Blended learning: what are the competencies required?

Gaps between provision and uptake

Both the teaching/training entity and the learner need specific competencies to be able to practise and to benefit fully from the blended learning approach.

As digital learning matures, it is becoming clear, however, that without sound learning design, experienced and innovative teaching and learning practitioners and a student-centred online experience, digital technology by itself cannot provide genuine interaction.

Let’s remind ourselves of the differences between blended and hybrid learning. Blended is designed to give equal importance to physical and online learning, combining the two modes for an optimal learning experience across the course, while hybrid learning is driven more by more student choice of mode, enabled by flexible provision of materials online and in-person.

Hybrid learning is in fact the approach that many universities, colleges and schools took in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The limitations were clear in that many students, living in a time of great disruption, were not equipped – in terms of financial and logistical resources, skills and experience – to self-manage in such a way as to benefit fully from this model. This experience reveals the key competencies needed on the part of learners in blended and hybrid learning models, not to mention the demands placed on the learning providers.

Learning Provider competencies

It goes without saying that the learning provider needs to have high-level expertise in the subject or content involved, as well as the full range of teaching and learning abilities, from group facilitation and management, including of active learning, to instruction skills to highly developed listening and communication skills, etc. Here we will focus on the competencies required to plan, manage and deliver blended learning.

The Christensen Institute’s Blended Learning Universe (BLU) reports on a study undertaken to identify the most important skills for blended teaching, besides the foundational dispositions for effective teaching and the basic technology skills. The BLU study uncovered four key skills specific to blended learning:

  • Online Integration – the ability to effectively combine online instruction with in-person instruction.
  • Data Practices – the ability to use digital tools to monitor student activity and performance in order to guide student growth.
  • Personalization – the ability to implement a learning environment that allows for student customization of goals, pace, and/or learning path.
  • Online Interaction – the ability to facilitate online interactions with and between students.

Highlighting and ensuring proficiency in these four skills is an effective way to help counter some of the risks and pitfalls inherent in blended learning. The integration skill enables the delivery of a blended course which is a coherent process, in which the online and in person modes mutually enhance each other and together reinforce and enrich the learning experience. The risk of learners not engaging effectively with the online sessions and materials, or of not performing consistently across both modes is mitigated by the use of learner analytics (“data practices”) to support students by monitoring engagement, interaction and performance.

Personalisation ensures that the learning experience is meaningful for each student rather than an anonymous process to follow, although the degree of personalisation will be constrained by the time and resources available. Realistically, the skill here is in ensuring that the learning environment created has enough adaptability and flexibility built in to allow learners to follow the learning path at their own speed and in their own way. Finally, the considerable risk of students not being facilitated to interact effectively and meaningfully online with the teacher/facilitator and with each other – a very common criticism of online and blended courses – is addressed by the fourth key skill, which in practice requires high level facilitation skills in combination with digital skills in the relevant platform.

Systemic thinking, project and process management, learning agility

Of course, the learning provider competencies required also vary according to which theoretical framework is used to underpin the blended learning provided. In the Complex Adaptive Blended Learning System, an ecosystem of 6 inter-related elements, each with their own ecosystem variables, each needs to be designed and managed and made to function together with the others as a whole. More than a learning or course design challenge, this is a learning project and process management challenge; there are so many interdependencies to manage, risks to mitigate and factors to plan for – including temporal factors – that some proficiency in project and process management is a requirement.

A more refined framework such as Simon Thomson’s SP&M may make the blended learning design process clearer and more manageable, since it involves three inter-related steps:

  • identify and select knowledge areas that students should learn;
  • identify and select most effective approaches to student learning;
  • identify and select most appropriate ways for students to access learning.

Being able to perform these analyses and selections requires a high level of knowledge of all the content available in the requisite area that can be taught or conveyed in a blended environment, expertise in teaching and learning methods and their pros and cons in blended courses, and experience and understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of the different mixed modes for access.

The latter is challenging, given that online learning is a fast-evolving area, amid the changing context of digital transformation and the widespread reassessment of teaching and learning practice; models are being developed, practised and evaluated all the time. To operate effectively in this context requires learning agility, the ability to learn rapidly from new experiences, to be willing and able to try new things outside of one’s comfort zone, flexibility towards others on similar journeys of discovery – both learners and educators/facilitators – and adaptability to the rapidly evolving context and expectations of learners.

Digital relationship management, digital self-management and digital presentation skills are equally vital, as well as the “hard” digital skills of understanding and optimising the platform used, analysing and interpreting the data and adjusting the model when necessary.

Furthermore, to then combine the subject/content pedagogies with the subject/content modalities with the L&T method/pedagogy modalities into a coherent learning experience requires systemic thinking: the ability to view complex systems as a whole and understand/build the links between them, with awareness of how each link/interaction affects the whole, the end result. Systemic thinking is therefore a key competency required of any blended learning course provider.

Design and the learner experience

As Diana Laurillard has said, “teaching and learning is an iterative design cycle”. A key differentiating factor in the efficacy and value of blended learning is the design – and iterating and adapting the design in response to learner experience and outcomes. Learning design is a topic we shall revisit in the next blog post on how to achieve the optimal blend, and we have already seen in the earlier post on theories and models how fundamental high quality, mindful design of the learning environment and experience is.

