It might seem strange to classify face-to-face communication as a medium, because no technology is required to act as an intermediary between sender and receiver. However we define it, we must not ignore it because for thousands of years it was the default means for delivery of any sort of learning experience. Now, of course, we have many more choices, so is face-to-face learning still important?
First of all, face-to-face communication is synchronous; it takes place in real-time, requiring all participants to be available simultaneously. Synchronous communication has immediacy: it allows the learner to get quick answers to questions and speedy feedback on their performance; it permits teachers and trainers to respond rapidly to emerging situations; it allows for free-flowing discussion. Synchronous communication has an important place in many blended solutions.
Of course some learning activities only really make practical sense face-to-face. Obvious examples are where it is vital that teachers and learners can quickly pick up on the nuances of body language, such as when practising interpersonal skills; or where learners need to interact with the physical world, such as when driving or operating equipment. These circumstances might well mean that a face-to-face element to a solution is essential, whether in a classroom or on-the-job. Which is not to say that other elements of the solution must also be face-to-face.
There is no doubt that a really well-delivered face-to-face event is a memorable experience, even if this is a rare occasion. Think of all the music you listen to: how much of this is in a concert hall or other live venue? What about the drama you watch? How much of this is in a theatre rather than on TV or at the cinema? The same goes for sport: how much of this do you see in a stadium rather than in an armchair? It’s perfectly adequate for many of our everyday learning activities to be online, even if these are not life-changing experiences.
Next up: Why we shouldn’t write-off offline media
Technology has dramatically increased the selection of media available to learning professionals. Of course all learning was originally accomplished face-to-face, providing an immediacy to the interaction, a rich sensory experience (you see, you hear, you touch, you smell) and, if you’re lucky enough to be one-on-one, the ultimate in personalisation.
Books, when they arrived, provided the counterbalance, by allowing learners more independence and the ability to control the pace with which they learned. The invention of the telephone provided additional connectivity for learners and tutors working at a distance. Videos, CDs and all their variants made high-quality audio and video available to distance learners.
But perhaps the most significant new technological medium is the networked computer, in all its many forms from desktop PCs to mobile devices. Networks connect learners to three billion other Internet users and countless trillions of web pages. ‘E-learning’ is the rather inadequate name we give to the use of networked computers as a medium to facilitate learning. In practice, it is more a media category than a single medium, because it is capable of supporting a wide variety of different tools and techniques, many of which have almost certainly not yet been invented.
Next up: Why some learning simply must be face-to-face
In this series of posts (first post here), I describe a simple process for designing blended solutions that are both efficient and effective. This process has three stages: (1) analysing the unique characteristics of the situation in which the solution is to be deployed; (2) selecting the right blend of methods to meet the needs of the situation; and (3) determining the delivery media best suited to these methods. It is to this final stage that we now turn.
Only now do we concern ourselves with technologies
Very few of learning methods are tied to a specific learning medium – they can usually be applied in more than one way, perhaps online, face-to-face, even over the phone. It’s an important aspect of this approach to blended learning that you leave the choice of medium until last. First you establish the methods that you believe will be effective in meeting the demands of your particular situation. Then you select the most appropriate media for delivering these methods, looking to optimise efficiency without compromising on effectiveness. The result of this may be a rich blend of different media; on the other hand, it may be that you choose to use the same medium throughout. This is not important – your goal here is to optimise efficiency, not to introduce variety.
Let’s just pause for a moment to make absolutely clear how methods and media impact on the likely success of your solution. Broadly speaking, methods determine effectiveness – if you choose the right methods, you are likely to achieve your learning objectives.
A great deal of effort has been put into research to test whether the communications media used for learning have a similar impact on effectiveness. Thomas L. Russell undertook an analysis of more than 350 studies conducted over the past 50 or so years, each attempting to compare the effectiveness of one learning medium with another. The title of Russell’s book is The No Significant Difference Phenomenon, which says it all. A meta-analysis of 96 studies, by Sitzmann and others, published in 2006, makes clear that it’s the method, not the delivery medium that makes the difference. When web-based and classroom instruction employing similar methods were compared, there was little or no difference in outcome. That is not to say that the choice of medium is unimportant; it has a big impact on the efficiency and flexibility of the solution, but not its effectiveness.
Needless to say, real-life is not quite that simple. You clearly cannot use any medium to deliver any method – the medium must have the necessary functionality. So, a book is not a suitable medium with which to hold a discussion (although the book might stimulate a discussion) and you are not going to get very far practising first aid skills on a mobile device (although the device may be useful in modelling those skills). Evidently some common sense is required.
