March 14, 2011 12:01 am

Blended learning: Technology helps facilitate the face-to-face experience

There is more to designing blended learning programmes than just mixing online teaching materials and face-to-face interaction.

In an era of austerity, developing these courses in the executive education sector can prove challenging. Companies may resort to e-learning tutorials to provide a cost- and time-efficient way of training staff that avoids the travel and accommodation costs of off-site courses.

So how will blended learning progress in the executive education sector? Is the trend moving towards learning virtually rather than in person? Or is there something else in the mix?

Andrew Atzert, chief operating officer at the Aresty Institute of Executive Education at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, says people tend to prefer the blend. When the financial crisis hit, some businesses asked the institute to convert some programmes wholly online, but companies usually ask for the combined format.

Despite the austerity, face-to-face learning still has a role. Mr Atzert says there is a need to meet in person, as people tend to do business this way. He emphasises that certain skills, such as negotiation, are hard to teach online, as you want to observe participants’ non-verbal behaviour in a classroom.

He says that online teaching is an important and increasingly necessary addition for senior leadership programmes. However, such courses are always going to have a strong face-to-face element, as many leadership skills have to be developed in a physical setting.

Tony Sheehan, director of learning services at Ashridge, says the school offers substantial face-to-face contact for those doing a short executive course.

Another advantage is that the school “is surrounded by acres of forest and wildlife, which provides a rich reflective learning experience”, he says, contrasting life in a crowded city or doing a busy job where it can be hard to get some time to reflect and learn.

Mr Sheehan says the biggest challenge with learning today is coping with the fast pace of work. People are increasingly reliant on information being readily available, rather than learning it in advance just in case. He says it has become a world of “just-in-time” learning.

This change means there will be a focus on supporting mobile devices, such as tablets, to enable people to access information easily, so as to learn “just in time” in any place, he says.

The future of blended learning is about choice and personalisation. Ashridge’s online learning platform, called Virtual Ash­ridge, lets students home in on certain interests and choose a style of learning that fits their personality without information overload.

Some may want to listen to an audio file or read text, while others may want to take part in an online discussion.

Blended learning is also evolving to combine online and in person teaching, leading to simulated face-to-face solutions. For example, Duke Corporate Education (Duke CE), has developed an online induction game with one of its clients. New employees have to deal with an unhappy customer played by an experienced person in the organisation. The game is overseen by an instructor and peers can watch and listen to the session.

It takes place in a 3D virtual meeting room via avatars. They can talk to each other using the internet about how to deal with the customer.

Steve Mahaley, global practice lead of the learning innovations team at Duke CE, believes the future of blended learning will move from 2D to 3D. “If we look at what technologies provide today for blended learning, typically we see e-learning content, podcasts on mobile devices and live events in webinars.

“We will see the addition of 3D online environments that provide a more sensory-rich, interactive and shared experience. These technologies offer learning designers a new way to provide immersive, hands-on experiences that go far beyond the more passive attendance at webinars,” he says.

Kris Downing, director of business strategy and partnerships at the Centre for Creative Leadership (CCL) says as immersive simulation and gaming have become more sophisticated, they can replicate role-plays and scenarios that were previously reserved for the classroom. However, CCL does not see such tools replacing the classroom as it sees great value in peer discussion, live coaching and videotaping.

When developing virtual solutions, external factors can provide additional challenges for learning designers. Mr Sheehan notes that standards and expectations for virtual learning tend to be set by popular websites and applications.

Examples are search engines such as Google and social networking sites such as Facebook. Providers of virtual learning have to ensure that standards are the same as such sites to match user expectations.

Business and workplace trends are also affecting education. Wharton’s Aresty Institute mirrors developments in standard technology used at work when designing executive education courses.

This makes it easier for people to get started, if they are familiar with the technology used on the programmes. Common technologies include Adobe Connect, the web conferencing software for conducting online meetings.

The trends and changes in blended learning not only relate to teaching and learning methods, but to content as well. Mr Mahaley of Duke CE says that Twitter can be used to share insights and data.

“Mobile devices can be used with a Flickr account to upload photos from local sites that help all learners understand more about the business context from different geographies,” he adds.

Mr Atzert emphasises that “participants bring a lot of knowledge into the learning environment, and social networking provides a means of exploiting that, so participants can learn from one another as well as from faculty. It also provides a means for participants to stay connected and use one another as a resource after a programme ends.”

The future of blended learning in executive education is about combining the best of online and face-to-face teaching.

Ms Downing says: “Virtual solutions can bring people together to solve problems collectively. The ultimate aim is to use technology as an enabler: to preserve and extend impact of the face-to-face experience.”

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