Further training: Learning has to be flexible

What are the ingredients of blended learning? Is there a secret for implementing it throughout the organization? Professor Dr. Betty Collis, an expert in research in both companies and universities, has a few provocative learning guidelines.

The concept which Prof. Dr. Betty Collis has developed is based on a very simple principle: anyone who wants to learn anything must contribute something which may be of help to the others in the course. This new approach to instructional design is something that she calls activity design.

Prof. Dr. Betty Collis is continually stating that e-learning should be used as a means of rethinking the entire training process.

"Learning must be flexible, individualized and encourage self-responsibility", says the Canadian professor, who for the last ten years has occupied a chair for telelearning at the University of Twente, in The Netherlands. Since last year she has also been Shell Professor for Networked Learning. The Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. (Shell) company created this chair especially for her, after she had transferred the so-called 'Tele-Top' concept to the company sector, which she had managed to implement e-learning so successfully at the university.

Extracting knowledge from the participantsTele-Top is based on a blended learning approach, which, as she specifically indicates, is not necessarily new.

"Good teachers have always worked with a good mixture of learning methods," she says.

For Collis, blended learning is more than simply mixing various learning resources or learning activities at a variety of locations and times. An important element of the mixture is also the variety of opportunities that the participants have of interacting with each other.

"In order to create a blended learning approach, it is not enough simply to combine a few methods with each other. It is necessary to develop a business model for it."

The main aim of this model has to be "to extract the knowledge from the participants." The components of this learning model comprise not only the members of the company and their knowledge, but also the external environment.

Advice for beginners

Betty Collis has the following advice to give people who are interested in taking up e-learning:

1. Do not begin by concentrating on learning course material. Direct your focus to activities which are connected with the needs of the company and the participants. We live in a real world with real problems. This offers us a great variety of ways in which we can start.

2. Plan activities which result in course contributions with reusable contents. You should not only be constantly considering what the participants are able to contribute, but also, by the same measure, you should take into account what elements you would like to reuse.

3. Make use of, or better, let the learners discover sources that serve to support your activities. A course provides a good opportunity of coping with problems. Every hour if packed with material which we can place within a database afterwards.

4. Make your in-house experience productive. Use and reuse contributions based on the work settings and experiences of your participants and others.

5. Spend time where it matters. Avoid wasted time (in terms of time and place, pace, choice of media, assessment criteria, and particularly management tasks).

6. Let learners tailor their own blends. Location is only one of the critical features. Involve their supervisors.

7. Do ROI (return on investment) analysis on the fly. Identify what really matters in the change situation; relate this to SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) thinking for the key stakeholders.

8. More is not necessarily better. Do you really need to put that thick binder online? Do you really need to go through that whole thick binder at all? Do you really need multimedia? Do you really need two weeks in the classroom?

For more information on this theme, see: Betty Collis & Jef Moonen (2001): Flexible Learning in a Digital World: Experiences and Expectations. London: Kogan Page.

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