The Right Technology + Strategies to Effectively Deliver a Blended Online Learning Experience (Backed by Research)
We’ve seen how the pandemic has forced people to embrace eLearning for virtual learning and support. So when your audience is already online looking to engage, how do you craft a blended learning strategy to meet them where they’re at? And how do you deliver it to the tune of increased client service adoption and engagement? How do you ensure every learner has access to your knowledge materials? And how do you ensure the learning experience is seamless without confusion?
As a course creator or training program designer with questions like these surely floating around in your head, creating an ideal learning setting can feel daunting. While a blended online learning strategy helps leverage the best of the onsite and online worlds, its design requires optimal balancing and delivery. That, coupled with determining the right digital solutions for you and learners, can be overwhelming.
This article highlights the right blended learning strategies and technologies (backed with research) to help you realize the best of both worlds.
What is a Blended Learning Strategy?
A blended learning strategy balances learning experiences designed online or onsite using a variety of engagement tactics. It's your opportunity to leverage the best of online and face-to-face worlds to create a richer, more meaningful learning environment for your learner.
If you imagine a tech enhancement spectrum, with onsite mode on the extreme left and online mode on the extreme right, blended learning falls between the two extremes. (See the graphic below.)
The proportion of each learning mode you choose to include in your strategy depends on both your needs and perspective and those of your learners.
Quick level-set: Where do you think your learning experience falls right now on this spectrum? And, where can you improve?
Why Blended Learning Experience?
Well, is your goal to ensure a seamless learning experience where everyone has access to your programs and training materials? Then blended learning is your go-to for several reasons. Let’s talk about how effective blended learning is and how it can improve your learners’ learning experience.
- Blended learning’s hybrid learning approach is a natural fit for our connected-from-anywhere lifestyle.
- By nature of it being virtual, it facilitates a learner-centered design that's just not possible with traditional onsite training.
- And if the course design is intentional — think of a purposeful design process that aligns with the well-researched standards we outline in this article — your hybrid learning model can result in the following three benefits.
Increase access and convenience
When done well, training courses and programs that draw from a hybrid model like the blended learning approach multiply learner access and convenience. And most importantly, they can help you foster lasting relationships with your clients and learners. How? By investing in designing an effortless, accessible learner experience that’s convenient and supports your program learners who have work and family responsibilities. (Which, let’s face it, is ALL of us.) Blended learning also give you and your clients more freedom and flexibility – learners can participate when it's convenient for them. (And the blended learning model is safe amid an ongoing global pandemic.)
Improve learning performance
A 2009 US Department of Education report evaluated 51 empirical studies and found:
"Students who took all or part of their class online performed better than students taking the same course … face-to-face." p.16
The report also compared blended courses with their fully online counterpart and concluded:
"Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had more advantages …
than did purely online instruction." p.17
So why is blended learning so much more effective than its onsite or online counterparts? It's effective because it results in:
- Improved instructional design
- Improved explicit guidance through activities, resources and assessments
- Easier access to learning materials and programs
- Individualized learning opportunities (as learners can self-direct their learning process to fill knowledge gaps)
- Increased engagement via discussions, collaborations and other social interactions
Blended learning also lowers your course development costs: cutting out travel time and expenses, parking and renting expenses for the trainer and their learners. And choosing the right technology for your blended learning program cuts other annoying costs like on-site maintenance and cleaning costs, or the staff you may need to set up technology on-site. The reality is, these costs are even higher amid the pandemic, given the numerous health and safety requirements brick-and-mortar businesses have to adhere to and the risks of onsite meetings.
Challenges in Implementing Blended Learning Strategies
Like so much in life, blended learning programs come with possibilities and challenges alike. So, what are some strategies you can use to strengthen your blended learning modules? We’ll get into those below, but first, the three main challenges you’ll run into while implementing your blended learning strategy:
Weaving synchronous (onsite) and asynchronous (online) interactions
Through the internet, information is always accessible anywhere, anytime. Which can feel like both a blessing and a curse!) A real benefit of blended learning is that it's easier to create a learning environment where interactions are not happening simultaneously, but rather are asynchronous. For example, responding to a text message or replying to a social media post comment whenever it's convenient for you rather than when you received it.
