The early evolution of elearning in blended programmes: what’s next?

Forty thousand years ago, Palaeolithic man started drawing pictures of bison and deer on cave walls, and no one really knows why. Some theories suggest that these were part of a shamanistic ritual to bring luck to the hunt; others posit the idea that they were recording elements important to their lives. Yet a third interpretation is that they were practicing the earliest ever form of blended learning. The blend, you see, was the mix of oral and pictorial methods for teaching new generations of hunters about what makes the tastiest dinner.

Most people would agree that blended learning has come a long way since then. The term is in itself a difficult one, not least because of its resistance to a common definition. If we take it to mean a mix between any two different training methods or media for helping someone to learn, then real-life examples are myriad. You could point to the synchronous classroom and self-study traditions that have become the deep-rooted staples of both junior and adult education, or to distance learning that’s grown exponentially since the introduction of uniform UK postage rates in the 19th Century (not to mention the occurrence of the internet!). However, the most commonly accepted understanding of the term ‘blended learning’, and the one I’ll be focussing on here, began to take shape in the 1960s with the introduction of technology to support instructor-led training.

Since that point, technology has been bounding ahead like an enthusiastic baby elephant, knocking aside pretty much anything that stands in its path. Technology has transformed almost every aspect of both human labour and communication. So why, then, has elearning spent so long being cast as the poor cousin of face-to-face classroom training? It seems elearning has been on the back foot almost from day one – and there could be a good reason why.

A huge catalyst for change in education took place in the 1990s when Harvard professor Eric Mazur developed a technique called peer instruction, the first steps to what today is known as ‘flipped classroom’. Traditional methods of classroom-based knowledge transfer were thrown out as students were asked to accrue this information in pre-classroom learning. The in-class focus was then free to move from the teacher to the learners, meaning greater emphasis on peer interaction, group work and discussion around questions raised from the pre-class work. Research has shown that this innovation impacted positively on group study, with participants feeling it made much better use of the shared time. His approach, where it has been properly implemented, hands power to participants to learn actively. It requires engagement with the topic and challenges the notion of learning being a passive activity in which the facilitator imparts the same detail regardless of learners’ varying levels of prior knowledge or topic interest.

However, this advancement had somewhat more negative consequences for the elearning world. The term ‘blended learning’ – and indeed elearning – was taking its fledgling steps in the late 1990s, just as learning designers were looking for a convenient place to dump all that knowledge they’d pulled out of the classroom setting. The solution? Stick it in an elearning module, ask participants to sit through it and then let the real learning happen in the open, discussion-based classroom setting.

This trend dug its heels in and the effects can still be felt. Examples of blended learning that utilise a self-study online course as a vehicle to ‘provide the background’, ‘deliver the facts’ or ‘convey an overview’ are rife, and in most cases bow to the assumed supremacy of the classroom in its ability to make that real human connection that Mazur had championed.

At Saffron, we see blended learning differently. Our flipped approach can be applied as a tool to build performance. You can find my full article on this topic in December’s issue of the Learning Technologies magazine.

We’re excited to be sharing best practice for blended learning at major industry events such as the Learning Technologies exhibition and the upcoming eLearning Network Conference.

We hope to see you there!