A service design or design thinking approach puts the needs of the user/the learner at the centre of the process. The key thing to remember with blended learning is that the design of the learning experience is even more important because of the variables and risks involved. Assuming that digital technology can do this work for you would be a mistake. Yet we often see this assumption underlying learning provision and solution; for example if the material and sessions are made available online and can be accessed at any time, we might assume that the learners will consult and digest them and when they attend face-to-face sessions will be prepared to discuss them, but often this is not the case.

There can be many reasons for this, from access to technology, to other demands or timing issues, or undeveloped learner self-management. Consequently, the design has to take into account the switches between online and offline modes and manage the boundaries between modes, ensuring continuity, seamlessness and efficacy of the learning experience.

It is a good idea to construct a to-be blueprint of the learning experience, in which the content, learning and teaching methods to be used and modes through which the learning is to be accessed are specified for each of the stages of the learning journey, with resultant learning outcomes/benefits highlighted. The learning design also needs to be responsive to organisational and learner needs, of course, and deliver a return on the investment for the organisation. Creating such a learning journey blueprint is a co-design activity, which should involve representatives of the learners themselves as well as facilitators and support team members of the organisation (or of other organisations, if a partnership as is often the case with MOOCs).

The competencies required for the co-creation of such a blueprint are many, and are not generally standard in learning and teaching staff. Design capabilities, user experience expertise, empathy mapping, context analysis and synthesis, project and process management and well-developed digital skills, as mentioned above, are just some of the key competencies required. Teaching, learning and training experts are used to designing courses and curricula, but with more focus on the subject/content and the learning outcomes. Stitching all of the above together, and making sure no learner falls through the cracks, becomes detached or disengaged, is a more challenging; it is of course it is a process, not merely a product.

Learner Competencies and Capabilities

Autonomous learners, self-knowledge and motivation

For the learner, gaining the full benefits of a course delivered via blended learning is far from straightforward and involves a high degree of agency, hence the need to exercise great care and careful management if providing for non-adults. Fully developed blended learning works best with autonomous adult learners, but even then engagement, reflection and interaction cannot be assumed.

Indeed, if the learner has a say in the co-design of the learning solution and an active role in the learning process – rather than is just assumed to actively participate – then there is far more likelihood of their continuous engagement and interaction. As we saw in the previous blog post of this series, learner autonomy has a direct effect on the efficacy of the blended learning programme. If the learner is self-directed and also willing and able to practise active learning in group situations, they have sufficient autonomy to not only gain the benefits of the process themselves, but also create further benefit for the other learners through the group/social learning process, as well as to offer valuable feedback for the facilitator/trainer.

However, if the style or medium of the blended learning provided is too limited or dependent on one vision, for example, the format is exclusively expert-led sessions (online and in person) with Q&A afterwards, then the autonomous learner may not engage due to frustration with the format because it does not offer them the opportunity for meaningful contribution and the style of presentation does not stimulate them.

Autonomous learners are also more likely to have developed their self-knowledge: they know their own strengths and weaknesses, understand their own preferences and inclinations and they know with what and how to motivate themselves. Less well-developed learners do not have this self-knowledge and typically have not developed mental maps that enable them to process and critique new learning. Thus, when confronted with the complexity and variables of a blended learning programme they may struggle to fit this into their own incipient mental models, and may need support to make sense of the approach and to understand the guiding principles and therefore to be motivated.

While autonomous learners tend to be self-motivated, they still need to be motivated to engage and participate in all the diverse components and modes of the blended learning course, so in the design phase the learning provider needs to have developed a good understanding of motivations, inclinations and preferences per learner type.

For many learners, whether in formal or work-based education, finding the motivation and tenacity to consistently engage with and perform on the course is a major challenge, especially if they have other challenges to manage in their lives. Again, the blended learning design needs to be able to accommodate and succeed despite these contextual challenges.

Learning styles and learning intelligences

Learner needs, preferences and abilities, then, need to be the guiding principles for the balance and format of the blended learning solution. One effective way to optimise the engagement of diverse autonomous learners – including learners with accessibility challenges or learning difficulties – and to stimulate their contribution is by making the content and format available in multiple media (and of course, where appropriate, languages) to cater for different learning styles. Some people learn – and indeed memorise – predominantly through visual stimuli, while others respond better to reading texts and still others to auditory stimuli. In fact, learning which can involve the different senses and require physical interaction by the learner – in short kinaesthetic learning – typically makes the online learning experience more effective and memorable.

In order to ensure diverse types of learners are engaged and stimulated, a choice or diversity of media and mode is advisable, as well as using different techniques in the content presentation and reflection, to ensure different styles of learning are accommodated and stimulated: active experimentation, real-world experience, reflective observation and abstract conceptualisation (Kolb 2005). Learners tend to have predominant learning styles rather than just to use one style only; their “door to learning” is one style but then then combine or supplement this with other styles. A blended learning solution that requires the learner to utilise all of these learning styles will be more effective in delivering the learning benefits, and will deliver added value for the learner by stimulating the development of a balanced learning style, enhancing their versatility and their learning agility.

