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The new blended learning - eLearning pick 'n' mix for grown ups

by Niamh Williams

This blog is about new approaches to learning that your staff now expect - from more flexible ways to learn to create content personalised to them. My decision to write this blog has been inspired by two things that I experienced recently: my son's birthday party, and some advice offered by my friend and communications consultant, Eoghan O'Sullivan, on what to include in newsletters.

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Blended learning and birthday fun

Let's start with the birthday. As any mum would be, I was a bit stressed last week in the run-up to it. I'd taken the easy way out and outsourced the party to an indoor play centre, but was compensating for this by baking the cake myself. So, I duly spent Saturday morning icing and splicing to create a PAW Patrol-themed cake. A bunch of 5-year-olds may not be the most discerning of food critics, but it was still fascinating to watch them eat the cake. I noticed how, while some ate every crumb, others picked off the icing and ate only the cake; more still ate only the icing, no cake; and one girl wanted the cake but not the jam in the middle! Much haggling and swapping ensued, until everyone got the bits they wanted.

We don't all like or want the same things

Do we ever really grow out of only wanting the bits we like? I've written before about the importance of personalisation and allowing learners at least an element of choice and autonomy over their learning experience. This is especially important where not all information is critical or relevant to everyone. Onboarding training is a good example. While every new starter may need to know the organisation's mission statement, values and HR policies, not everyone will need to know how the Procurement team awards contracts. That information might be vital to a new starter in the Procurement team, but will someone in the Marketing team ever need to know that detail? If the answer is no, then don't force them to study it.

That's not to say that you should allow learners to skip vital information if they don't like the look of it. Sometimes you can't just have the jam! Spend some time with the SMEs working out what's mandatory information and what's optional. You could organise the training like some of my old exam papers: "Answer ALL questions in Section 1 and ONE from Section 2." Put your mandatory information in Section 1 (or equivalent) and optional segments in Section 2. These might be different case studies relating to different job roles, for example, or different applications of that learning in the workplace, again depending on the learner's job.

What we can learn from a well-written newsletter

Back to my friend Eoghan and his piece on well-written newsletters.

A lot of what's said relates to eLearning also; for example, using a variety of images and short, snappy headings. But one point in particular interested me, because it surprised me. I will summarise it here as:

"You don't need a hierarchy... people will find what's of interest to them." 

This piece of advice seems to fly in the face of the common perception that, in this age of desperately short attention spans, you must hook the readers straight away or you'll lose them. I can only assume that at least part of the rationale for this uncommon behaviour is that Eoghan's readers were already engaged and interested - they wanted to know what was in the newsletter. As writers of training materials, we know that many of our readers often approach our communications with a very different attitude. It could be one of apathy or even dread for some training that's been forced upon them and is interrupting their 'real' job.

The other interesting point that this seems to highlight is that what's most important to one person won't necessarily be the most important or interesting point to everyone else. Therefore, any hierarchy we try to impose on the learning may not be effective.

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The ultimate pick 'n' mix

For compliance training in particular, there is an increasing move towards providing or collating resources for workers, which they can refer to as and when these are needed. This method provides immediate answers to immediate problems, e.g.

 'How do I submit an expenses claim?' or

'How do I store project files in Source Control?'

With this approach, the motivation is already there, and so your learning resource could be structured much like a good website or newsletter. If the information is presented in a clear and appealing way, people will find what they're looking for.

For the ultimate pick 'n' mix experience, make sure you include a variety of sources of information e.g. links to information on the company website, blogs, relevant YouTube videos, and infographics. It should also ideally allow for learners to create their own resources, or at least comment on the usefulness of resources provided. This sort of Social Learning is a great way of quickly sharing new or best working practices and facilitating peer-to-peer learning - the Holy Grail of the 70-20-10 learning model.

When pick 'n' mix doesn’t hit the spot

Most busy, motivated learners will appreciate an element of choice and personalisation, but these aren’t necessarily for everyone. Some years back I worked for learndirect and UK online centres in Sheffield, commissioning basic numeracy, literacy and IT eLearning content for public use. These adult learners with the reading skills of a typical seven-year-old and little or no computer skills found every page a challenge and every question answered a triumph. They needed constant 'hand-holding' in very basic language and specific instructions. It would have been wholly inappropriate to provide headline details only and expect them to click 'More' to further explore the topic or provide content in a non-linear format.

If you're reading this blog, you're almost certainly well-educated and IT savvy, but bear in mind that not everyone is in such a privileged position. Usability testing with the actual target audience is a really helpful way of testing the effectiveness of your design decisions and of your content. I recommend observing a usability test, if you get the chance: I guarantee you'll learn more in that hour watching real users interact with your content than you will in a month of studying learning design or Human Computer Interaction (HCI) theory.

What's your perfect blend?

Our eLearning content development services provides a variety of learning methods and tools to suit all organisations - from animation, video, scenarios, infographics, gamification and much more, we'd love to get a chance to blend the perfect eLearning programme for you. 

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