Blended Learning: Seven Lessons Learned through Experience

Nancy Smith
Nancy Smith, MA

By Nancy Smith, MA

In June of 2009, employees of the Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts gathered to hear the news about state budget cuts. Within minutes, State Administrator for the Courts Jeff Hall relayed that the money for the Presiding Judges conference had been eliminated from the budget. The Washington Court Education Services team had to figure out how to provide appropriate learning opportunities for this important group. The answer came a few months later when the State Justice Institute provided a grant of $25,000 to fund a test of a blended learning model for the courts. This grant took advantage of resources already on hand at the Washington AOC: Skilled educators, well-established processes, and the newly acquired web-conferencing system Adobe Connect Pro and associated eLearning software Adobe Presenter to help solve the problem of diminishing budgets.

In this article, you will find a definition of blended learning, a description of the grant project, an outline of web-based learning capabilities used, and lessons learned for future blended learning projects.

What constitutes blended learning? According to the Sloan Consortium, blended learning consists of courses or programs in which 30%-79% of the learning is offered online while the rest is face-to-face (Allen, Seaman, and Garrett, p. 5). To test a blended model for our courts, we envisioned three blended learning series consisting of 2-3 electronic learning modules and one single or part day face-to-face module. Using this model, travel could be limited to one day for most participants, hotel and meal costs could be drastically limited, topics could still be dealt with in some depth, while still providing some time for networking and collegiality.

The Education Team proposed the creation of three (later increased to four) iterations of a blended learning model. For the electronic learning modules we combined either webinars, which are live (synchronous) instructor led sessions, or self-paced eLearning (asynchronous) sessions, followed by a face-to-face session conceived of as a capstone event. Important to the plan was the idea that all sessions needed to be interrelated and interactive, with ideas and concepts building on the ones previously taught. The face-to-face session was designed to allow the opportunity to synthesize, analyze, and evaluate the learning from the web-based events to create a tangible product learners could use. We used the word “product” very loosely to mean anything from action plans, forms, bench cards, and checklists to skills acquisition through role plays, discussion groups, coaching and the like. We wanted our face-to-face events to be used to enhance education in ways that are difficult to reproduce in web-based sessions.

We designed our first iteration of the model for the presiding judges and their court administrators. With budget development as the topic, we presented two live webinars that talked about leadership, relationships, and processes both within and outside of the courts. We recorded the webinars for future viewing by those unable to attend the live event. The self-paced module consisted of a nuts and bolts approach to budget controls and performance monitoring, complete with exercises for practice. The last event, a face-to-face symposium, brought together judges and administrators to share concerns and ideas with elected and appointed officials from the executive and legislative branches of Washington State and local government.

The second iteration, for courthouse facilitators, had a similar design, although the three electronic modules were more sequential than in the budget series. The facilitators learned and practiced techniques on the topic of Temperaments and Dealing with Difficult People.

In the third iteration, we combined several traditional teaching methods with electronic learning modalities. With Search and Seizure as the topic, participants completed a reading and self-test, answered discussion questions, considered hypothicals and participated in a live discussion via web-conference for each of four learning modules. Learners accessed all parts of the series through an Adobe Connect curriculum which served as an online “one-stop” shop.

Developing and teaching in the blended model proved to be so cost-effective that we were able to apply to SJI to continue the model testing with grant funds so far unused. Our fourth iteration is underway, and considers the topic Procedural Fairness. It is organized quite differently, and involves reading an article and completing a web-based court self-assessment, attending a live conference session with national speaker Judge Kevin Burke, participating in a webinar with Washington judges as facilitators, and completing the self-assessment a second time to gauge improvement. As can be seen from the contents of the learning series, the modalities used to present learning modules evolved with practice, and the order different modalities occurred varied as time went on.

This evolution occurred for several reasons. First of all, we learned as we practiced and tested to add different methods to our repertoire. Thus, by round three, we had added readings, self-tests and discussion groups to the web-sessions, and used those sessions like a classroom discussion instead of a lecture. By round four, we added a web-based self-assessment designed to be completed twice and to function as a self pre-test and post-test for individual judges or courts.

Thus, we arrive at lesson number one for creating blended learning: choose the modality to suit the learning objectives, not the other way around. Always choose the most effective means to teach your learning objectives. If, for example, the material requires working with content, not people, a self-paced module might be perfect. If your audience needs to access the information at their own pace, or at any time, self-paced is a good choice. If coaching is involved, face-to-face may be best. Wikis, threaded discussions, blogs and many other tools can be used. The possibilities are many, but the modality used should fit your learning objectives.

Lesson number two: Whichever modality is chosen the learning needs to be interactive. As defined in Michael Allen’s Guide to e-Learning, instructional interactivity is “interaction that actively stimulates the learner’s mind to do those things that improve ability and readiness to perform effectively” (Allen, p. 94). This can be particularly challenging with self-paced learning, where there isn’t a live instructor. In a self-paced design, a read and click module will likely put learners to sleep. Strive to create modules where learners have to make decisions and choices through scenario based learning or simulations. For webinars, a talking head will drive learners directly to their email or other work. Create opportunities for interaction through polling, status checks, the chat pod, and in smaller sessions, by opening the microphone to audience members. Experts advise an interaction anywhere from every 3-5 minutes to every 6-7 minutes (Hofmann, p. 12).

