Blended Delivery

Every week I meet and help education providers who are trying to take their courses online. I wrote this book to share my experiences and insights as a consultant for those starting out in implementing E-learning. This is a fast moving and disruptive digital trend. Even those who already have online and/or digital content want to make it work in the post PC world of iPads and Smart Phones. Almost every sector is trying to use technology to enhance education delivery including Libraries, P-12, High Schools, Special Schools, Vocational Training, Workplace Training and Higher Education. Each sector has its own unique needs and also hurdles to going digital but the concepts I write about here are common to all sectors. There is E-learning as a broad discipline that encompasses, Educational Technologies, Online and Offline Digital Content, Mobile Learning, Online learning communities and e-Assessment. So the term E-learning can mean the use of technology to enhance teaching and learning but what many of my clients mean when they say "Make some E-learning" is online content, online courses and online quizzes.

In my job as an E-learning consultant for Cognition E-learning I often hear people use the term E-learning to mean online delivery of teaching and learning. E-learning in its common use, however, does not encompass the breadth of educational experiences enhanced by technologies today. This is why I will often refer to the term Educational Technologies in this book to incorporate learning experiences that are also off-line, embedded into 'things' such smart watches and smart TVs and may include any technology that can enhance both face-to-face training and distance learning experiences.

Getting the best of both worlds

Blended Delivery is advantageous. Blended Delivery is about getting the best of two worlds. In the first instance that is the world where we have learners present and with us, face-to-face and easily accessible be it for a limited moment in time. This is the world most of us are used to teaching in and the world most of us grew up learning in. The new world opened up through web technologies that enable us to deliver training to any location over-time and in real-time, building dynamic communities and spaces for learning outside the physical classroom. Not only can learners self-pace through content but they can also engage with other leaners 24/7.

The new world has not replaced the old, but in most cases the two worlds enhance, extend and complement each other. It's ok say no to technology. Rather than be lead by the latest developments in E-learning, you could follow your instinct and years of experience in education to make choices that impact the quality of your delivery instead. As an instructional designer the mode of delivery you choose needs to be intentional. Use technology in delivery for the right reasons and you'll suddenly find your face-to-face delivery also improves.

People sitting waiting for speaker in auditorium at a conference, many typing on laptop computers

Modes of delivery

  • Complementary Resources: Online component supports F2F
  • Blended Delivery: Delivered both online and F2F
  • Pure Online: Delivery is only online

I describe moving from paper to online/digital delivery as a three stage continuum;

Level 1. Complementary Resources

These are online resources that complement your F2F (face-to-face) training. It is important to develop complementary resources, identify those that you already have and convert/adapt some of your current resources into digital assets. Learners are coming to expect an online space where they can access notes, readings, links and presentation material that supports the training sessions you deliver. Nobody wants to hold onto all those class handouts now with the adaptability, portability and transferability of digital assets. Complementary online handouts are easier than you think to create and can even be made mobile friendly for in-class access.

Level 2. Blended Delivery

This has many meanings but in this book 'Blended Delivery' describes teaching with both face-to-face and digital delivery. It's not just repeating what you said F2F in an online space but your digital delivery starts to replace parts of your F2F delivery. The challenge is to find what works best online and what should be kept face-to-face. Blended Delivery aims to apply (or use) both worlds and can often enhance your F2F time with learners. Remember that E-learning involves offline as well as online technologies and it's worth exploring the variety of options available before deciding on a single approach.

