QA Talent

Mixing it up: the future of learning is blended

Innovations in learning design and technology have transformed the potential of blended learning, and make it the modality that should become ‘the new normal’.

Blended learning is the integration of in-person and digital learning. Teaching and learning institutions have been experimenting with blended learning for approximately at least the last decade, with some studies suggesting 10% of distance learning enrolments in the US in around 2008 offered a combination of online- and in-class instruction.[1]

However so far growth of blended learning delivery has been limited – in part because technology and curriculum design have been unable to create a seamlessly integrated powerful learning experience. We believe that’s changed. QA's Cloud Academy platform provides learners with a unified and comprehensive learning experience: combining digital skill assessments, hands-on-labs and guided learning paths with in-person training delivered at world-class facilities across the UK. In this article we explore why that is such a powerful learning experience.

Creating a powerful learning experience

Extensive research suggests four components are critical to create a powerful learning experience for adult learners[1] (Exhibit 1):

Exhibit 1: Elements of powerful learning 

Involve others: Learning is a social[2] process. Learners build knowledge through the process of interacting with others – their peers and tutors.

Make it relevant: Learning and cognition are more powerful when applied (rather than kept in the abstract). Activities need to be relevant and relatable to the learner and should mirror actual situations of use[3].

Allow time to reflect: Learners benefit from the opportunity to reflect on, defend, and share what they have learned[4] - this process of recall and application builds deeper understanding and helps commit knowledge to long-term memory.

Vary the experience: Learning should incorporate a range of theory, engagement, and active construction[5]

To be clear, it is not impossible to create a powerful and positive learning experience without these elements, but it certainly harder.

Understanding the elements supporting a powerful learning experience goes some way to explaining why e-learning has not supplanted in-person training as the default way of learning. Engagement for longer e-learning courses has been a particular challenge: the average completion rate for a university MOOC is just 12.6%, and even amongst the best the rate is barely higher than 50%.[6]

The reason why e-learning struggles with engagement is clear: much e-learning does not deliver a powerful learning experience. Sitting in front of a computer completing a solitary automated module isn’t a social experience, it doesn’t give room for application in a job, there’s no in-built time to reflect and the learning experience isn’t varied.

In-person training hence remains popular because is often much better at meeting these hurdles. However, that’s not to say it’s without its challenges. We see two:

Availability: An in-person course requires delegates to all be 100% dedicated to learning for a period, all at the same time. Attend from anywhere technology relaxes the constraint that delegates all need to be in the same place, but it’s not always suitable. We know this time commitment is a barrier for many – in government research 50% of companies cite a lack of staff time as a reason for not providing more training[7].

Pace: The best trainers will be constantly adjusting their delivery, balancing the different needs of different learners in the class. However there is a fundamental constraint that the time commitment is often fixed for all learners up-front, and the curriculum has to be covered in that time. There are limits to how flexible the pace of learning can be.

The solution: blended learning delivery

Blended delivery brings the best of both worlds. The greatest aspect of blended learning is that it allows the shift from delivery being content-centric to being learner-centric. What does this mean?

It means the learning experience no longer focusses on delivering a set curriculum to a learner (in a set time), but instead is centred on changing the knowledge, skills and behaviours of a learner towards a set of defined goals. If that means a slightly different time commitment (or even curriculum focus) for each learner, then so be it. Blended delivery facilitates true challenge-based learning: collaborative learning experience in which teachers and students work together to learn about compelling issues, propose solutions to real problems, and take action[8].

A blended learning journey might start with an in-person group session – to build relationships between participants and set the learning pathway. Participants can then follow up on their learning afterwards with related e-learning modules, whilst also participating in a group project - collaborating virtually with their peers. Participants can practice their skills through online exercises and embed what they’ve learned into their jobs almost straight away, whilst also having the facility to go back to the tutor or their peers to discuss issues and raise questions. Progress is tracked electronically with a range of quizzes, games and more formal assessments.

The learning journey is designed to be engaging and drive learner outcomes. Team-based learning creates a more social experience, gamification keeps students coming back and participating in more learning activities. This approach is built on the scientific evidence: gamified learning interventions have been shown to have a positive impact on student learning, in some studies generating a 10% improvement in learner test scores[9].

