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What is Blended Learning?

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Update 3/22/2017: After two years of evolution and growth, blended learning deserves an update. How has blended learning changed and what are some innovative ways you can use new tech to approach it? Read on to find out.

Blended learning has been around for a while, but it’s vague enough to confuse a lot of people.

For instance, I could understand if you thought “blended learning” was learning that you smooshed together into a blender and pureed. But, no, sadly (or luckily), it’s more involved than that.

Blended learning is the combination of face-to-face instruction with online learning.  It marries the accessibility, affordability, and ease of eLearning with the personalization, immediate feedback, and social interaction of traditional education.

What does Blended Learning Include?

Blended learning can cover a whole gamut of different methods. It technically includes everything from a class held regularly in a physical location that uses online collaboration and communication tools like Skype and Blackboard, to a course held through a learning management system like Moodle that meets physically only once a month. It even applies to courses that use electronic aids like virtual reality games or Google Drive.

In fact, all an education program has to do to be considered “blended learning” is combine some sort of face-to-face instruction with some sort of learning activity mediated by computer (Bonk and Graham 2005). This opens it up to a wide variety of “hybrid” and “mixed-mode” learning activities.

That said, the typical blended learning program still falls somewhere in the middle, and often uses both regular in-person meetings, and online education aids like group blogs and wikis to carry the conversation beyond the classroom.

How is blended learning changing?

While the basic concept of blended learning still calls for some lessons to be taught in-person and others taught online, the focus has shifted. No longer is the traditional, in-person lesson taking up the bulk of a student’s study time, nor is it even considered as important.

Eventually, there will be a shift in what we as elearning professionals view as “traditional” learning methods. When this article was originally published in 2014, face-to-face time in real classrooms felt mandatory. But I suspect that, over time, we will happily consider virtual reality and even video chat as a passable alternative for face-to-face time.

In that case, how can we differentiate blended learning from full elearning?

The difference, I suspect, will come less from the technology used than from the structure of the program. Blending learning will continue to incorporate more personal interactions, while a full elearning experience will rely on recorded sessions.
Those blended segments may even take on aspects of a flipped classroom, focusing personal interactions on study sessions and homework, leaving the lessons to Skype or recorded sessions. The learning will remain blended, even if the technology takes on an elearning feel.

So Why Should You Blend?

What makes blended learning so great anyhow? Everyone knows MOOCs are the way of the future, right?

Well, not quite.

Blended learning can address the deficiencies of both in-person and online learning by taking the best of each and using them to complement each other. Udacity found that the completion rate for online-only courses was miserable compared to in-person learning, but in-person only learning suffers from cost and time limitations that online tools can get around.

And this type of fusion works. According to a survey by Echo360, 84% of students reported that the ability to study both online and in class improved their understanding of course concepts.

Other, less measurable, benefits of blended learning include a greater flexibility for students in managing their course load, more control over how they integrate courses with other responsibilities, and the ability to review and understand course concepts before “getting their hands dirty” in the classroom.

How to Blend

Blended learning is simple, and it’s effective, but how do you actually implement it in your education and training efforts?

As with any new learning initiative you embark on, you’ll need to create a plan. Your education goals will largely determine what sort of blended learning you’ll employ, but the type of learners you have will also impact your choice.

Start with a single course, and map out learner personas for that course. What type of students will you have? Do they travel a lot and so would find access to online notes and lectures worthwhile? Are they younger or more tech savvy and thus may benefit from an augmented reality eLearning game? Consider as many factors as you can.

Then design and analyze your course goals, keeping in mind things like instructional theory, logistics, and technical limitations. Do certain blended learning types work better than others for your teaching style or method? Can you afford to have an entire game made, or buy a full-featured LMS?

New ways to blend

In a world with virtual reality and augmented reality running rampant in the streets, how should you approach blended learning?

As I predicted above, the more time passes, the more our emphasis will shift from classroom-first to electronic-first. Be prepared by making sure your tech is as up-to-date as possible.

Having solid video software is a firm foundation for your virtual classroom. You can go to Skype if you love an old standby, but consider the wide ecosystem of alternative tech.

Your classroom doesn’t need to be as simple as a webcast, either. If you’ve heard the buzz in many offices about Slack, you may have already figured out that the virtual office space has great potential application in elearning. If you like the idea, but not the product, there are great alternatives to Slack, too.

So what should you keep from your existing classroom? Only the best stuff, of course!

Which I realize is pretty subjective and unhelpful. To make it more specific, take a look at your current blended or fully traditional classroom setup. What seems to work well for your students? What elements do you as a teacher not want to lose?

Consider what makes your specific system work and find ways to use technology to preserve or enhance those elements. For instance, if you couldn’t stand to part with your in-class tablet use, try exploring new programs to make the most of it. Love your random, semi-on-topic facts and pop quizzes? Make them travel sized for your learners to access at any time.

Your experience?

What has been your experience with blended learning? Anything to add to my advice above? Add your thoughts in the comments!

For more on modern elearning trends, check out these articles:

Looking for Training software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Training software solutions.

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About the Author

Halden Ingwersen

Halden Ingwersen writes about HR and eLearning at Capterra. She’s a graduate of Agnes Scott College and a TEDx presenter. You can follow her on Twitter @CapterraHalden, just don’t get her started about her zombie survival plan.

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