Asynchronous learning interactions are far more flexible for clients with varying schedules and time zones to learn together. Just a quick primer on the difference between synchronous and async interactions:
- Synchronous interactions happen simultaneously in real-time. They include face-to-face onsite meetings or videoconferencing.
- Asynchronous interactions, by contrast, are becoming more prevalent in our technologically advancing culture. An async response happens virtually via text message, emails, chat apps or messengers whenever you receive the message or are available to respond.
Weaving the two can be a real challenge! So it requires you to really examine the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. You want to understand which you can leverage to ensure an optimal blended learning experience for your specific learners’ needs and realities.
“Learning time does not equal learning.”
Planning for learning schedules (time & duration)
It's often said that learning time does not equal learning. So be diligent and purposeful when designing for learning time. Consider the total learning time (including the time spent studying and completing assignments) needed.
When deciding the right combination of onsite and online modules, consider your client students' needs first. Some may require more background knowledge on a topic, while others may learn more efficiently out of the gate.
Our best advice? Keep your planning simple. Blended learning is all about flexibility. You don't have to design a one-size-fits-all kind of program. (Because frankly, it’s impossible to realistically meet everyone’s unique requirements 100 percent of the time.)
What you can do is build your scheduling from the basis of meeting the needs of your average learner (and then scale up or down from there depending on what you have the resources for). Your goal is to create frameworks where your learners can engage with both you and their peers.
So, a couple of planning options you can try:
- Co-creating your course with your learner. What if you let go of the reigns a bit and allowed your trainees to take control over their learning path in alignment with their needs? While we know it might sound a bit scary, (“But, I’m the trainer?!”) this process builds trust with your learner. Focus in on understanding what makes a "successful" learner in one of your courses. Then, create programs, activities and assessments geared towards realizing that vision.
- What’s the ideal learning result? Then work backward. Alternatively, try designing your program based on your program’s desired learning outcomes. Start by defining and describing what those outcomes are. Then, work backward from there through your course material to define what kind of time your average learner may need to realistically meet those outcomes.
Blending the right technologies
A blended learning strategy needs an online learning environment. That could be a simple website supplemented with emails or forum discussions. It can also be a learning management system (LMS) that provides tools specially designed for online learning.
Thanks to free and easy-to-use tools for creating, collaborating and sharing information, you can also go the DIY route. (Think blogs and videos.) But ultimately DIY and patched together learning solutions may leave gaps for your learners.
Best practice: You can hack technology together with a million different learning paths and tools for your learners, but ultimately, DIY solutions that are patched together can leave huge gaps from your learners in their experience with your course, programs and brand.
The Right Technology for Blended Learning
Choosing the right technology is critical in blended learning. For one, your learner must be open to it as it could present a learning curve for some.
Your choice in blended learning technology should address:
- Learner's preferences
- Learner's technical competency
- Access to technology
- Your pedagogic approach
- And more.
When in doubt, err on the side of simplified and streamlined technology that creates a virtual learning environment (VLE). Such technologies include:
Platforms that facilitate a consistent learning experience
VLEs like Blackboard, Canvas, Miro and Moodle are ideal for resource sharing and curriculum mapping. Moodle allows you to map the learning journey and all learning stages in a collaborative environment.
Create learning templates that mirror the different stages of learning in your training approach. The idea is to help learners navigate the learning materials sequentially and easily.
Quick level-set: make sure the long-term investment in the VLE platform you choose works for your unique business in the stage it’s in now.
The right tech tool should allow for a learner-centric design. So it should embrace the client learner as an active participant, involving them in discussions, collaborations and course content. The tech tool should facilitate interaction and communication between learners, peers and you — the trainer.
(Psssst… tech with discussion forum-designed community capabilities ticks all these boxes.)
Community forums let you transition from the burden of being the only knowledge creator (top-down approach) to becoming a knowledge facilitator (bottom-up approach). Learners can engage in online debates, discussions and complete collaborative assignments. Bypassing time and location limitations and embracing different learning paces and styles, discussion forums cater to the diverse needs of your trainees.
Discussion forums also appeal to private and introverted clients who may find it hard to participate in face-to-face discussions.
Best practice: let go of unnecessary burden in your course creation. Use a community forum (integrated into your client servicing workflow and your course content to transition from being the only knowledge creator (top-down approach) to becoming a knowledge facilitator (bottom-up and all sides-in approach).
