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The Handbook of Blended Learning
Saturday, December 17, 2005

Curt Bonk and Charlie Graham's The Handbook of Blended Learning is being released today.

If you know my thoughts on the whole blended business, you'll be surprised to find that I wrote the foreword to this tome. I'll share the unedited version:

Foreword to The Handbook of Blended Learning

By Jay Cross
Monday, 27 December 2004

When Curt Bonk asked me to contribute a chapter to this book, I flat out refused. As you might guess from the quantity of top-notch authors who appear here, Curt is persistent. He asked me again, and again I turned him down, this time with an explanation.

I told him I considered blended learning a useless concept. To my way of thinking, blending is only new to people who were foolish enough to think that delegating the entire training role to the computer was going to work. I could not imagine unblended learning. My first-grade teacher used a blend of story-telling, song, recitation, reading aloud, flash cards, puppetry, and corporal punishment.

Is it not nutty for a learning strategist to ask “Why blend?” The more appropriate question is, “Why not blend?” Imagine an episode of This Old House asking, “Why should we use power tools? Hand tools can get the job done.” For both carpenters and learning professionals, the default behaviour is using the right tools for the job.

Since I have made it to my fourth paragraph without a footnote or a passive sentence, you have probably already figured out that my perspective is corporate, not academic. My bottom line is organizational performance, not individual enlightenment. Not that I am dismissive of research. In nearly thirty years in what we used to call the training business, I have read my share of Dewey, Kolb, Bransford, Gagné, Schank, and John Seely Brown, but as a businessman, I also pay allegiance to Peter Drucker, Stan Davis, and Harvard Business Review. And I hobnob with least a dozen of the authors you are about to read.

Here are a few issues for you to consider as you ponder this fine collection of observations and advice from learning pioneers around the globe.

What’s a blend?

First of all, these are not useful blends:

· 40% online, 60% classroom
· 80% online, 20% face-to-face
· 80% workshop, 20% online reinforcement

After reading a few chapters of this book, you will see these for what they are: oversimplifications.

Four or five years ago, it was commonplace to hear, “We’ve tried eLearning. People didn’t like it. It didn’t work very well.” This is akin to saying, “I once read a book. It was difficult to understand. I’m not going to do that again.” The book in your hands describes rich variations and applications of eLearning. After reading it, you’ll find that you can no more generalize about eLearning than you can generalize about books. Consider this description of a blend from Macromedia’s Ellen Wagner.

“Evolving blended learning models provide the essential methodological scaffolding needed to effectively combine face-to-face instruction, online instruction, and arrays of content objects and assets of all form factors. For example, in such a blended learning scenario, a student may find him or herself participating in a face-to-face class discussion; he or she may then log in and complete an online mastery exercise or two, then copy some practice exercises to a PDA to take advantage of what David Metcalf calls “stolen moments for learning” – those times between classes or meetings, while on the train, or waiting for an appointment. Think about sending a text message with results of your practice sessions to someone in your virtual study group using your mobile phone - and getting a voicemail with feedback on your results when you arrive at the end of your flight.”

People don’t know what they like; they like what they know. For example, many assume that face-to-face instruction is the one best way to teach and that online learning is inherently inferior. They seek ways for online initiatives to support the high-grade face-to-face experience. As discussed in this book, Capella University turns this view on its head, asking what face-to-face support is required to supplement online learning. Having found online learning universally effective, Capella uses face-to-face only to further social goals such as building one’s support network or creating informal affinity groups. From their perspective, a blend may contain no face-to-face element at all.

Blended learning can take place while waiting in line at the grocery store or taking the bus home. Its ingredients may be courses, content chunks, IM pings, blog feedback, or many other things. Interaction is the glue that holds all these pieces together. Interaction comes in many forms, not just learner and instructor, but also learner-to-content, learner-to-learner, and learner-to-infrastructure. Interaction, especially in learning communities, can create an experience so compelling that it makes workers hungry to learn and drives otherwise sane people to pay $4 for a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

What goes into the blend? Great recipes are the product of generations of experimentation, tasting, and refinement. eLearning is at the same embryonic stage as American cuisine when home chefs rarely started a sauce without a can of condensed mushroom soup, and garlic was reserved for scaring away vampires.

First generation eLearning was initiated, delivered, and completed online; however, its consumers lost their appetites. Today’s tastier recipes include organizational skills assessments, books, content objects, workshops, clinics, seminars, simulations, collaboration, technical references, learning games, and links to communities of practice, both online and off..

At the University of Phoenix, I developed a classroom-based business curriculum in 1976. A dozen years later, an online program debuted. More recently, UoP introduced blended programs which combine some classroom and some online (see chapter from Brian Lindquist). Add more classroom and the result is the “local model” blend; add more online and the result is the “distance model.” Some blends are like “vibration cooking,” i.e. a pinch of this, a handful of that, and however much wine is left in the bottle. C’est bricolage.