Level 3. Pure Online

There are some courses that could comfortably be delivered as a pure online experience but it is difficult to do this well. If you can imagine all that an educator does in the context of a community of learners and try to replicate by distance delivery you will be reminded of how much more a teacher is than a collection of Power Point Slides. Often the importance of learner orientation, support and the trainer-student relationship is neglected. I commonly see the quest for more students, faster turnarounds and smaller staff expenditure lead to online courses that don't hit the mark with learners or industry and in the long-term hurt reputations and business growth. Saying that, self-paced learning can be enhanced through E-learning strategies and stand alone online courses are now benefiting thousands of DIY learners around the world. The role that a facilitator has in a self-pace course, if any, will be discussed in this book.

ven diagram showing complimentary resources and pure online delivery overlap in what is sometimes called blended delivery

Your E-learning Strategy

One of the first questions I ask when consulting with an organisation is, "What is your current E-learning strategy?" The most common response is: "We don't have a strategy, we just want to put this stuff online"

If you're like me your thinking that a formal 'strategy' is often a waste of time and can often just look like yet another planning document that makes us feel good about ourselves. I actually don't care if people have a formal policy, strategy or mission statement around digital delivery written down anywhere, what I'm talking about is having AN APPROACH to E-learning that considers issues of quality and sustainability. All too often we jump head first into using LMSs, Authoring Tools and shiny new iDevices only to find months later that we wasted money, frustrated staff and clients and confused even ourselves as to where to go next. It becomes a repeating cycle then of buying more devices, applications, switching web designers and hiring new people but you still get stuck again and again don't have a strategy.

The reasons for this lack of strategy might include:

  • E-learning is totally new to you and never been tried before
  • Risk Adverse! A culture of early technology adoption doesn't exist
  • There is a perception that E-learning will create immediate efficiencies all by itself
  • You don't know what questions to be asking or what options are available
  • You're afraid your project could become overcomplicated if you think too hard about it

Believe it or not most of the organisations I work with, big or small, Government or Private, don't have an E-learning strategy. Ask them what their plan of attack is and they don't have one. Ask them what framework they are working within and they bring up any number of excuses for why they don't need one.

People sitting waiting for speaker in auditorium at a conference, many typing on laptop computers

One excuse is that technology is moving so fast and we are so time poor that we haven't had a chance to make a strategy. Another is that the workplace culture and available technology is so ancient that new ideas seem like they are just not worth having. Either you feel like the future is coming too fast or the future is out of reach.

However you approach your next E-learning project, have strategy, written down, in your head, on your meeting rooms whiteboard, it doesn't really matter but you can't get the best of digital delivery if you don't treat it with the respect this complex task demands.

The good news for culture changes

You shouldn't underestimate the impact that having everyone on board with your strategy will have on the success of your strategy. Everyone means everyone, the CEO, Principal or Managers to the Stakeholders, Learners, Support Staff, need to 'get' your plan to take your learners into new and exciting ways of learning. The biggest area of concern amongst education managers I talk to is workplace culture, closely followed by IT infrastructure. The bad news is culture is very hard to change but the good news is it can change, starting with you.

You may find yourself in an organisation, business or community group that does just not like making change. You can see implementing the necessary changes to your delivery strategies, tools or infrastructure will be so hard in this environment that you feel like giving up before you even begin. The entrepreneurship and innovation you will require in this situations is best summed up in the word 'intrapreneur'. I know what an 'intrapreneur' is in that I've been called one and because I've been one I can share that it has an equal blessing and curse to previous employers of mine. The intrapreneural person takes direct responsibility for turning an idea into a profitable finished product through assertive risk-taking and innovation. Take the first step if you expect anybody to follow your lead.

"One of the things I do come across is whether we should direct a learner through a learning path, or whether we should give them control of their learning. In principle I do not believe in restricting a learners path, however there is a place for it, particularly around compliance training, as well gamification when you need to ensure that they are doing the learning as well. The cons are however that you are giving a message to the learner that you are not actually trusting them. You are also preventing them from dipping in and out of the learning and actually being self-motivated.

Dan Lockton has explored different ways of giving the illusion of control to a learner while at the same time directing them through the learning pathway. Architectural design is really important and something you do need to consider when developing learning experiences."

