink blended learning to keep up with that shift.

The blended element — splitting training into two types of learning — is worth preserving. But it’s not about digital vs. physical. We need a new framework that’s better suited for the way we learn, work, and consume content today.

What will this new blended learning look like? We know it must be digital and collaborative in order to bring quality learning into our new remote normal. Specifically, it will combine:

  • synchronous collaborative learning (e.g., live video discussions and collaborative workshops in breakout rooms)
  • asynchronous collaborative learning: (e.g., collaborative learning platforms and peer feedback on projects)

So this new blended learning asks a completely different question.

Before, blended learning asked instructional designers to decide which modules should be online and which should be in person.

Now, this new blended learning asks which learning experiences should be asynchronous and which should be synchronous, collaboration being the key factor for success in both cases.

This changes everything, from content creation to learner experience. Let’s break down why it works.

The new blended learning allows faster content creation

The old blended learning gave trainers the choice between in-person instruction and online content, but employees often took a slow, indirect journey — at least 55% of the time — to a version of peer learning instead. Why not take the shortcut?

These days, technology and business are evolving at a faster rate than ever before, so training must be light on its feet.

The new blended learning runs laps around the old-school blended learning by empowering teams to create their own learning experiences.

Collaborative learning allows in-house experts to create training courses in a matter of seconds. Likewise, learners can request missing information, ask questions for clarification, and spark a back-and-forth dialogue to iterate and improve content on the fly.

All of those exchanges happen publicly, which means anyone can fill themselves in if they run into the same problems down the line without demanding time from a manager to conduct training.

If a project requires even more speed, team members can jump on a call for a live (synchronous) discussion.

Now, all learning is bite-sized and collaborative, meaning it’s faster to create and deploy.

The question isn’t whether learners should sit through pre-packaged lessons at work or on the computer, it’s whether collaborative learning should happen live or asynchronously.

The question isn’t whether learners should sit through pre-packaged lessons at work or on the computer, it’s whether collaborate learning should happen live or asynchronously.

Let’s compare those methods to old-school blended learning.

Being top-down, this approach requires someone to dedicate time for training needs analysis, research (unless they happen to be an authority on the subject in question), course design, and updates for each and every course. That someone usually belongs to the L&D department, and there’s a good chance they spend nearly half of their working hours scrambling to keep up with incoming training requests.

The result is a bottleneck effect. The content-creation funnel gets jammed, and employees either waste time or learn from their coworkers anyway.

The new blended learning features more engaging content

The new blended learning’s content is peer generated, which provides engaging, personalized, and active learning experiences — especially compared to the old approach. These days, we should be more worried about whether our learning content is engaging and digestible, and less concerned with the distinction between in-person and online training.

According to LinkedIn’s 2020 Workplace Learning Report, employees consistently say social, personalized learning experiences are more engaging — especially employees from younger generations.

The new blended learning approach taps into this type of collaborative learning, an overdue departure from top-down training’s “because I said so” mentality. Instead, peer-driven training ensures content is relevant to the learner’s goals and challenges, especially over a general presentation that’s recycled year after year.

Linkedin report on professionals' preferences on learning experience

We should be more worried about whether our learning content is engaging and digestible, and less concerned with the distinction between in-person and online training.

These peer-based learning experiences are the foundation of the new blended learning, and they’re not just preferred among employees; they actually achieve higher learning outcomes.

Interactivity and personalized dialogue trigger the brain into a state of active learning, which is more effective and longer-lasting than passive, teacher-centered learning. Active participation offers employees more opportunities to interact and engage with the material, making it easier for them to retain and apply the lesson to their own day-to-day work.

Collaborative learning, by nature, also helps mitigate distraction.

It’s an open secret that distractions are a big problem for any top-down training, including classroom learning and traditional e-learning.

It’s difficult to pay attention during an hour-long presentation, especially because social media is shrinking our attention spans and conditioning us to prefer short-form content.

Before long, eyes start drifting to the clock, and phones start coming out of pockets.

At home, those distractions are even more tempting. If e-learning includes a long video, it’s only a matter of time until your employees start checking emails or opening up Netflix in another window.

Year after year, boosting engagement is a top priority among L&D professionals.

Engaging learners with the old blended learning is like running a marathon upwind — everything is working against you.

This new framework puts the wind at your back by drawing on social, interactive learning options to engage learners instead of putting them to sleep.

The new blended learning offers learners real flexibility

The old blended learning offered flexibility for the teacher. But the new blended learning uses new digital tools to offer real flexibility for learners by empowering people to learn from one another anywhere, anytime.

In 2018 — before COVID-19 had emerged — 96% of professionals indicated they needed flexibility in their jobs, including autonomous control over when and where they worked.

Since then, work culture has continued expanding to become even more distributed, decentralized, and flexible.

Employees expect ownership over their work and time, which clashes with hour-long mandatory training in the middle of the workday. Comparatively, the new blended learning is a perfect match for our flexible-first future.

This new blended learning also encourages employees to use training content to solve problems whenever they crop up, even if it’s at the crack of dawn or the middle of the night.

If employees are forced to wait until the next training session or skim through an hour-long e-learning presentation, they often just turn to Google to get the answers they need. Collaborative learning platforms, on the other hand, offer short, targeted pearls of wisdom that are company-generated and quality-assured.

The old blended learning offered flexibility for the teacher. But the new blended learning offers real flexibility for learners by empowering people to learn from one another anywhere, anytime.

Flexibility isn’t just about working from bed, either: employees need flexible training to ensure that they can learn when it’ll make the biggest impact.

Early in a new job, employees need to be guided through certain learning tracks to get up to speed. Once they’re up and running, though, employees retain much more when they can visit (and revisit) short training content at the point of need (i.e., when they’re face-to-face with a problem).

Contrast that with classroom learning, which attempts to predict what large groups of employees might need to know to improve productivity ahead of time, and cannot be revisited once the class is over.

Top-down is out, collaboration is in

If you google “blended learning,” you’ll find outdated articles describing a decade-old approach to workplace training. As our world continues to shift, it’s only a matter of time before they fall into the back pages of Google in favor of new, more relevant training frameworks.

But there’s no need to wait until that happens to make your organization’s training collaborative. Businesses already leverage collaborative learning to build strong cultures and bolster bottom lines.

Want to learn more about how digital collaboration is changing the landscape of workplace training? Check out my previous post, 3 Popular Employee Training Methods That Don't Work (and What to Do Instead).