In addition to interactivity, ensure all the elements of your blend are coordinated. This is lesson number three. If for example you require a self-paced lesson prior to learners attending a classroom event, devise a way to make sure they have completed the module on time. Do not teach over again something you expect learners to know before they arrive in your classroom. You will frustrate those who did the work ahead of time, enable those who don’t, and waste valuable teaching time in unneeded review. By the same token, allow learners to skip parts of a series they already know (Allen, p. 88). For example, if a judge has worked extensively on a particular kind of case, why should she have to read the case again to advance through your curriculum? A quiz could work as a “test-out” and allow the learner to move on.

Lesson four, make sure the technology works. Quizzes, pre-work, webinars, job aids, whatever your modality, it should function the way you expect it to. Things that function well at a central location with powerful servers and excellent internet capabilities do not necessarily work in a remote location. For example, we stopped using webcams in our webinars because while audio usually works fine, video takes a lot of bandwidth and can be problematic. Screen resolution and older software can also be issues. Sometimes it is the computer user who is the problem. Be flexible, try modules on computers away from your system, and test, test, test. That said, don’t be afraid to make use of technology because it might not work. If you do your homework, you will likely find a solution and be successful.

Lesson five also has to do with success, and the lesson is be patient! You will find resistance to learning online among your clients. Gradually increase your offerings, teaching their use and publicizing them carefully. Guide your learners to accept that online learning can be just as effective as face-to-face learning by producing excellent learning modules in appropriate modalities. It will take time. We have found more judges are beginning to participate in webinars and there is greater acceptance of web-conferencing for meetings. Our court staffers often prefer self-paced modules because they can do them at their own pace when they have time. You won’t persuade everyone right away, but with time, solid learning opportunities, interactive modules, and well-coordinated events, you will eventually build your audience.

You not only have to convince your audience, you also have to convince your faculty. Lesson six is train your faculty for their new role. For a self-paced module, they may fill the role of subject-matter expert while you do instructional design, while for a webinar, they should act more like a facilitator than a talking head. In a December 2010 Adobe event, trainer Ken Molay of Webinar Success provides valuable insights about presenting webinars in a recording called “Training Webinars 101”. A more advanced lesson on facilitating webinars comes from author Cynthia Clay in “Great Webinars: Crossing the Chasm to High-Performance Virtual Delivery”, sponsored by the eLearning Guild and recorded February 2, 2012. Consider asking your faculty facilitators to watch Mr. Molay’s presentation first, and as they build confidence, move them to Ms. Clay’s presentation. Follow the blogs from various eLearning publications to improve your skills and your faculty’s skills in this domain.

Lesson seven is money talks, and as long as you have a web-conferencing system and eLearning development software, it can be cheaper to produce a blended learning event, or any online event, than face-to-face training. Given the choice between no training and eLearning due to lack of funding, our audience chose eLearning. We limited travel time and expense by holding our face-to-face events in locations easily accessible to large numbers of learners. In addition to fewer travel expenses, our webinars and self-paced events limit time away from the office and make learning more accessible.

It is not easy to persuade judicial branch clients of the value of these new ways of learning. It takes research, planning, testing, coordination, and a new skill set to successfully put together blended learning events, or any online learning event. It might provide perspective if you keep these numbers in mind as you tackle the topic: approximately 5.6 million U.S. college and university students enrolled in one or more online courses in the fall of 2009, reflecting a 21% increase in online enrollment compared to only a 2% increase in overall student population in the same period (Allen and Seaman, p. 8). College and university administrators predict continued growth in this sector. These students represent our future court employees, lawyers, judges, and educators. Soon, I believe we will find our learners demanding online learning opportunities from us.

Is blended learning always the best solution? No, not always, but appropriately planned and implemented, it can be the best approach in many situations.

1. Allen, I. E., Seaman, J., and Garrett, R. (2007) Blending In: The Extent and Promise of Blended Education in the United States, Sloan Consortium.
2. Allen, I. E., Seaman, J. (2010). Class Differences: Online Education in the United States 2010, Babson Survey Research Group.
3. Allen, M. (2008). Guide to e-Learning, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.
4. Hofmann, J., (2011). “Top 10 Challenges of Blended Learning,” Training Magazine p. 10-12.

Nancy F. Smith joined the team at the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) in September 2008 as a Court Education Professional. She has worked in education for most of her career, including 14 years as a teacher at the community college and secondary levels in Tucson, Arizona. Prior to moving to the AOC, she assisted the Deans of Curriculum at the Evergreen State College in Olympia planning and producing the curriculum for Evergreen’s full-time programs. In a past life, she spent four years as an Army Intelligence Officer.

At the AOC, Ms. Smith supports the Appellate Judges, County Clerks, Presiding Judges and District and Municipal Court Judges Education Committees. In addition, she enjoys running the Institute for New Court Employees in the fall. In June of 2010, Ms. Smith completed a certificate in Electronic Learning Design and Development at the University of Washington. She has organized a variety of webinar and self-paced learning modules for different groups supported by the AOC. In 2009, Ms. Smith was awarded a grant from the State Justice Institute to establish a model for blended learning (combining e-learning with face-to-face learning) for Washington Courts.

Ms. Smith has broad experience in multi-cultural education, and has traveled widely in the United States and abroad. A French linguist, she earned her bachelor’s degree from the College of William and Mary in Virginia, and her master’s in French Language and Literature from the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Brussels, Belgium. She is a certified community college and secondary teacher. She also studied Spanish at the University of Arizona.