Kirsty Smith - Instructional Designer, Qantas

The good news for Infrastructure

After culture, Infrastructure is the next biggest hurdle (or sometimes excuse) as to why people don't implement an E-learning strategy. The good news is infrastructure is not everything. You may not have the latest computers, applications or Wifi enabled campuses that others do but plenty of people have the tools, but not necessarily the right tools or if they do they don't how to use them. It is interesting to see how private education providers who typically have more infrastructures and the flexibility to rapidly develop E-learning solutions often end up numbed by too much choice. I've seen training companies dump and repurchase both hardware and development tools, at great financial cost, simply because they are chasing after a tool to fix their problems. A colleague of mine Tim Klapdor came to this realization working for CSU that infrastructure in E-learning is not about one new technology or a one fit solution, you are looking at managing an online learning environment.

The flipside of having too much choice is of course not having much and that is how many clients I've seen who work in the Public (Government) sector feel at times. I have tried to be encouraging amongst often frustrated teachers and education managers who are locked down into systems and tools that don't seem like they are going to make for great E-learning. We all know of that Browser or that Tablet Computer that nobody would dream of using anymore, just remember there are many people out there in professional jobs where they have no choice but to use the tools they are given. Be it policy, funds or lack of understanding from management many are stuck with one set of technology at work that greatly predates another set of technology at home. Here is the encouraging bit for those of you in this situation. You have been given a gift. You have the gift of limitations and there you will find your strengths. You won't be swayed by the latest technology fads like others do and you have a very clear understanding of the tools that you CAN use and you just need to realize this so you can get the most out of the technologies available to you. The USB stick around your neck does not make you a great educator neither does a faster laptop. It's your ability to facilitate an experience of learning with enthusiasm, realness and hard work, but you know this already. Just don't forget, technology can enhance a great learning experience but it cannot make a great learning experience.

Often the best thing I can do for a client is help them realise they are only using a small percentage of the capabilities of their existing infrastructure. A good example of this is the fact that many people with the popular Moodle LMS are using less than 20% of it's capabilities. Many organisations have the popular Microsoft Office products sitting on their machines, but have no idea the problems they could be solving, the productivity they could be increasing and the creativity the could be unleashing if they just spent some time learning more about the tools they have.

People sitting waiting for speaker in auditorium at a conference, many typing on laptop computers

The good news for technology moving too fast

Yes technology is moving along at a bounding pace leaving educators and even those of us who work in I.C.T on a daily basis clambering to keep up with it all. Technology is moving fast. You don't have to. I don't like the term 'Rapid E-learning'. Try thoughtful, effective, well formed, intelligent, relevant, elegant, sensible, beautiful: almost anything but the term 'Rapid' when talking about creating meaningful and effective learning experiences. Just remember with any E-learning project you need to ask yourself if fast is always best. Especially make time for testing before launch, but more about that later.

The good news is we don't have to keep up the pace without thoughtful and intentional planning, consider the following;

  • In your E-learning Systems Environment there are separate elements all with their own shelf life or change requirements. Your technologies won't all evolve at the same pace or at the same time but they are in most cases interdependent on each other. So rushing ahead with the latest update to your LMS might 'pull' up the fabric of your nicely woven system. Know and keep a record of the life cycle of the parts to help you manage the steady but stable evolution of the whole environment.

  • Technologies in an Educational context do not stand alone in their significance. A Training Manager decides to buy a fleet of iPads for his staff, it's not all about the iPad is it. The impact of changing your systems, tools, devices has wide implications including Policy (privacy, security, ownership, teleworking, personal use), Staff Training, Band-Width requirements, Cost, Asset Management, OS & Application Management,

More important than anything is your focus on helping learners. Technology changes, frameworks and strategies come and go, but it is the resolve to make a difference to the learner combined with the mastering of appropriate technologies to meet that goal that is important.

There are many factors driving technology change but your biggest challenge will be internal and external pressure to keep pace with technology. Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) culture is making it harder to adapt our content, systems and delivery models to suite learners who are increasingly independently in control of their access to devices. BYOD reflects the workplace. I bring my own device and Wifi because I simply cannot depend on workplaces/conferences/places of learning having the technology I need to do my job. I see many educators who as professionals with disposable income purchasing the latest compact computer devices, then upgrading them all a year later.

