Challenge Labs Bring Accountability to Blended Learning

The concept of blended learning has been with us for quite some time, yet it still seems to have many different definitions. A training organization wishing to develop effective training programs must start with a deep understanding of its learners and their needs. Otherwise, it risks creating yet another flavor of blended learning that misses the mark.

Businesses have a significant need for measurable technical skills acquisition but cannot afford to have employees spend three to five days in traditional off-site classes. The difficulty of fitting learning into a busy work schedule highlights the need for flexibility; however, organizations also recognize the need for structure to maintain motivation and engagement.

Challenge Labs: Flexibility With Accountability

Training managers around the world are seeing limitations in a digital-only training approach. After several years of relying on digital training, they lack the measurable results that traditional classroom training provides. This dilemma points to the need for an approach that focuses on producing meaningful and measurable results, while incorporating both structure and flexibility – what you might call “flexibility with accountability.”

To achieve measurable skills acquisition, blended learning must provide rich, immersive hands-on experiences for students, supported by expert guidance. One solution is to integrate instructor-supported challenge labs into the blended model. Challenge labs provide the learner with a live hands-on environment and a real-world problem to solve. Learners are tasked with completing the challenge by synthesizing the information and skills that they learned through course materials and prior skills labs. They work individually or in a team to create a solution, which the expert instructor then assesses. The result of the challenge lab is a quantifiable work product that demonstrates the acquisition and application of technical skills.

This approach could also be described as a flipped classroom, combining digital learning, expert guidance and interaction (virtually or in classroom), and challenge labs in a structured, cohort model. This model increases knowledge retention and closes skills gaps, while the challenge labs focus on mastery and measurable achievement. Elements of this approach include:

Weekly learning assignments: Learners use an online, self-paced platform to learn specific topic areas before testing their skills in the labs. They have access to an expert throughout this process for assistance. Pacing the content in smaller chunks over several weeks allows them to learn on their schedule, at their speed and at any location.Instructor-led activities: Expert-led exercises deliver a learning experience that transfers critical skills and knowledge and meets the expectations of today’s enterprise.Structure and accountability: Learners meet regularly over the duration of the program to discuss what they have learned in the digital lessons and gain the advantages of a shared learning experience.Review and feedback: When the learners meet, they work together on challenge labs that allow them to apply what they have learned using real-world scenarios in a hands-on lab environment. Expert instructors review their lab work and provide feedback and guidance.

The end of the structured portion of the training program should not be the end of the process. To ensure learners retain their skills, give them continued access to the digital lessons for review and reference. Track them as they return to their work environment to understand of how they are putting their new skills to use in their workplace, creating a feedback loop to measure training effectiveness and continuous improvement.

Tips for Implementing Blended Learning

As with any learning program, begin with the learner and his or her specific needs in mind. Challenge-based blended learning is an excellent approach to skills acquisition, but it is not right for every learner. Some prefer a traditional model, where an instructor presents material and all labs are done in class. Other learners are self-directed and thrive on the convenience of digital, on-demand training. For those who need both flexibility and guidance, however, blended learning offers the best of both worlds.

Any blended learning program should include elements: pace, accountability and flexibility.

Pace: Whether learners meet weekly or monthly, having a scheduled meeting time is important to support accountability and give learners time to retain key ideas and practice what they have learned in a real-world setting.Accountability: When learners meet with the instructor, they are accountable for having completed work outside of the classroom.Flexibility: Accountability and flexibility may seem to be somewhat contradictory, but they actually are complementary. Providing flexibility in how learners consume content respects the ever-changing demands on their time. Unlike a purely self-paced approach, this flexibility is exercised within the boundaries of a paced structure, with both instructor and group interaction, creating accountability.

Finally, in addition to these three key elements, any learning program that seeks to produce demonstrable results requires that learners can synthesize what they have learned and put it into practice and that the organization can track and measure learning and progress. Together, these elements combine to create a blended learning approach that can help learners keep pace with the ever-changing demands of technology, developing work-ready skills that positively impact the organization.

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