Five things we've learned so far about blended learning

Ben Sweetman, QA's Director of Content & Learning Design, reflects on the process his team embarked on this year to create a fully blended learning curriculum for our apprentices – and being awarded at the Learning Technologies Awards last night.

We were delighted to win the Learning Technologies 2020 Gold Award for Best Use of Blended Learning – UK Commercial Sector for our Digital by Design project in apprenticeships. Winning made me all reflective, and in this blog I’ll share the five lessons we learned as a team.

What do we mean by Digital by Design? 

It means a greater focus on online learning together with using face-to-face interaction where it adds the most value for learners. It means there is a single learner journey that brings teaching, coaching, learning and assessment into a single, repeatable flow for every module.

In Digital by Design, these three elements will work together:

  • the content
  • the service and support
  • the technology

This drove us to take a radically different approach to learning design, and it took us on a voyage of personal and team discovery.

Lesson 1: Personas and user stories

This started with a realisation that we often designed content around the idea of an "average" learner. This meant we needed to get out of the building and talk to apprentices and their managers before committing anything to paper. It involved asking questions where sometimes the answer was uncomfortable, but it always generated new insights about our apprentices.

It led us to focus on the true outcome of the apprenticeship, which is about developing new skills and applying them in the workplace.

We learned to design our programmes around a broader spectrum of learners and based on reality, rather than our personal preconceptions.

Lesson 2: Being obsessive about language 

When you're creating materials for the classroom, they only need to be "teachable" because you have an expert trainer on hand to explain things. When you're creating digital content, it has to be "learnable" on its own merits. This created a much higher bar for the clarity and quality of our written content. In this area, we loved the excellent Content Design by Sarah Richards. This book helped us to learn that bringing the reading age of our content down did not mean we were dumbing it down.

We created a style guide to support our content authors and instructional designers to write in a similar way. We also discovered the Hemingway app, which became a much-loved tool for checking the readability of all of our written content.

Lesson 3: The importance of workflow and tooling

At the beginning of the year, we created the DesignOps function as part of our team. This meant we had the right people with the right skills for each key area. Crucially, it meant we stopped expecting our designers to also be project managers.

We implemented a Kanban workflow and we learned about the importance of trusting the process and each other.

We also moved beyond "doing digital" and started to "be digital" ourselves by using online tools. We used:

  • Paymo instead of Excel or MS Project for project plans
  • Gather Content instead of Google Docs for content creation and workflow
  • MS Teams instead of email for communication

In the end, we replaced two of these three with something else, but the experience of learning to work together online was crucial.

We also learned to talk openly, honestly and early about risks. This was a key cultural change that helped us mitigate a number of risks before they became major issues later in the process.

Lesson 4: The power of storytelling and humour

Learning content and training materials have a long history of being pretty dry, especially technical content. The launch of the new QA brand was the catalyst to be braver in our approach.

As a team, we were initially uncomfortable with this. It involved putting more of yourself, and your own sense of humour, on display. We've created characters and stories including:

  • Paul the Guinea Pig
  • The Titchfield Tigers
  • Monty and his Ant Infestation

Ultimately, time will tell, but we believe that by using stories and humour, we've made our content more engaging. And if learners are entertained, they are more likely to watch the video to the end, and to remember the ideas too.

Lesson 5: The nature of the creative process involves conflict and ambiguity

We learned that the pace of work changes throughout the project and that sometimes you need to stop and go back. You need to discuss it, work it out, test it and then get going. So it's:

  • Slow to start
  • Quick for a bit
  • Then slow down again
  • But come out quicker at the end

And finally, we embraced the fact that this is a creative process. By its very nature, we were trying something new, and that meant we didn't have all the answers. We learned to be okay when working with ambiguity, and started to embrace it. We also learned that we will have conflicting ideas sometimes, and that's not just okay, but a necessary part of being creative.

Keep on learning

We head into 2021 working on how blended learning could be applied to other parts of QA. More importantly, we're ready to learn even more in the process.

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