Next up: More and more media to choose from
Some learning requirements are relatively straightforward and it becomes evident very quickly what the most effective methods will be. On the other hand, we also find ourselves designing solutions to much more complex problems, such as inducting new starters, training apprentices or preparing employees to become managers. In these situations it is hard to pick the most appropriate strategies and social contexts because these need to vary as the intervention progresses.
For this reason, as with eating elephants, it pays to take it one bite at a time. Break your programme down into key stages or elements, for example: preparing the learner, presenting learning content, providing opportunities for practice, offering feedback, providing opportunities for reflection and planning, application to the real-job environment, providing on-going support. The exact nature of these stages or elements will vary widely depending on your objectives and your audience. What is important here is that you attempt to separate out those aspects of the learning process that vary in character, because there is a good chance that you’ll benefit from using different strategies and different social contexts for each of the elements. This is where the opportunities arise for blended learning. And if you can’t sensibly break down the learning process for your given situation, that’s not a problem – you can probably save yourself some trouble and use a single approach throughout.
Next week, we’ll make decisions about the technologies that will allow us to deliver the methods we have chosen most efficiently. This will be the first time in this series of articles that we have focused in any depth on whether and to what extent we can usefully employ new media. That’s because, however much we love our toys, learning must always come before technology.
Next up: Only now do we concern ourselves with technology
Regardless of the strategy or strategies that you choose, there is another key decision to make in terms of the people who will be involved in the learning process. Essentially there are three choices: the learner alone, the learner with one other person – typically a coach or instructor – and the learner with a group of peers.
Self-study can range from reading a book at one extreme to engaging in a complex computer simulation at the other. It provides us with a great deal of flexibility as learners because we control the pace at which we learn as well as when, where and for how long. Organisations also benefit because of the cost-efficiencies.
Having said that, although self-study can stand alone, it works best in conjunction with other social contexts. We are social animals and it is natural for us to want interaction with other human beings at some stage in our learning. The social component allows us to share our experiences, test out ideas, obtain support and compare perspectives.
Self-study also relies on a fair amount of self-motivation and discipline. Somehow there is always some other activity that seems more urgent than our study programme. Hard experience suggests that prolonged periods of self-study need to be timetabled with regular milestones that must be reached by specific dates.
One-to-one learning places the learner with an instructor, a coach, a mentor or a subject expert, whether that’s on-job, off-job or remotely. One-to-one learning is highly individualised, which makes it fast and potentially highly effective, but success depends heavily on the quality of the individual responsible.
One-to-one learning makes a valuable contribution but is extremely costly when compared with other approaches. As a result, it is usually rationed to those situations where there is no other option or where the benefits justify the expense.
Group learning expands the resources available to us as learners to include our peers. This can provide useful benefits in terms of shared insights and experiences, mutual support and a degree of peer pressure, although this comes at the expense of flexibility and individual attention. Group learning can take place live in a physical or virtual classroom. It can also occur at the learner’s own pace making use of email, discussion forums, wikis, social networks and similar ‘Web 2.0’ technologies.
Each of these three social contexts has major advantages, but also some significant drawbacks. The art is to use each social context in the situations in which its benefits are maximised and its limitations minimised. In practice this often means using them in combination, as ingredients in a blended solution.
Next up: Eating elephants
Guided discovery is also a carefully structured process, but the emphasis here is on setting up activities from which the learner can gain their own insights and come to their own conclusions. Within formal interventions, examples might include the use of scenarios, simulations, case studies and leadership tasks, but the strategy can also be employed on the job, using techniques such as coaching, action learning, job enrichment and job rotation.
The driver for this strategy is the facilitator or, in the case of self-study materials, the designer. Guided discovery is best suited to the teaching of principle-based tasks, where the learner will be required in their work to make judgments in widely varying situations.
Exploration hands over control to the learner to make all the choices; there are no pre-defined objectives, no syllabus and no assessment.
The exploration strategy is most likely to be applied in the provision of on-demand support to the learner as they carry out their jobs, sometimes in the form of packaged content, sometimes by access to experts. But exploration is also the underlying strategy behind the use of social media at work – communities of practice, forums, wikis, etc. – that allow employees to provide support to each other.
The driver for the exploration is the learner. Having said that, there is an important role for the learning and development professional as a sort of curator, someone who provides novice learners with the appropriate tools and supports them in finding the right people and content.
The four strategies can be applied to any type of learning intervention. In some cases, different strategies can be used at different stages within a single solution; for example, the use of exposition for essential pre-reading, the use of instruction to convey important rules, the use of guided discovery to bring out key underlying principles, and the use of exploration for on-going reference.
Some learning professionals stick to one of the strategies almost as a matter of faith – it sums up their philosophy of how learning should be achieved. And for some organisations, the strategy that they use for learning is so pervasive that it has almost become a cultural expectation. In practice, it pays to remain agnostic. Each of these strategies has its place, depending on what needs to be learned and by whom. The trick is to use your judgement in determining which strategy to use and when.