In a blended learning strategy, asynchronous interactions combined with a flipped course setting can round out your synchronous learning interactions.
Video recording apps like Google Meet, Zoom, Opencast, Kaltura and Screencast O-Matic help you record sessions. But since recorded sessions can serve as a reference for learners and instructors (when evaluating courses), and they help learners self-direct their learning pace, make sure you choose your recording app wisely.
Think integrated. While it may sound like the holy grail of training solutions, integrated, secure (HIPAA compliant) video recording for one-on-one and group sessions that’s built into your existing program content, integrated with your client booking and management system, and lets you easily engage them in a community forum exists! These are the features of an integrated professional service operating system like Profi, that ties every part of your service workflow together.
Then it’s just down to the right program design, reflective questions and bite-sized videos to help learners reflect on their learning. Besides, recording your own unique training sessions gives your clients a more personalized learning experience (rather than using public videos, for example).
Creative apps for asynchronous learner environments
To prevent that isolated feeling that can come in online settings, use tools that create a collaborative environment and a sense of community. While discussion forum-style technology we discussed earlier can help achieve that, you can also embrace creative apps to take collaboration to another level. Think of Murge and Vialog.
In one trial, Dr. Gabor Sarlos used Vialog with postgraduate students. He co-created learning content with the students through mini-interviews with industry experts. Gabor noted a high level of student engagement. He attributed the increased engagement levels to their sense of ownership over the material and the rewarding visual participation of engaging with subject matter experts.
Creative apps for synchronous environments
You can use student response systems (SRSs), or polling systems to introduce a learning activity. Here, learners will use their devices to respond to your questions, be it laptops, tablets or mobile phones.
SRSs collate learner responses anonymously and display them on-screen in real-time. They include Vevox, Poll Everywhere, Mentimeter and Padlet.
Note, anonymity makes it easy for students to collaborate and share links, videos, images or audio recordings. That, in turn, increases interactions, provides reciprocal feedback and enhances engagement.
Webinar platforms are ideal for sharing and applying knowledge through cooperative learning. Web-conferencing software helps replicate online the cooperative learner interactions and learning experiences that organically happen onsite.
Webinar platforms like Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Blackboard Collaborate Ultra provide additional features like breakout rooms, whiteboards, voting polls and screen-sharing.
Moving from Face-to-Face to Blended Learning (Effective Strategies)
Both interactions and collaborations are critical elements of any learning environment. Interactions foster a sense of belonging and community, which enhances learning. That said, your blended learning strategy should revolve around optimal collaboration and interactions. Here are some ideas to get you started.
Designing your blended course
To create an effective blended program,
Know your learners
- Most online students have work and family responsibilities, hence the need for flexibility.
- Online students value self-directing their learning process. They want to study from anywhere, anytime, and at their pace.
As you design your blended learning strategy and programs, develop a comprehensive picture of your target students. Have a sense of their prior knowledge, technology competency, and other aspects to help determine the type of support they need. Then, tailor your training materials accordingly.
You can gain insights by conducting:
- Online surveys
- Concept inventory
- Online discussions (in a forum, blog post, or online communities.)
Define learning goals
It pays to begin with the end in mind. That is, developing coaching goals or desired outcomes first. Here, define the essential skills and concepts your learners must master by the end of the program. Then use the insights to curate content, assessments and activities that align to the set goals.
Have clear expectations
Present clear guidelines for participation in the training program and shed light on program procedures and expectations. You can also communicate learning objectives and assessment criteria for each activity in the program.
Organizing training content and materials
Program organization is an essential part of a blended learning strategy because it helps learners fit the program into their busy schedules. We suggest you:
Organize training materials in logical units
Consider organizing modules around main topics, then adding relevant materials, activities and objectives to each module. Specify the expected learning time per module to help learners keep up with the learning pace. (Here's an example online course demo for your reference.)
To further enhance your content organization:
- Present content in easily digestible chunks
- When using video or audio, add a description highlighting the length — which should be 2-15 minutes
- Provide application questions or short recall after each topic
- When posting assignments, include clear directions and due dates
- Clearly label and organize sectional-level (or course-level) materials to create a clear learning path
Facilitating blended learning
While your learners may be used to onsite learning, online learning is a different ballgame. To ensure optimal adoption:
Promote metacognitive awareness
Adult learners may be distracted by their work and family responsibilities. As such, offer adequate planning, monitoring and assessment. The goal is to evaluate their understanding and performance and provide assistance as needed.