Moreover, engagement rates are much higher when learners are actively supported by a coach or tutor. Research at the University of Warwick of a multi-stage MOOC on technical coding abilities, the tutor-supported group were 13% more likely to progress to the next stage of the programme.[10]

Exhibit 2: Completion rate to next stage of course for technical (programming) MOOC

The power of the blended learning experience is in the flexibility and integration of different learning routes: learners can engage to different depths on different topics; they can spend different amounts of time on learning, or explore different potential applications of the new skills. Crucially, they can do this without it becoming an exercise in self-study – learning in a variety of different ways, benefitting from the guidance of an experienced expert and tutor, and collaborating with others.

In short – blended learning embeds all the aspects we know create a powerful learning experience, better and more flexibly than a basic e-learning or even in-person training.

How to make blended learning work well

Just combining different ways of learning doesn’t automatically improve learner engagement or outcomes. To genuinely generate a better learner experience means getting it right on two fronts.

1) Curriculum design

The design of the curriculum for a course – both what is taught, and how, is critical.

Research suggests reveals that the distance between where a skill is learned (the locus of acquisition) and where it is applied (the locus of application) greatly influences the probability that a student will put that skill into practice[11]

Labs are a particularly effective tool for reducing the distance between where knowledge is learned and where it is applied: By embedding labs into the curriculum, learners can build and validate practical experience in a secure, sandboxed environment, whilst gaining direct experience of the technology they use in their day-to-day jobs.

Given the flexibility of pace, it’s important the curriculum and learning design incorporates the right testing and evaluation mechanisms to ensure a learner has progressed in their understanding and guide the focus of future learning interactions.

2) Technological integration

To make blended learning work well, there has to be an integrated learning journey for the learner – seeing a single path from start to end combining all different elements of the learning experience: in-person, virtual, digital and social learning. There must be a learning platform that’s easy to use, and seamlessly brings together all aspects of the learning experience. Incorporating gamification, feedback and social interaction tools, as well as the all-important curriculum and progress tracking.

About QA’s digital learning platform

With Cloud Academy, QA has developed its learning platform as a technological backbone supporting a blended learning experience. It covers the full life-cycle of learning from assessing and profiling skills and aptitude, through to end-point exams and reporting.

The platform offers learners

  • Learning delivery through e-learning courses, videos, hands-on labs, as well as integration with an in-person training schedule
  • Nudges & Notifications to keep learners motivated and on-track
  • Adaptive Quizzes and Exams, that adjust iteratively based on performance to assess with a high degree of accuracy
  • Gamification through competitions and leaderboards
  • Practice tests, role-based exams, and certifications

The platform supports a powerful learning experience, enhancing the learning journey beyond in-person training. In addition, it creates the data and dashboards giving enterprises the ability to track the progress and performance of their learners as they progress along different learning pathways.

Done right, blended learning is transformational – delivering training that is truly learner-centric, that builds knowledge, skills and behaviours more flexibly, more reliably and to a higher level than before. It takes a lot to do it right – you have to have the right curriculum design and technological platform as well as expert tutors and facilities for in-person delivery. But with the right commitment, and the right learning partner, blended learning is the way to go.

[1] Siemens, G. & Tittenburger, P. (2009). Handbook of Emerging Technologies for Learning

[2] Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity.

[3] Seely Brown, J., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning

[4] Merrill, D. (2002). First principles of instruction.

[5] Papert, S. (1991). Situating constructionism.

[6] Jordan, K (2015). Massive open online course completion rates revisited: Assessment, length and attrition.

[7] UK Department for Education. (2018). Employer Skills Survey 2017.

[8] Apple. (2011). Challenge-based learning: A classroom guide

[9] Buckley, P & Doyle, E. (2014). Gamification and student motivation

[10] Onah, Sinclair, and Boyatt. (2014). Dropout rates of massive open online courses: behavioural patterns

[11] Harvard Business Review: The Future of Executive Education, 2019

[1] Lewis, L. & Parsad, B. (2008). Distance Education at Degree-Granting Postsecondary Institutions