Next up: Three social contexts for learning
Every learning solution, formal or informal, employs one or more of the following four basic strategies, whether or not this is a conscious decision:
Exposition is the simple delivery of information from subject expert to learner, typically as part of a formal syllabus. Examples include lectures, presentations and prescribed reading. The driver for this strategy is very definitely the subject expert, who may or may not have any knowledge of or interest in the process of learning.
Because exposition is relatively unstructured and unsupported, it is best suited to learners with higher levels of prior knowledge, who are quite capable of sorting out the wheat from the chaff and who are unlikely to get overwhelmed.
Instruction is a much more systematic process which typically starts with the formulation of specific learning objectives and culminates in some form of assessment. Along the way, a variety of approaches may be used to convey information and all sorts of practical exercises used to help the learner develop the required knowledge and skills.
Instruction can take place in the classroom, through interactive, self-study materials or on the job. The driver for this strategy is the instructor or, in the case of self-study materials, the instructional designer. Instruction is ideally suited to the teaching of routine, rule-based tasks, as well as providing the relative novice with the structure and support that they require.
Next up: Four strategies for learning II
In this series of posts (first post here), I describe a simple process for designing blended solutions that are both efficient and effective. This has three stages: (1) analysing the unique characteristics of the situation in which the solution is to be deployed; (2) selecting the right blend of methods to meet the needs of the situation; and (3) determining the delivery media best suited to these methods.
In the first two weeks, I explained how to carry out stage 1 of the process, analysing the situation. This has three elements: the learning, the learners and the logistics – the three Ls. Armed with the information gained from this analysis, we can move on to the most creative stage in the process: selecting the methods that we believe will meet the learning requirements, for the audience in question and within the given constraints.
Learning methods are timeless
Strange as it may seem, the methods we use for teaching and learning have been with us for a very long time. Thousands of years ago, Socrates would have had very much the same choices as you do now. If he ever became tired of Socratic questioning, the great man could have employed a wide variety of alternative approaches – lectures, games, role-plays, case studies, demonstrations, assignments, discussions, and so on. These methods may go in and out of fashion or be dressed up with fancy new names (witness ‘job aids’ becoming ‘performance support’) but they stay essentially the same. As Juliet so wisely remarked: ‘A rose by any other name would smell so sweet.’
Learning methods are the tools we use to facilitate learning. Importantly, they – and not technologies – are what determines whether a solution will be effective. That’s why we have to get the methods right first. A blended solution should not involve a trade-off between effectiveness and efficiency. With the process I describe in this series of articles, the idea is to select an effective strategy and then – without compromise – choose the most streamlined mode of delivery. Quality is a given.
So how do we select the most appropriate methods? Well, this is not entirely a rule-based process; it requires you to make careful judgements based on what you know of the particular situation and how you apply key learning principles. There are two ways in which you can systematise your decision-making and make sure that you consider all the options, rather than relying on the same old, familiar techniques. A good place to start is by selecting the most appropriate overall strategies – and that’s where we’ll head next.
Next up: Four strategies for learning
The third element of the situation that you need to investigate, after the learning requirements (‘the learning’) and the characteristics of the target population (‘the learner’), is the logistics. You need to know what practical constraints (or to put it more positively, what opportunities) you will have to accommodate (or, in the case of opportunities, to exploit).
All design takes place within constraints. I’m sure film director James Cameron moans about his measly $200m budget and his unreasonable two-year schedule. Chances are you have much greater limitations to work with, but this is completely normal, and can be seen to help the design process by closing down the options you need to consider.
So what logistical factors are likely to impact on your design?
- The size and geographic distribution of the target population.
- The amount of time available for training.
- The budget.
- The deadline.
- The facilities and equipment available.
- The human resources available for design, development and delivery, and the skills and knowledge they possess.
- The software tools available for development and delivery.
- The organisation’s policies and procedures with regard to learning and development.
Next week, we’ll move on to use what we have discovered about the learning, the learners and the logistics to start making decisions on the methods that will bring us the results we’re after.
Next up: Learning methods are timeless
In the last two posts I’ve concentrated on the two characteristics that seem to have the biggest impact on your design – prior learning and the motivation to learn – but learners are more complex than that. You’ll want to find out as much information about your target population as you can; for example:
- The learner’s hopes and fears, particularly what is likely to be pre-occupying their thoughts.
- Cultural differences, from country to country and organisation to organisation, in the way that formal learning is carried out.
- Expectations about the nature of formal learning based on past experience.
- Computer literacy.
- Any obstacles, such as child care responsibilities, which hinder learners travelling to training events.
- The degree and nature of any disabilities.