There are certainly benefits in being what is called an Early Adopter of new technologies. Early adoption isn't just about purchasing the latest gadgets but 'adopting' them into your practice as an educator and using new technologies in bold but still practical ways. I have a friend who generally upgrades his Apple devices on a yearly basis. I see this as an unnecessary and expensive habit. The other side of this coin is that this same friend has become a successful consultant and professional trainer in the area of iOS devices, because he is ahead of the curve and he is an early adopter.

When I first started out in E-learning I became hungry for the latest technologies that could help me deliver an online and some what self-paced course better. Something I learnt after my honeymoon period of early adoption (more like my 'adopt anything shiny' phase) was that there can be a gap between the technologies we use as educators and the technologies our learners have access and confidence with. I remember clearly when I first realised my enthusiasm for new E-learning methods or tools was not always channeled towards helping our learners when I put a 3D Virtual Room front and center in the learners course space. I thought this 3D space would be a hit with learners until it dawned on me, they weren't interested in it, it required plugins to be downloaded, the discussion forums already had high engagement. (see Google 'lively' project)

Believe the Hype

Garners HYPE cycle diagram combined with the SAMR model

Thanks to Tim Klapdor for combining the SAMR model and Gartners HYPE cycle into one diagram, which is both absurd and revealing (which I feel comfortable saying as it was partly my idea). I won't go into detail about these models, there is plenty of books and blogs on that, but these theories sometime are interpreted to mean that there is a problem with the Hype Cycle, and it all ends in disillusionment. Can I suggest that every stage in the process of SAMR and the HYPE cycle is required for us to tease out the enhancements that any new technology can bring to education. We need the hype, we need the early adopters to try things, buy things, get excited and push it to the limit so they find out through experimentation what works and what doesn't. It's equally important to be aware of the hype that surrounds us and the depth of real change technology is making or not making in our teaching and learning.

Another challenge we face with the adoption of technology and the change it brings is how it effects us as human beings. With intentional time away from technology to plan and reflect, I prefer the local cafe with a notepad and pen, turn you phone off, you can break the information addiction I am going to assume you already have. I also have become smarter in how I get my information. Basically I don't often go searching anymore for strategies, tools or tips for E-learning, instead I bring the information to me. I have set up a set of aggregated feeds based on topics of interest so that I can control and filter my own information updates. Some tools that you can select and shape topics of information include twitter, Flipboard, Zite, Google News. If you're going to survive the journey into E-learning and not get overloaded with interesting but unimportant information I suggest you aggregate content and switch off often.

Man sitting at cafe table with coffee

The good news for your face-to-face delivery

As your digital delivery improves, whether it's using online or offline methods, your face-to-face delivery should improve also. I say 'should' improve because if the purpose of moving your training into a digital space is to create efficiencies in your business model but at the same time improve outcomes for your learners and these things are not occurring then there are serious questions that need to be asked about your E-learning strategy and or its implementation. Maybe you shouldn't be using E-learning at all (it's ok to say NO).

The better your E-learning strategy the better your face-to-face delivery will be and I have seen this happen first hand on many occasions. A Learning Management System (LMS) I developed for a Youth and Community Services course allowed core components of the course to be augmented through online access to training materials, peer discussion, assessment tools and assessment feedback. The E-learning strategy provided not just self paced access to the core content and assessment but also an underpinning network of learners through online community that became the 'glue' for both on campus and distance learners. This new paradigm of training delivery and strong community of learning radically refocused our efforts in providing highly engaging and practical face-to-face training. We had more role plays assessments, field trips to industry, input form learners, practical group work and relationship building over lunch and coffee. The days we could get the students together in a room were now filled with less talking from a lecturer up the front of the class, and became a fun and engaging and sometimes even messy.