As Nancy Lewis and Peter Orton document here, IBM’s four-tier model shows how the ingredients of the blend must be matched to the nature of the outcomes sought. Web pages work fine for performance support. Simulations are good for developing understanding. Groups learn from community interaction and live virtual programs. Higher order skills require coaching, role play, and perhaps f2f sessions. Each dish requires its own recipe.

Blends are more than a learning stew, for as the authors here amply demonstrate, blends fall along many dimensions. Some of these dimensions are listed in the chart below.

TABLE: Possible Dimensions of Blended Learnin

A Blend of Blends. The ideal blend is a blend of blends. Take the last dimension above, formal to informal learning. Study after study finds that most corporate learning is informal. It’s unscheduled. It’s learning on the job. It’s trial-and-error. It’s asking someone who knows.

If informal learning is so important, dare we leave it to chance? If we seek an optimal result, we cannot. Instead of a single blend which calls for x percent of this and y percent of that, I propose we take the blends of many of the authors here into account. We must replace one dimensional thinking with simultaneous consideration of dozens of pie charts, matrices, and comparison tables.

The many cooks of The Handbook of Blended Learning do not spoil the broth. On the contrary, their diversity of opinion and method enrich the book. Editors Curt Bonk and Charles Graham are to be congratulated for preserving the unique flavor contributed by each author.

Mike Wenger and Chuck Ferguson of Sun Microsystems make a strong argument for thinking in terms of a learning ecology instead of a blend of classroom and eLearning. “Classroom” deprives the concept of the rich, multifaceted experiences that take place there. Similarly, “eLearning” covers over the multiple possibilities born of the marriage of the learner and the Internet. There’s simply a lot more to it than that.

School’s out. Corporations seek self-reliant workers they can trust to do the right thing without supervision. Every manager wants “self-starters” on her team. Yet when it comes to learning, many workers wait for others to tell them what to do. Why don’t they take matters into their own hands? I think it is simply a vestige of schooling.

Several hundred years ago, compulsory schools were set up as a separate reality. Students were seedlings, while schools were the greenhouses to protect them from outside elements. The mission of schools was to transmit values and teach a body of knowledge. The noise of the real world might taint the righteousness and clarity of the lessons.

Schooling taught us to think of learning as something a person does in isolation and that its ideal delivery takes place in the classroom or the library, cloistered from the outside. Group work is by and large discouraged (it’s called “cheating”). Authorities choose the curriculum. Self-direction is viewed as rebellion.

Some of these same “authorities” credit me with coining the term eLearning. I would never use the word in the executive suite. Why? Because senior managers equate learning and schooling, too; they remember school as an inefficient way to learn. They are not willing to pay for it.

What is wrong with this picture? How many times have you seen a diagram of the learner-centric model that’s supposed to crowd out the instructor-centric model? It usually shows various learning modalities (e.g., content, the web, discussion groups, video conferencing, live help, etc.) arrayed around the worker.

The image is misleading. It implies that the learner is of paramount importance. In the corporation, however, the work of the group comes before the work of any individual. The learner-centric model retains vestiges of the classroom and its one-to-many oversimplification of how things really work.

There’s an even larger problem: work is typically not part of the picture at all. Imagine a situation where a worker must respond in real time. Say there’s an important customer asking about an order or something has gone haywire in the automated warehouse. Learning must be filtered through what’s happening in the work environment. Otherwise, the worker may accept the customer’s order even though there’s nothing in the warehouse to ship.

Blending workflow learning.

In the knowledge era, learning is the work. Harvey Singh’s prescient chapter proposes the most important blend of all -- the marriage of learning and work. He describes self-perpetuating systems of continuous improvement. Smart software applies its awareness of conditions and context to take a hand in concocting the ever-changing blend. Cycle times shrink to the point that all business becomes a real-time activity.

The components of Harvey’s workflow learning blend are:

· Portals and web parts
· Internet and mobility
· Granular knowledge nuggets
· Collaboration
· Workflow automation and knowledge linking
· Human and automated virtual mentoring
· Presence awareness
· Simulations
· Business process and performance monitoring
· Continuous knowledge capture and feedback
· Real-time notification, aggregation, and decision support
· Integrated learning and enterprise applications
· Interoperable, re-usable content framework

The end of blend. So, given the breadth of choices, is it worthwhile to read a book about blended learning? Yes, I think it is. As Elliott Masie says, “The magic is in the mix.”

“Blended” is a transitory term. In time it will join “Programmed Instruction” and “Transactional Analysis” in the dust-bin of has-beens. In the meantime, blended is a stepping stone on the way to the future. It reminds us to look at learning challenges from many directions. It makes computer-only training look ridiculous. It drives us to pick the right tools to get the job done.

Enjoy the book. Don’t just read it. Make it a blended learning experience. Discuss the cases with colleagues. Incorporate it into your plans. Reflect on how to apply its wisdom. Blending will help you learn.

Jay Cross
Berkeley, California
December 2004


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