Cognitively, different content presented in different media and modes will stimulate different intellectual learning responses. For example, visual-spatial intelligence will be stimulated in learners through material presented or opportunities to participate that are characterised by images and by spaces, such as buildings or rooms, and can be mapped or rendered in diagram form. Learners with predominant logical-mathematical intelligence will perform better where there are patterns to be observed and deductions to be made, while those with high linguistic-verbal intelligence will respond well to spoken and written content, especially if there is an opportunity for them to contribute to the linguistic or verbal output.

Gardner (Frames of Mind, The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, 1983) included eight types in this plurality of intelligence, and thereby demonstrated the limitations and fallacy of simple IQ tests or single measures of intelligence. As with learning styles, the learner will benefit from a range of their intelligences being stimulated and utilised in the cognitive process, since even if they prefer one over others, their cognitive capabilities their intellectual versatility will be developed.

Balancing comfort with development

As we can see, a vital point around blended learning models (and indeed other types of learning) emerges from this analysis: successful blended learning design depends on the careful balance of two opposing but complementary aspects:

  1. the elements that engage the learner because they align with their capabilities and expectations;
  2. the elements that stretch the learner to develop not only their competency in the subject matter but also in the very process of learning itself.

If the learner does not encounter sufficient familiar process, format and styles in the course of learning then there is a major risk of disengagement, non-completion or non-participation, but equally if the learner is not stimulated and supported to try new styles of learning, new learning strategies and unfamiliar learning styles then there is a risk of demotivation, dissatisfaction, boredom and sterile learning process.

In short, part of the responsibility of the teacher/facilitator/trainer is to stimulate new learning strategies and approaches in the learner and to help them become proficient not merely in the subject matter, but also in learning to learn and in developing their learning agility (including critical thinking etc.).
Well-designed blended learning is particularly well-suited to achieving both of these fundamental objectives.

Catering for skills gaps

Many learning providers take for granted that learners have a) access to the necessary learning devices and environments and b) that learners have the digital and adaptability skills to be able to negotiate these different devices and environments and move seamlessly between them.

With regard to b), many educational organisations work to enhance and develop the digital skills of their students, but some assume, mistakenly, that just because those students may use social media that they will be able to negotiate a virtual education platform or interact successfully in a workgroup online. So, effort needs to be spent ensuring that learners feel comfortable on the platform and that they have the collaborative and digital skills necessary for interacting effectively and appropriately in online environments.

In professional education, digital skills gaps that have an impact on learning effectiveness are the responsibility of the organisation, or specifically the HR department, yet sometimes staff are required to sink or swim on new systems or in online workshops, without sufficient training. More often, organisations do not manage to communicate the strategy around online training or follow up with opportunities for feedback or with discussion sessions, quizzes, workshops and opportunities to put the learning into practice. Training can easily be forgotten if it is not repeated, encountered in different contexts or, best of all, applied in a real work situation.

Learning Capability

With regard to a), the learner context may include all sorts of constraints which prevent them from getting the most out of the online learning part of the blended learning programme. Here are just a few examples:

  • caught by the digital divide and/or poverty, for example, living in an area or context in which a good internet connection and access to devices are not routinely available;
  • having a family situation which does not allow them sufficient opportunity, peace or privacy to interact online effectively, for example as a parent of a young child or as a family carer;
  • having accessibility problems due to learning or physical disabilities or neurodiversity issues, so that they require special solutions to be able to access and participate meaningfully;
  • being in a family situation characterised by conflict, a lack of harmony because of mental health, addiction, violence or other social and economic issues;
  • having travel difficulties (transport means or distance, for example) which prevent them from engaging in the face-to-face discussions where these are designed to enrich and bring clarity and deeper meaning to the online learning process.

Clearly, it is not possible for learning providers to be able to take account of and provide special measures to mitigate every one of these constraints and risks. Nevertheless, in the learning design, this does highlight that learner competencies are not the only vital consideration: learner capabilities are also critical. It is perfectly possible to have a learner with high level cognitive, digital and/or affective/psychomotor learning abilities, as well as the skills listed above, but if their situation makes it impossible for them to put these abilities into practice then they do not have the capabilities needed.

The capability approach, in the context of equality and how we evaluate a person’s abilities and how much support they need, was created by Amartya Sen in his book “The Idea of Justice” (2010, pp 231-247). If we apply this theory here, a person may have the resources to participate fully on a blended learning course (financial resources to pay, the skills to engage and learn and the time available) but if they don’t have the capability to deploy those resources then they will not be able to benefit from the blended learning. Lack of the necessary capability may include having a disability, being located in a place from where accessing the learning is impossible or living in a family/personal situation which makes their engagement and participation impossible or very much compromised.

The blended learner designer must also, therefore, consider the capability factor. The risks and variables are greater in blended learning than in traditional face-to-face learning, but equally, access and interaction can actually be enhanced in the online component of a well-designed, sensitive and well-managed blended learning programme.

written by: Simon Whittemore , 5 January 2024

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