Alternatively, provide clear expectations to help them monitor their pace. According to Tanner (2012), you can promote metacognition through:
- Reflective journaling
- Pre and post-assessments
- Reflective questions to help learners plan, evaluate and monitor their thinking
Maintain social presence
Staying present and responsive to learner needs and concerns is essential. Engage them in a balanced level of participation and communication — publicly and privately. The goal is to help learners know you're available and reliable.
Maintaining a social presence also helps create an inviting and warm atmosphere that fosters a sense of community.
You can achieve that by contributing to discussions frequently.
Palloff and Pratt (2013) note:
“Collaborative learning processes help students achieve deeper levels of knowledge generation through the creation of shared goals, shared exploration, and a shared process of meaning-making. In addition, collaborative activity can help to reduce the feelings of isolation that can occur when students are working at a distance. And provide a "level playing field" for shy, introverted trainees.’”
You can foster collaborations through:
- Developing case studies
- Group discussions
- Group assignments
- Giving feedback to peers
Foster active learning
According to Chickering and Ehrmann,
"Learning is not a spectator sport…[trainees] must talk about what they are learning, write reflectively about it, relate it to past experiences, and apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves."
It's important to ensure learning activities and assessments are authentic for adults. The tasks should be complex and based on real-life experiences. Here’s some inspiration for online activities to get you started.
When creating these tasks, leave room for students' contribution. After all, trainees may have a lot to offer based on their backgrounds, interests and needs.
Don't just rely on texts. Instead, embrace videos, images, GIFs, Infographics and other media formats to appeal to different learning styles.
While at it, consider how the selected media accomplishes the set learning goals. Consider how it will affect the learners in terms of download time and technological needs.
Provide immediate feedback
Providing immediate instructional feedback helps:
- Gain a better understanding of relatively complex concepts
- Correct misconceptions
- Trigger retrieval mechanisms
Fortunately, online learning offers more opportunities for you to provide immediate feedback. For instance, you can design quizzes with real-time grading capabilities.
How Do I Build a Blended Learning Strategy for My Service Business
The hybrid, blended learning model isn’t only effective for trainers. It can be a service business differentiator whether you’re a coach, consultant or therapist. Let's look at a few ways how. We’ve broken down some high-level strategies by the type of business you might have.
What are some blended learning strategies for coaching
From organizing online coaching masterminds with peer coaches and coachees, to launching your first coaching program (like an award-winning International Documentary Film Director, Paul Jenkins who uses Profi for his creative programs), to building a loyal community around your coaching brand — blended learning plays a key role in each of these strategies. But, technology is your key. You want to look at integrated solutions that are affordable and built for service providers like you rather than trying to piece something together and wearing yourself out.
Blended learning strategies for consultants
As a consultant, whether your solo, part of a team or larger consultancy, some of the best strategies where you can apply the blended learning model best span from:
- Running educational webinars with existing and potential clients to establish your expertise, building relationship and increasing your reach,
- To keeping your existing clients engaged via group chat interactions,
- And hosting all of your brand content in one place for easy client access.
Blended learning strategies for therapists
And if you’re a therapist, we didn’t forget about you. As a therapist, you can use blended learning to connect with your clients one-on-one or in groups during live therapy sessions. Or to track your clients’ progress by sending post-session quiz-format check-ins on where they’re at in their process. And you can attract a wider audience by starting your own blog.
Get Started Building Your Blended Learning Strategy
Trustworthy research shows that with the right technology and blended learning strategy, you can increase learner adoption of your training programs. To differentiate your sessions, start by understanding your learners and creating learner-centric courses and programs. Better yet, adopt an all-in-one training and management platform (like Profi) that’s integrated with your service operations to get you there more quickly.
If you're a solo service provider and you want to build training programs backed by the latest research in blended learning, but you need the right technology to increase learner adoption, try Profi (free for 30 days).
Book a demo with us (for your team or corporation) and tell us the blended learning strategies you want to employ. That way, we can help you solve the world's problems better by improving your learner experience.
Generate more profit for your service practice
Without investing any more time. You've been helping others — it's time to help yourselfTry for free