What is blended learning, and how can you use it?

July 28, 2020

There’s no easy answer to the question “what is blended learning?” because it can come in different forms, working in different ways for different audiences. But as companies, schools, and other institutions scramble to accommodate learners due to COVID-19, it’s a topic on many people’s minds. We break down what blended learning is, its benefits, and some common tools you’ll need for creating blended learning.

Just what is (and isn’t) blended learning?

One of the reasons it’s hard to define blended learning is because it can take different forms depending on the context and use. Generally, however, blended learning is a combination of online or eLearning and face-to-face classroom learning. Blended learning is a concept that started to gain popularity in the early 2000s but has been around for much longer than you might think – in fact the concept dates to the 1960s, well before we had the type of eLearning technology and delivery platforms we have today. 

An example of blended learning might be a college automotive program with several weeks of online learning that covers the theory portion of the training, followed by in-person hands-on training for practical learning. In a corporate setting, you may have a face-to-face workshop followed by a webinar or other online components that learners complete on their own time. This useful article from Dreambox Learning breaks down six different models of blended learning, mostly related to school-level but similar models can apply to other learning levels and context.  

One thing successful blended learning isn’t is a dump of content into an online format to save time in the classroom; it needs to be carefully structured and organized in order for you to see the full benefits. You can’t dump PowerPoints or long documents online and assume this will work as a learning approach. Blended learning takes careful planning in order for learners (and creators) to get the most out of it. 

What are the benefits of blended learning?

“When designed correctly and supported by the right resources, blended learning combines the best of in-person and virtual learning in a way that’s individualized for each student.”

Center for Digital Education

younger woman looking at laptop

The key advantage of a blended approach to training or content delivery is that it allows learners to experience the benefits of both flexible, self-paced learning and in-class, real-time, socially-focused learning with an instructor and classmates. From a corporate perspective, blended learning saves time and money and allows you to better accommodate employee schedules. In fact, it shares many of the same benefits as 100 percent online learning/eLearning, which we’ve shown in a previous PathWise blog post

In an article in The Internet and Higher Education journal, Heather Kanuka and Randy Garrison mention that “blended learning… has the proven potential to enhance both the effectiveness and efficiency of meaningful learning experiences.” Blended learning allows instructors to include multiple formats, vary the type of content presented to learners, and also to focus on those elements that really need that face-to-face component for learners to fully understand the concepts and material. 

Where do you start with blended learning?

        1. Analyze your audience

Learner-first training is key to successful outcomes. It’s very important that you thoroughly understand your audience and their needs and preferences, and shape your content to meet those needs and preferences. By thoroughly understanding your audience, you can make educated guesses about what will work and not work as you build your blended learning. 

Some questions to ask yourself include:

  • What do your learners need to know versus what is ‘nice to know’?
  • Why should they care about the training?
  • What technical skills/abilities do your learners have?
  • What technology do they mainly use to access online content (e.g, phone versus desktop)?
  • Do all learners have access to reliable, reasonably fast internet and sufficient bandwidth? 
  • What else is competing for their attention and time (e.g., other work, distractions at home, other courses)?

        2. Audit your content and understand your goals

If you have existing content that you’re scrambling to move online, it’s a great idea to take the time to do a full audit of what you currently have. Maybe there are updates or changes you need to make to the material before even considering moving it into a digital format. If you’re starting from scratch, then you still need to evaluate your content to see what makes the most sense for the online versus the face-to-face teaching environments as you build up that content. Use your audience analysis to guide you. 

It’s also worth asking yourself: 

  • What are the goals for the content/training? 
  • What do your learners need to know and how will this learning change the way they do things? 
  • What’s in it for them?
  • How will you measure the success of the training? 

Taking the time to answer these questions can help you as you work on the next steps. 

        3. Divide your content with intention

If you’re trying to decide what to keep for in-person versus what to put online, a useful ‘rule of thumb’ is to deliver the ‘why’ portion online and the ‘how’ portion in person. Think of First Aid training, for example. Delivering content on various medical conditions, how these occur, signs and symptoms, etc., works well for an online learning portion, but demonstrations on CPR, how to use a defibrillator, or how to bandage wounds would best be shown in person. It all depends on your content, your audience, and your overall goals. 

You also need the right types of tools to host and deliver the online components. 

What are some tools to use for creating blended learning? 

        Learning Management Systems (LMS)

Your first step to delivering online content is a Learning Management System (LMS) like LearnDash or Moodle. While you can use a tool like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or GoToWebinar, for example, to record online components like webinars or lectures and email these to users, if you don’t have an LMS, then you won’t have a way to enroll/register learners or track their progress. If there are certain requirements learners need to meet in a course, then the LMS will be vital to helping you keep track of this information too. An LMS also allows you to set up other types of activities and interactions and deliver text, as well as handling multimedia content. 

        Webinar Tools

Webinar tools are usually relatively easy to integrate into your LMS, so you can set up recordings and ensure your learners have proper access – whether in real time or after the webinar has run. We’ve already mentioned GoToWebinar and Zoom, but other options include Livestorm, Cisco Webex, and WebinarJam. This useful, free guide from Adam Enfroy has more details on the advantages and disadvantages as well as key features of different webinar software platforms. 

        Video, Audio, and Other Tools

Other tools that you may want to use include video software and delivery options such as Vimeo or YouTube. Some LMS software programs allow you to record directly within them and most computers include some form of recording software if you have a webcam. It all depends on your needs, budget, and technical abilities. You do want to make sure that regardless of what you’re using, you have clear audio; you stick to short, sweet videos and audio; and you use these to enhance your content and emphasize key points. 

Other options include adding narration to PowerPoint presentations or using screen capture software like Camtasia, Zappy by Zapier, or Screencastify to record your screen as well as to edit and share video. This is especially useful for demonstrations of software and ‘how to’ walk-throughs. Many of these options offer free trials, so you can spend a bit of time experimenting and trying out different options to see what works best for your needs. 

Final Thoughts

Blended learning, like any training or teaching, can include some trial and error. It can be a good idea to engage learners in the process early on to test different components. You may discover that some content just works better online than in person or vice versa. The better you map out your content, however, and the more strategic you can be about your choices for your specific audience, the better the learner and creator experience overall. 

PS – Interested in adding more blended learning or eLearning components to your training offerings and aren’t sure where to start? Learn more about how PathWise can help