When is blended learning the right solution?

I’ve been taking a LinkedIn Learning course to develop my creative writing skills. The course consists of a series of short video lessons followed by exercises that let me practice what I’ve just learned. It’s self-directed, convenient, and, well, just plain fun.

I’ve enjoyed the course so much that it got me thinking: Why shouldn’t every learning experience be like this? Why would anyone drag themselves into a classroom setting with a droning instructor when they could sit at home in their stretchy pants and Star Wars tee learning at their own pace how to be an amazing writer? This is learning done right!

But then a visit to my dental hygienist made me rethink my ideas. As she scraped away at my gums, she told me about a course she’s taking to get certified in new torture laser technology and techniques. To pass the course, she’s completing several hours of e-learning and attending hands-on clinics. She must also pass a written exam and get certified by an instructor who will observe her technique while she’s using the device. As a patient, I have to say I feel a whole lot better knowing that she gets lots of training and practice before she starts poking around in my mouth with a lightsaber.

But just imagine if she’d told me she's learning how to use this new laser technology by simply watching a few videos—no practice, no feedback from an expert? Just her winging it … with a laser … in my mouth.

That’s a big ol’ nope!

Blended Learning Considerations

The beauty of using a simple, self-directed approach to learn creative writing is clear: It’s empowering to tackle topics when and where I want to learn them. No one is supervising me or checking up on my work. The self-directed approach works for this topic because the consequences of screwing up a creative writing assignment are pretty low.

But if I’d been trying to learn a higher-risk skill like, say, how to laser people’s gums, relying entirely on a self-directed approach, without any guidance or feedback from an instructor or peers, probably would’ve left me feeling frustrated, intimidated, and unsupported, even with a good foundation of prior knowledge.

That’s where my dental hygienist’s blended learning strategy makes much more sense. By using independent study activities (like e-learning) she’s empowered to learn at her own pace. And the hands-on clinics give her opportunities to practice and get feedback on her actual performance, making her feel supported. It’s that combo of empowerment and support that can make blended learning a winning strategy for driving learning AND performance outcomes.

So, how can you tell if a blended strategy is the right way to go? Here are a few things to consider:

  • Are you addressing a critical performance gap? Let’s say your factory was just fined for safety violations after an employee was injured in a preventable forklift accident. Not only do you have a high-risk, high-profile safety concern, you’ve got a critical performance gap you need to address—pronto. 

Taking a blended approach to this challenge might look like a mixture of videos or e-learning to increase awareness; hands-on practice and targeted feedback to help build skills; and ongoing coaching, refresher training, or other periodic interventions to foster a sustained focus on safety. Such a robust response could empower and support your learners and demonstrate renewed operational rigor to regulators.

  • Are you trying to develop your learners in multiple areas and help them grow their skills over time? In today’s competitive employment environment, attracting and developing future leaders is a high priority for many organizations. But all of the nuanced behaviors that make someone a skilled, effective leader take time to develop.

    When you’re trying to support learners as they grow into new, more complex and demanding roles in the org, using a blended strategy is a natural fit. With blended learning, it’s about looking beyond individual training events and exploring a full range of complementary training options that give learners plenty of time and space to practice and learn from their mistakes.

    A blended strategy for future leaders might look like a carefully crafted combination of mentoring and job shadowing with current leaders, along with more structured interventions like online and instructor-led courses designed to build critical skills.
  • Is it a topic you’ve already trained them on? Sometimes new training projects stem from an old training need that wasn’t fully understood or adequately addressed in the first place. Maybe you’ve given your sales team a robust e-learning curriculum on selling skills, but later analysis of key performance indicators (KPIs) points to them not being very good at actually closing the sale. This information could be your clue that using a blended approach like e-learning as pre-work to a facilitated classroom experience, along with incorporating more frequent spot-coaching from managers, might be a better way to close this performance gap—and increase sales.


At this point, it may sound like you should almost always use a blended strategy. But before you reinvent the training wheel, keep in mind that it’s a good instructional design rule of thumb to start with learning outcomes, rather than specific modalities or technologies. In other words, focus on getting a full understanding of the needs of the project, your organization’s goals, and the needs of the training audience, and then figure out what strategies will get you the desired outcomes.

A solid needs analysis is the starting point for identifying effective strategies. To learn more tips for conducting an effective needs analysis, check out this article from Nicole Legault. And while you’re digging into the topic of training needs analysis, don’t miss this free, exhaustive list of needs analysis questions you can use for your next project.

What are your experiences with blended learning? When and how did you know it was the right approach? Leave me a comment or post your story in our Building Better Courses forum to strike up a conversation with even more e-learning pros.

Follow us on Twitter and come back to E-Learning Heroes regularly for more helpful advice on everything related to e-learning. If you have any questions, please share them in the comments.

Anjana Suresh
Chris Roetzer

As with most situations, I think it depends. For example, it depends on your objectives, and the 'domains' they touch upon - that is, do you have only cognitive goals - knowing, understanding, etc. But "doing" things often include psychomotor skills, right? Dental hygiene certainly with true hands-on skill and technique is one, but what about driving a car, flying a plane or riding a bike? Playing the trumpet? Skills you can't learn solely by reading or taking an eLearning. You'll go a long way engaging your learners in authentic learning activities, such as hands-on practice in realistic situations so long as they support your objectives. What is it you want people to know or be able to do at the conclusion of training? If everything you do supports that and generates new knowledge and s... Expand

Kathy Barrera