You've heard of a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), well I believe face 2 face is its opposite, a Small Exclusive Offline Party and it might be just what your learners need to get the most out of your training. Don't just 'go online' and cutback on your face-to-face training because that seems like the easy thing to do. If you want to have the best training/teaching experience you need to intentionally aim to get the best of both worlds. When I used the term Blended, which then became the title of this book, I am talking about striking that balance between all your touch points with learners that gets the best outcome and it will look different for everyone.

Francis Kneebone presenting at conference being filmed by camera crew

Evaluation is Everything

Plan on how and when you will evaluate your strategy, as continuous improvement is good for your learners and good for your business. This means scheduling a time, place, method and team for your evaluation. I find people don't evaluate what they are doing with E-learning simply because they don't put a high value on testing or evaluating against other competing pressure of getting something up and running. Later I will talk about evaluating as part of a development process and also in knowing who your learners are, but in this case it's important just to note that you need to allow time for evaluating what you are doing.

Evaluation is everything but it's not always every-thing. You don't have to wait until launch to test elements of your product or approach to E-learning. Don't wait until it's too late to adapt your strategy or too late to save your strategy from a crisis. The best approach and something I always recommend to clients is to test your E-learning strategy on a small scale first. Micro-Pilot any new technology or approach on a small group of learners and in one aspect of their required training. By micro-pilot I mean only one digital asset from one unit over one month. This way you can safely test and measure the functionality, usability and impact of something before taking it across the scope of your full program.

Examples of Micro-Pilots:

  1. We created some training videos to put in our LMS, but we first uploaded one video then tested how well the video format would play on mobile, tablet, desktop, on slower internet connection, over fast wifi connection.

  2. We want to give our learners an ePub eBook as an optional download for their learning guides. First we uploaded a learning guide ePub to one course group only from one subject area and asked this small group of students to try the new guide format and give us some feedback.

  3. Before writing a full set of 20 Quiz questions we make just one question and test it's behavior and try different feedback methods. Once we decide on an approach we tackle the other 19 Questions.

  4. Recently we recorded presentations from a conference using a wireless mic and three HD Cameras. In post production we first made a short sample video with some quick and simple edits. We uploaded this video to the delivery site and tested the audio and visual quality on different devices. This micro-pilot informed the changes we needed to make to our production of the videos.

Go and...

  • Draw a timeline of your program or use a calendar and label what modes of delivery you are using, (Complementary, Blended, Pure Online)

  • Ask yourself these questions about each aspect of your training;
    • Does this mode of delivery give us the biggest impact on learning outcomes?
    • Who will be the end-user of my product or who is my audience?
    • What devices, browsers and connection speeds does my audience have?
    • Are you prepared to break things, take criticism and start again?
    • How long will the 'thing' we are building last?
  • Consider the benefits of a BlendEd approach;
    • Efficiency: Use technology to increase the quality of what you do without technology.
    • You can focus on building meaningful connections with learners which involves talking online but also over coffee!
    • More time for the hands on stuff (role plays, practical assessments, field trips, live demonstrations, group discussions)
    • Some content delivery face-to-face is not a bad thing, we need to hear things in different ways and sometime again and again.
    • Aim to get the best of both worlds, and ask yourself, What is the best way I can say this in an online space? What is the best way I can explain this idea now I have the learners face-to-face? How does one mode complement the other?
  • Test things on a small scale with micro-pilot-projects, but also prepare now for things you can evaluate long-term;
    • Compliance with General Web, Accessibility standards
    • Navigation, Link Behavior, Media
    • Performance across Multiple Devices
    • Data: on Logins, Page Hits, Video Views, Social Interactions
    • Robustness (and lifespan) of your chosen technologies.
    • User Experience, for both teachers and learners
    • Engagement Levels
    • Student Learning and Impact on Learners
    • Student Reaction and the ability of course to maintain interest
    • Perceived Value and Transferability to the Workplace

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