What is blended learning?

If training is the science of war, then education is the art of war. Training is the transmission of a skillset -‘like this, do that’. Education is the knowledge, understanding and questioning of the theory behind that skillset - the ‘why’ of the ‘like this, do that’. The transformational journey from training for a skillset to achieving education for the change of mindset underpinning the skillset requires a Blended Learning (BL) approach.

The Oxford Dictionary defines BL as 'a style of education in which students learn via electronic and online media as well as traditional face-to-face teaching'. Hence, BL is not pure online learning or converting PowerPoint slides on to ADELE-U. Instead, it is achieved using a ‘blend’ of teaching methodologies, technology and face-to-face in real-time, using tools like problem-based learning, case based instruction, digital literacy and simulated training, inquiry based learning/small group discussion – all focusing on a learner-centred approach to optimise learning outcomes. It is also important to note that the right ‘blend’ is important. Think of a blender –the ‘juicer’ which contains a blend of ingredients. The right balance will give you a tasty juice but excess amounts of the wrong ingredients could spoil the end product.

The current COVID-19 online learning packages are an interim solution and should not be confused with the BL solution being developed in support of Army’s Training Transformation initiative. Where online learning experiences are utilised, they form one component of broader instructional methodologies IOT be designated as BL. Similarly, the use of technology for social forums does not prove that students actually want education and training online. If ‘being on technology’ simply evolved into a natural inclination to train and educate online then both schools and universities would have already pivoted away from the physical campus model. The reality is that this is simply not true. Technology alone, despite how much we might use it, is not the only ingredient needed to establish a community of practice. The real hurdle - the hurdle still being overcome by professional education institutions - lies in transforming the learning culture of institutional leaders, managers, instructors, training designers/developers and trainees alike to operate just as comfortably in the online domain as they would in the traditional, face-to-face classroom.

BL affords the instructor more time to focus on the development of human attributes – attributes that promote collaboration and mission analysis by improving the ability to analyse and solve problems. By focusing the physical time together on the ‘application’ aspects of the learning process, BL optimises the achievement of training outcomes by increasing the depth of the learning experience. This gives learners a real opportunity to practice and experiment with the concepts before having to prove their competence. Providing the learner with an increased opportunity to practice a skill/concept first hand enables the Army to achieve its mission in a complex and evolving operating environment. It is about creating an educational effect to ‘develop the intellectual component of fighting power’. It makes us Ready Now and Future Ready.

Blended Learning Application in the Australian Army

Whilst a traditional Army blueprint ‘instructor-led’ lesson utilising limited technological content could be technically designated as BL, a true BL lesson involves concerted, strategic application of technology as a significant component of achieving the learning outcomes of the lesson.  The use of this technology to deliver the knowledge component of a lesson is then nested alongside a face-to-face component focused on the practical application of the new skill and/or concept. As you may imagine, an experience of this nature requires very precise and clear direction, often seen in the form of a Facilitator’s Guide, and for Army this would be identified in the Section 2 material of a Learning Management Package (LMP).

As an example, the School of Infantry (SOI) recently adopted a BL approach to the Senior Range Instructor Course. This journey saw Army collaborate and partner with industry, bringing together Land Range Safety subject-matter experts, Royal Australian Army Educational Corps officers and a civilian training development company. This course resulted in a significant shift from the traditional Directing Staff (DS)-as-instructor to a more dynamic ‘DS-as-facilitator’ model, utilising a BL design-delivery methodology.

In the classroom, learners engaged with content through an online platform (ADELE), engaged with their instructors in a face-to-face facilitated session, and then confirmed their knowledge and understanding during the practical application. There was a concerted emphasis on providing learner-centred training, utilising simulation, drone imagery and data analytics – all illustrating the effect of BL on energising training whilst enhancing training effectiveness. This course provides Army a clear way forward as an exemplar in BL training. In this example, typical of any other true BL experience, face-to-face engagement was still a very necessary component of the experience but it was enhanced with the integration of technology.

The Military Instructor Course (MIC) is another example of a true BL approach. There has been much discussion about the MIC: ‘Is it a face-to-face course trying to teach instructors how to deliver content online?’ If we work off the assumption that BL is a mix of both face-to-face and online methodologies using technology, then it could be argued that the MIC is the perfect blend of learning because it has online and face-to-face components, employing a variety of student-centred, flipped classroom strategies for both pre and in-course delivery. During lessons, students engage with instructors face-to-face as well as online through ADELE forums and discussions. Concepts are introduced using ADELE content and then applied, practiced and reinforced during face-to-face experiences. These construct the learning space in a way that enables the learner to revise content (or indeed accelerate the acceptance of content) as they grasp, apply and demonstrate learning outcomes. The combination of all this activity results in the creation of a truly ‘blended learning’ experience.

Blended Learning Upskilling

The Instructor Professional Development Package created by Army Education Centre (AEC) introduces skillsets that can be used as a baseline for a BL effect. It contains a series of micro-lessons that can help instructors understand how to facilitate discussions/learning, problem-based learning, flip classrooms, and employ these blended learning techniques to optimise their course learning outcomes. Furthermore, AEC’s Blended Learning Instructional Design Program provides instructors with the foundation knowledge and skills to develop BL opportunities. The program allows learners to explore the rationale and policy behind the implementation of BL, the science of instructional design, and the software and multimedia elements used in BL. Learners will be provided with the opportunity throughout the program to practice and apply the skills they are learning. Both courses are available on ADELE-U and under the current pandemic restriction they are open for self-enrolment to all ADF personnel. To access all AEC’s courses on ADELE-U, please visit the AEC's ADELE Online Portal.