A Bulletproof Model for the Design of Blended Learning
By Frank J. Troha
Jul 18, 2002 - 3:42:00 PM

If Time and Money Matter, So Does Instructional Design

I hope you'll never hear an outside consultant tell you that it will take another $250,000 and an additional six months to complete your e-learning or blended learning project. By blended learning I simply mean e-learning (or online learning) combined with another venue, typically classroom training.

Blended learning is hot and understandably so, combining the best features of online learning (e.g., 24/7 accessibility) with the best features of classroom instruction (e.g., live, face-to-face interaction). No doubt it's here to stay. But why do so many blended learning initiatives turn into frustrating boondoggles, consuming far more time and money than anyone anticipated? The answer -- just as with most troubled initiatives -- can be found in poor planning (i.e., instructional design), the bitter fruits of which often appear during the implementation of training, or long after substantial amounts of time, money and enthusiasm have been expended.

Whether you and your staff have experience designing e-learning or blended learning, it's critical that you at least attempt to define the major aspects of your project before consulting with any outside service providers. The rationale is simple. By deliberately thinking through, specifying in writing and confirming -- with all internal parties involved -- who your audience is, their learning objectives, the exact content to be covered, constraints, etc., you'll be better positioned to: 1) understand the true scope and nature of your project 2) gain the support of all internal stakeholders early in the process 3) efficiently and accurately communicate project scope and requirements to potential providers 4) hire the best provider for the job, and 5) confidently manage and monitor project tasks to ensure success.

The First of Its Kind Model for the Design of Blended Learning

The Bulletproof Model for the Design of Blended Learning is intended to help guide you and your team through the process of blended learning design. By virtue of its checks and balances, you are essentially assured of a successful outcome.

Accompanying the model is a list of sections for an instructional design document (Figure 1), which -- as it's developed and fine-tuned -- provides a vital discussion document and focal point for all parties involved in the project.

Note: The following design model presumes a performance analysis has indicated the need for training, as opposed to another type of performance improvement intervention.

Design Steps:

1. Gather standard background information on the training need, just as you would if designing a course for classroom delivery. Consider: the title/function of audience members, their location, total number to be trained and the time frame for doing so, their level of interest in the subject matter, likes/dislikes concerning learning activities experienced in the past, what they need to come away with as a result of the training (i.e., specified knowledge, skills and attitude), known and potential constraints affecting any aspect of the classroom training from design to development to delivery, etc.

2. Answer, in writing: "What exactly do we want our audience to know, do and feel as a result of the training?" The list of specific, carefully worded outcomes or learning objectives should be prefaced by: "As a result of completing the training, participants should:". Before proceeding to the next step in the process, be sure to confirm the list of learning objectives with project decision makers, influencers, all design team members (including any subject matter experts) and any other parties involved. If the objectives are inaccurate, there surely will be inaccuracies committed in the steps that follow.

3. Based on the confirmed learning objectives, outline the topics and subtopics that must be addressed by the training. Essentially, you and your team (including any subject matter experts) should answer this question for each learning objective: "If the audience is to be able to accomplish this objective, what exactly do we need to cover?" The output of this step should look like the table of contents in a textbook, i.e., highly detailed, comprehensive and logically sequenced.

4. Next to each item listed in the content outline, note the type of learning activity that is best able to convey the item of content to your audience in a traditional classroom setting. The premise for noting only in-class learning activities at this point in the design process -- instead of both classroom activities and online activities -- is two-fold: 1) By working within the context of the classroom -- a venue with which you're probably very familiar -- you're establishing on paper the "ideal" learning experience: live, face-to-face, instructor led and peer-collaborative. 2) By virtue of having designed the "ideal" learning experience, you have a tangible blueprint ("Content / Learning Activities Outline") that you can -- later in the process -- pare back as much or as little as your particular circumstances indicate.

5. Develop a transfer of learning strategy, outlining what can be done before, during and after training to make it "stick". At this point, having produced a "Content / Learning Activities Outline", you and your team would have a sense as to how the manager of a participant might encourage his/her on-the-job application of the content specified. This step is crucial, yet often neglected. If learning is not transferred from the place of learning to the place of work, there can be no return on investment. Prior to training, the manager could, for example, review the course's learning objectives with the participant and discuss their relevance to his/her particular developmental needs. After training, the manager and participant might discuss, fine tune and commit to implementing an action plan drafted by the participant during training. Additionally, a second look at the "Content / Learning Activities Outline" -- from the standpoint of ensuring learning transfer -- might reveal additional opportunities for skills practice and the distribution of quick reference tools (e.g., checklists, templates and memory joggers) for on-the-job use. The transfer of learning strategy, which can include methods beyond those referred to above (e.g., linkage to performance review criteria), is captured in writing before proceeding.

6. Develop an evaluation strategy, outlining how the effectiveness of the training can be determined. A look back at the learning objectives and the "Content / Learning Activities Outline" can help answer these types of evaluation questions: After confirming the accuracy of course materials with subject matter experts and other reviewers, will you test the relevance, value and appeal of course materials (in the final draft stage) by conducting "walk-throughs" with a sampling of your target audience? Will you conduct a dry run so decision makers, influencers, training personnel and others can assess the course prior to rollout? How will you measure the target audience's degree of learning and behavioral change? Given the nature of the training, can its impact on the organization be determined? If so, which metrics will you use? How long after the delivery of training should you wait before measuring its impact on the organization? Answers to these types of evaluation questions are documented.

