Often, those who use technology to teach or train staff refer to these activities as elearning. This involves training and testing employees in some sort of online training software or online testing software. However, what they are actually describing usually falls into the category of blended learning. On the surface the distinction may seem like semantics. After all, they are just words. But elearning and blended learning are more than specialized vocabulary; the context in which a training program or course is delivered has very important implication for what roles technology, including learning management systems, play in achieving instructional objectives.
Elearning is the more narrow of the two terms. It is used to describe any learning activity that happens entirely in an online environment – including learning module delivery, instructor guidance, work submission and feedback. Since the facilitator and learners are never in the same physical space together, elearning courses are resource intensive. The lessons need to be vibrant and diverse, visually engaging and easy to navigate. Learning often needs to happen in a predominantly self-directed way. In these circumstances, building trust and dialogue can be tough. That is why elearning courses need to have a number of tools for participation and dialogue built into them. They rely on forums, news-feeds, instant messaging and real time editing to create the feeling of a learning community.
Blended learning, in contrast, describes learning and training activities that are supported by technology but take place in a more traditional, face-to-face, environment. Blended learning can sometimes include forums, newsfeeds and real-time online collaboration, but often the focus of online content is individual modules and resources with much of the interaction and engagement transpiring in the classroom between those who are physically, rather than virtually, present. Feedback and assessment may happen in the physical class or online. Blended learning is a matter of degrees rather than absolutes and requires the instructional designer to think carefully about what components work best online and which should be left for face-to-face engagement. However, what doesn’t count as blended learning is simply putting articles, readings or videos online for individuals to view. A blended program aims to seamlessly integrate the online with the in-class so that each supports, reinforces and enriches the others.
Choosing between offering learners a blended learning or an elearning program is not an easy decision. It requires instructional designers and facilitators to take into account the profile of their audience. A group comfortable working in virtual environments as part of their career may be happy to do their learning entirely in a virtual classroom. Others whose work involves more face-to-face interaction and less technology may become frustrated, confused, or even under perform in an elearning scenario without the proper support. For these learners a blended environment is often more effective. As we move further into the 21st century, technology is increasingly becoming a part of our everyday lives, including the ways we learn. Considering whether an organization requires an elearning or blended approach requires careful and thoughtful consideration.