“Virtually There” is a monthly column addressing the special challenges associated with designing, developing, and implementing virtual and blended learning.
So you’ve built a virtual blended learning program, but will they come? And once they are there, how are you going to keep track of them?
Most training organizations don’t realize that the management of a blended training solution can be the most difficult hurdle to jump. And when you add to that an implementation that is fully virtual, the management becomes even more complex. Connecting the dots between the different learning technologies means managing a potentially complex rollout, developing the training team, getting the word out, and getting participants excited to participate and complete the entire program.
When it comes to ensuring that your blended learning curriculum is a success, focus on marketing the blend, managing its implementation, and motivating learners to enroll and complete the entire program.
Marketing the Blended Learning Curriculum
In our networked world, word gets around fast. Make sure the word about blended learning is positive, and constantly is being reinforced. An initial marketing burst without a continuing campaign will make your initiative seem like another passing fad. Regular news about what courses are coming up, and their importance to the organization, will help employees to understand that blended learning is an integral part of the organization’s learning culture. If virtual blended learning is “in,” employees will demand to be part of the action. The foundation of your marketing strategy should include the following components:
- Answer the question, “Why learn this way?” Let’s face it, participating in a blend is more difficult than participating in a traditionally delivered course. Learners need to master multiple technologies, manage their own time in order to complete the requirements, and often are required to create substantive deliverables that will be evaluated to determine their individual success. Why should they bother? To answer this question, publish a list of facts specific to each blended program that reinforces items such as: A blend can be more real-work oriented, learning in shorter chunks increases retention, and the blend will leave learners with a set of accessible resources to refer to when they need to apply the learning in real life situations.
- Create a shared, accessible language. Concepts such as “synchronous,” “blended,” and “simulation,” don’t mean a lot to our learners. What’s the difference between a “session” and a “module”? Is a virtual classroom more important than e-learning? Simplify the language. Call everything a “course,” no matter how it’s delivered. Call each part of a course a “lesson” whether it is delivered via virtual classroom, PDF, or e-learning. This simplification will help learners to focus on content and not delivery method.
- Engage advocates. Someone outside the training organization needs to wave the banner of blended learning. Success stories need to be shared with potential learners. Cost savings need to be shared with potential sponsors. And managers of potential learners need to understand why they should have their team participate in a blend. Your advocate can lead this charge.
Managing the Implementation of the Blend
Implementing a blend is much more complex than implementing a traditionally delivered course. Think about it: a program that’s rolled out over multiple weeks, with a combination of live and self-directed activities, to people potentially across multiple time zones, needs to be scheduled literally months in advance to ensure full participation by the learners. When you add in the availability of facilitators, subject matter experts, and guest speakers, just the scheduling aspect of implementing a blend can be overwhelming.
In fact, you can’t just think about program implementation only after the development is complete. Implementation needs to be part of your project plan from the very beginning. And resource scheduling, including your learner population, needs to start as soon as the design document has been finalized. Who takes care of details like this?
Even the most thoughtfully designed and developed program can fall flat if you don’t consider the following questions with regard to implementation.
- Who’s in charge now? The implementation team is just as important as the development team. Implementation will include resource scheduling, technical support for learners and facilitators once the program goes live, and an ongoing project manager to ensure the program is being rolled out correctly and meets its goals. Also consider an administrator to manage attendance, communications, documentation of technical problems, and the thousand other little (and not so little) details that might come up.
- Who’s in charge later? Lifecycle maintenance often is overlooked when implementing a training program. When you’re rolling out a blend, remember to schedule a regular review of the program to ensure that the content is up to date in all components of the blend. It’s easy to update content on the fly in a live session, but updating material embedded in e-learning, simulations, and other multimedia is more costly and resource intensive, and needs a much longer lead time than is required for the live components. If you’re going to invest the time, resources, and money in implementing a rich and engaging blended learning curriculum, your planning and budgeting has to include the “how, when, and who” of content maintenance.
Motivating Learners to Enroll (and then COMPLETE) the Blend
Design, development, and implementation don’t matter if your learners don’t enroll, and then complete, the program. There is no ROI for not attending class. For a variety of reasons, the vast majority of learners who begin a blended learning program do not complete all of the components. That’s not OK. If learners enroll in a blended learning program, they must understand that they are committing to the entire curriculum and that no individual lesson is optional. If learners are allowed to pick and choose which content they think is important, you don’t have a blend. You have content that is similar in nature but not an integrated curriculum.
So how do you get participants to be fully engaged and participate to the end?
- Establish relevance. Understand your audience. Learn about their needs and what gaps need to be filled by the training. What types of learners are they? Have they taken this type of learning before? These questions play a role in how you will deliver your content. Also, required training should be strongly linked to business goals and personal development plans.
- Ensure learners understand what they are signing up for. Remember that blended learning is a new experience for most of your learners. We are not just teaching new content; often, we are teaching people a new framework in which to learn. For instance, in a previous column we discussed using a learning map to provide an overview of the entire blended learning curriculum. Learners can use this as a checklist to track completion of the various lessons; it also can serve as an effective time management aid. Providing this information at enrollment will allow learners to manage their time more effectively, and help ensure success of the individual and of the program.
- Get management involved before, during, and after the course begins. If learners know that management is behind a blended learning initiative, they’ll be more inclined to sign up. Get managers involved by inviting them to record short “welcome” presentations for learners and encourage those managers to participate throughout the curriculum. Also, consider making management responsible for the final learner evaluation, because a manager is ultimately responsible for determining whether or not behavior has changed or skills have been learned. But don’t do this in a vacuum: Dedicate a session specifically for educating managers about the training. Tie the learning objectives to corporate goals and provide links to outside sources such as customers, suppliers, and vendors, where the management team can go to learn more about virtual training in general and this curriculum specifically.
Creating a virtual blended learning program is not a plug-and-play process. Focusing on design, development, and technology is not enough. Spend the time planning and managing your implementation in order to maximize the learning, and pave the way to blended learning becoming an accepted component of your training mix.
(Looking for more information on motivating virtual learners? Click here: http://blog.insynctraining.com/whitepapers/101-tips-to-motivate-the-virtual-learner to download a whitepaper on the topic.)
A thought leader in the field of virtual classrooms, Jennifer Hofmann is the president of InSync Training, LLC, a consulting firm that specializes in the design and delivery of virtual and blended learning. Featured in Forbes Most Powerful Women issue (June 16, 2014) as a New England Women Business Leader, she has led InSync Training to the Inc. 5000 as the 10th Fastest Growing Education Company in the U.S. (2013). Hofmann is the author of The Synchronous Trainer’s Survival Guide: Facilitating Successful Live and Online Courses, Meetings and Events (Pfeiffer, 2003), Live and Online! Tips, Techniques, and Ready-To-Use Activities for the Virtual Classroom (Pfeiffer, 2004), and How To Design For The Live Online Classroom: Creating Great Interactive and Collaborative Training Using Web Conferencing (Brandon Hall, 2005). She has co-authored, with Dr. Nanette Miner, Tailored Learning: Designing the Blend That Fits (ASTD, 2009), a book focused on taking advantage of distributed technologies to create the best blended training solution possible. Her most current projects include a monthly Training magazine online series titled “Virtually There” and her newest book, Body Language in the Bandwidth – How Facilitators, Producers, Designers, and Learners Connect, Collaborate & Succeed in the Virtual Classroom (InSync Training, 2015). Follow Jennifer Hofmann at her blog, Body Language In The Bandwidth at http://blog.insynctraining.com or on Twitter @InSyncJennifer.