7. Identify and catalogue any existing documentation that may later be used to facilitate course development (and thereby avoid reinventing the wheel). In addition to detailing all topics and subtopics to be addressed, the "Content / Learning Activities Outline" represents a sort of shopping list for directly relevant materials that may already exist in your organization or elsewhere. Do your best to locate pertinent reports, articles, books, videos, CDs and training programs that can potentially save time, money and effort by eliminating the need to create your entire course from scratch. Pre-packaged e-learning lessons related to a number of your training's topics/subtopics may also be available and can be searched via the Internet. Any subject matter experts working with you and your staff should prove especially helpful in locating and assessing the potential value of existing materials. Certainly, by virtue of their own expertise, subject matter experts should be able to close any informational gaps left un-addressed by your search for existing documentation. However, this should not occur until after approval of a blended learning design has been received and the go-ahead for development of courseware has been given. Here, in this step of the design process, only a detailed listing of what is available and what is lacking needs to be prepared.

8. Organize all outputs of the process thus far into an instructional design document (i.e., discussion document) that will be used later (in Step 10) to communicate your preliminary design. See Figure 1.

9. Using the instructional design document, identify elements within the "Content / Learning Activities Outline" for potential online delivery. Since the intent is to combine the best of both worlds -- the 24/7 availability and efficient global delivery provided by online with the live, face-to-face human interaction of the classroom -- elements of the outline that appear to lend themselves to effective online delivery should be highlighted by you and your staff. Such elements tend to include content / learning activities that are easily understood, straightforward or basic, e.g., key terms, process overviews, guiding principles, self-assessments, etc.

10. Brief all internal people involved in the project on your design, elicit their feedback and gain approval to proceed. Getting buy-in from project sponsors, decision makers, content experts and others at this point in the process is crucial. First, this meeting should confirm whether you're on track in terms of what the target audience needs and what management wants. Second, by virtue of providing the opportunity for all involved to weigh in on the design, their continued support is better ensured. And, third, you (and they) can feel confident that you're ready to begin talking with blended learning experts who -- after being thoroughly briefed by you -- can offer their views on how they would take your design to the "next level". Note: Because technical questions may arise about the eventual delivery of proposed online learning, it's recommended that your organization's IT function be represented at this meeting.

11. Meet with blended learning providers with an eye toward: increasing learning efficiency through 24/7 accessibility, fully optimizing precious classroom time and ensuring optimal return on investment. Using the design document as a roadmap for your meetings with providers, your intentions and questions can be systematically addressed. Key outputs of your meetings should include: 1) a clearer understanding on your part as to what should be delivered online versus offline and why 2) a decision as to which provider seems most appropriate for the job 3) which aspects of the project can be accomplished using internal resources and 4) a revised instructional design document ("Blended Learning Design Document"), specifying in the "Content / Learning Activities" section how each element of content would be addressed, including the venue to be used and estimated time required. Other sections of the design document (e.g., Duration [total online time vs. total classroom time], Constraints, Evaluation Strategy, Transfer of Learning Strategy, etc.) should also be adjusted, depending on decisions reached. Note: At these meetings it's critical that your organization's IT function be represented. Many of the outside experts' recommendations are likely to require a clear understanding of your organization's current technological capabilities and limitations.

12. With your outside provider, present the blended learning design to all in-house stakeholders (as in Step 10), elicit their feedback, gain approval and identify next steps. A key part of this briefing is comparing and contrasting the first approved design document (based on the live, instructor-led classroom venue, but including the highlighting of certain elements for possible online delivery) with the second design document (based on the optimal blending of online and classroom venues within the context of your organization's unique circumstances). By doing so, the full extent of paring back (or extraction) of certain content / learning activities (deemed suitable for online delivery) from the classroom-based design document can be clearly seen, explained and discussed. In the end, the potential benefits to be derived from a blended approach should be made apparent to all. Typical benefits include: reaching large numbers of learners "anywhere, anytime" and usually much faster (and cheaper) than multiple classroom deliveries alone could; reducing yet optimizing in-classroom time by limiting its use to instances where the presence of a live instructor and face-to-face interaction among participants is truly needed; automating training administration via a proven Learning Content Management System; and reducing training costs overall. Once the blended learning design is approved, next steps are discussed and agreed upon before adjourning the meeting.

An Ounce of Prevention...

A review of the recommended model for the design of blended learning reveals a number of checks and balances that are especially apparent within steps 2, 10 and 12. Consequently, this model -- when diligently applied -- virtually ensures a successful outcome; hence, the name, Bulletproof Model for the Design of Blended Learning.

Too often, corporate learning and development professionals delegate the design of blended learning to their chosen outside provider. Perhaps they believe they lack the time, instructional design skills or knowledge of the latest learning technologies needed to effectively orchestrate and lead the planning effort. The design model explained here is worth the time, requires only basic instructional design skills to implement and even includes learning firsthand about relevant, leading-edge technologies (step 11).

With so many e-learning and blended learning initiatives, ranging from hundreds of thousands of dollars into the millions, aren't the stakes too high to do anything less than take control from the very beginning?

Frank J. Troha is an adult learning consultant and instructional designer with over 24 years of experience, serving many of the world�s leading corporations. Additionally, he�s Adjunct Associate Professor of Instructional Design at Fordham University Graduate School of Education (New York City) where he trains corporate learning and development professionals.
914.933.0114 E-mail: [email protected]


© Copyright 2001