Brad Zomick

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9 min read

The Evolution of Instructor-Led Learning: Flipped, Blended and Replaced


A dramatic shift reshaping workplace learning all over the world traces its origins, in part, to a high school in rural Colorado.

At Woodland Park High School, kids on the football and debate teams had to travel far to get to games and competitions. That meant leaving school early, and missing classroom instruction. “So my afternoon classes were vacant,” says Jon Bergmann, who taught chemistry.

He and fellow science teacher Aaron Sams started recording their sessions so that the kids could watch and learn what they missed. It worked — the kids actually watched. Then one day, a school official mentioned something to Bergmann: Her daughter, in college, regularly watched one of her professor’s lectures online so she didn’t need to go to class.

“That was our eureka moment,” Bergmann told Pathgather in an interview. “We reflected on it: What’s the value of class time if you don’t have to go to class?”

They rethought the process of learning. The next year, both teachers put all their lectures on video. With no distractions or unnecessary pauses, lessons also became much quicker that way, so a 30-minute lecture became only 10 minutes long.

Then came the flip: Watching those became the homework. And the kind of work that was typically assigned as homework — answering questions, working out problems — became classwork.

“Our test scores went up by a standard deviation,” Bergmann says. In simpler terms, average grades jumped up by a letter.

This is the new model, flipping the old paradigm on its head. And while Bergmann emphasizes that he and Sams did not invent it — others have tried similar things — corporations quickly came calling.

Boosting engagement

“The biggest benefit is engagement,” says Errol St. Clair Smith, CEO of Flipped Learning Worldwide.

Employees don’t have to sit through lots of presentations with charts and graphs, and instead put themselves in control of the process. “Learning becomes more self-directed, so people put attention on things that matter the most,” Smith says.

Instead of gathering employees into a room and having them sit through a lecture, today’s successful learning ecosystems blend online instruction with face-to-face experiences using this flipped method. They may take an online course on their own time, whenever it’s most convenient for them. Then, classroom instruction becomes about acting out scenarios, giving feedback and getting help from instructors where they’re struggling the most.

For example, videos may teach a cable installer how to install a new line, and offer guidance on how to interact with customers. Classroom time may be reserved for role-playing, with the instructor acting as a resident, then breaking down and analyzing each part of the experience. “So they actually practice in the class, with an instructor who guides them and offers immediate feedback,” Smith says. The employee is then much better prepared to walk out of the session and “actually execute.”

Blended learning

So there is still an important place for face-to-face work as part of the learning process. Three professors analyzed this in a research paper titled Blended Workplace Learning: The Importance of Human Interaction. They found: “Learner-content interaction alone affects emotional engagement in a moderate way, but a combination of content interaction with interpersonal interaction had a stronger and more positive influence on emotional engagement.”

Engagement is crucial for attracting and retaining employees. As Pathgather has explained, without engagement, nothing else is possible. Gallup has found that engagement is crucial not only for attraction and retention, but also performance. Groups with higher engagement levels outperform others “on every type of performance metric: revenue, profitability, productivity, customer experience, safety, healthcare costs” and more.

While some businesses are reaping the benefits of blended learning, too many remain stuck in the old ways, some industry experts say.

“We have been offering classroom learning for years, so we continue to do it,” says Tamar Elkeles, co-author of Chief Talent Officer.

“I really believe the classroom is reserved for three things,” she explains, citing interaction with an expert, interaction with each other and role-playing to practice skills “in a safe environment.”

The organization Towards Maturity, which analyzes learning and development efforts, found that among “top-deck organizations” — those getting the “greatest bottom-line business benefit” from Learning & Development — 82 percent “ensure that their face-to-face training actively builds on knowledge gained through e-learning courses.” But among other businesses, only 26 percent are doing so.

Empowering internal SMEs

Towards Maturity also found another big distinction in how L&D is evolving. Ninety-two percent of “top-deck organizations” have a formal system for working with internal subject matter experts (SMEs), compared to 47 percent of other businesses.

Bergmann has found that instruction is “best when done in-house.” Having the instructor be someone the learner knows and trusts can help the learner feel more comfortable with the process. Even if they don’t know the employee in advance, having it be a fellow employee provides a “humanizing element,” Bergmann says.

One of Bergmann’s corporate clients spent hundreds of thousands of dollars hiring a company to create a Netflix-type show to train learners in a skill. The same company also tried a low-budget in-house video teaching the skill, and it was at least as effective. “That’s something we’re finding across the world with best practices,” Bergmann says. “If you have inside experts, that’s the best way.”

Businesses are increasingly making this shift. “A lot of times, when you think about learning, people default to external learning content,” says Craig Bowman, senior manager of learning and development at T-Mobile. “We bring internal learnings to weekly team meetings to share knowledge and deepen the team’s understanding of the business, so that we can support the business better.”

And, he adds, “The best learnings always make their way into The Hub,” the company’s learning platform built on Pathgather.

When HP Inc. built its Pathgather platform Brain Candy, “employees wanted to learn from internal experts before looking outside the organization,” says Mike Jordan, global head of Talent & Learning. “They wanted to find experts at HP more easily and have ways to recognize them for their knowledge and skills.” So instruction by SMEs became an important part of the modern learning ecosystem.

Ultimately, all these changes are in response to the digital transformation. “The traditional training model is no longer sustainable,” says Smith. “Things are changing too fast. In virtually any industry that you select, the pace of change is so rapid that attempting to develop courses” the old-fashioned way puts a business behind. “We’ve just reached the point where it’s no longer possible.”

Smith and Bergmann explore this together in their new book Flipped Learning 3.0: The Operating System for the Future of Talent Development.

“It has become much more viable to move from a ‘push model’ to a ‘pull model,’ in which you shift the burden for being up to speed and trained to the trainee,” Smith says. “And the talent development people become more facilitators creating an environment, resources and tools that trainees can use to get the information they need when they need it.”

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