Computer and Web-based technologies have shaken up employee training, but the classroom will continue to play a major role as corporations move toward a blended approach.

Blended learning — training that combines traditional classroom sessions with e-learning and self study — was used in 22 percent of corporate training courses in 2003, according to Training magazine's 2003 Industry Report. Delivered correctly, blended learning is a more efficient and cost-effective way to educate employees, experts say, and they expect the number of users to continue to rise.

“Performance and productivity are enhanced significantly through blended learning,” says Mike Hampton, CEO of HSA International, a training consultancy in Pembroke Pines, Fla. The more stimuli you have for an individual, the better that person learns, he says.

Hampton's company uses blended learning to train employees in the hotel industry. For one client, HSA delivered on-site reservations training four times year, once each quarter. In between the four classroom sessions, trainees received a poster and audiotape outlining the skill sets covered in the previous session. Trainees were also able to go online to access coaching modules to help them work through trouble spots.

Nothing New

Blended learning is not a new approach, but it has taken hold in recent years for several reasons. First, technological advancements have made e-learning easier to apply. Second, companies are looking for ways to save on travel expenses. Finally, there has been a realization that the right mix of media results in more effective training.

Josh Bersin, author of The Blended Learning Book (2004,Wylie/Pfeiffer) and an Oakland, Calif.-based training consultant, has seen a natural progression, from traditional learning to e-learning to a combination. During the late 1990s, there was a rush by many companies to put all their training online, regardless of cost, he says, “because they thought it was cool.” In the past couple of years, companies continued to move programs online to cut training costs. Now, many are realizing that e-learning works well in some areas but not in others. “Not everything can be done online, but on the other hand, flying people to a facility for multiple days is also expensive. We're reaching the point where people are trying to optimize the blend between physical meetings and online.”

Mixed Media

The key to an effective blended learning program lies in the mix of media used to deliver the training. Bersin identifies 16 different media, including classroom instruction, webinars, conference calls, CD-ROM courseware, study manuals, Web pages, online simulations, on-site labs, Web-based discussion groups, mentoring programs, and videos. To create a successful blended program, it's not necessary to incorporate many or all of them; in fact, two or three should suffice.

Typically, a blended-learning program has several steps. The first might be a conference call, introducing students to the trainer and subject. Next is the self-directed portion, in which students are asked to study for the live session.

The self-directed portion is best delivered through asynchronous means, such as webcasts or some kind of simulated, virtual exercises. Experts suggest follow-up testing on the pre-work to make sure students are prepared to move on to the live, or synchronous, session. “The self-directed portion of the blend is critical,” says Jennifer Hofmann, president of InSync Training LLC, Branford, Conn., and author of The Synchronous Trainer's Survival Guide (Jossey-Bass). “It's a huge culture change.”

A Change in the Classroom

With a blended learning approach, valuable classroom time is not wasted on introductory material. “When you go to a live class, it's going to be more engaging and interactive,” says Hofmann. “You're not going to get talked at for two days.”

Certain content will always be delivered more effectively in the classroom, explains Carrie Picardi, senior research analyst, human capital management at META Group, Stamford, Conn. Examples include conflict resolution classes or negotiation seminars, for which human interaction is critical.

Virtual classrooms, or sessions led by an instructor from a remote location via the Web, can also be effective. But Bersin and others caution against using recorded video instruction in a classroom setting. “You don't have the interactivity,” he says. “It just doesn't work.”

Post-meetings, or asynchronous evaluations, are frequently the final components of blended-learning programs. Coaching modules, online tutorials, tests, and simulations reinforce the classroom work. They also allow companies to make sure that employees are applying the new information to their jobs. In addition, testing allows employers to identify knowledge gaps so that follow-up training is well-focused.

Designed properly, blended learning allows companies to train people in the way that best fits each situation. “Different people in different situations learn in different ways,” says Hampton. Some absorb more by reading, others through observation, still others by demonstration. “When the person has these options, this is where the power of the transfer of learning takes place.”

Training Online Trainers

While there are long-term benefits to incorporating e-learning into training, a blended program may require a sizable upfront investment in technology. It also requires an investment in training personnel so that instructors are comfortable and proficient with online delivery methods, says Jennifer Hofmann, president, InSync Training LLC, Branford, Conn. She offers a synchronous training certificate program, which is the first of its kind in the industry. The program teaches trainers how to deliver and design live, or synchronous, e-learning programs, and blend them with other training solutions. For more information, visit www.learningtimes.net/synccertified.shtml.