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Helping Working Professionals Succeed in Blended and Online Courses

The principles of scaffolding show that the technology itself does not make a professional learning program stronger; they only play a role. Higher education institutions must be cautious in adopting new technologies, must better orient their students to the challenges ahead and must ensure their instructors are well-suited to use the program at their disposal. Photo by Eirik Refsdal.

Is it really that complicated to navigate a course with a blend of virtual lectures, discussion board postings, group assignments conducted virtually, independent readings/ assignments/ labs/ quizzes/tests —all delivered and tracked via one or more systems?

Actually, yes. It turns out that what you may think is passé in your own blended or online courses may actually be quite a challenge to navigate for your new working adult students.

One might ask:

  • Don’t working professionals have access to Learning Management Systems (LMSs) and other online learning tools at their jobs?
  • Who is delivering more user-friendly blended/online courses? Higher education institutions or corporate training departments?

The Best Corporate Learning Environments

A minority of working adults are in cutting-edge corporations with advance blended learning capabilities. In my experience as a corporate consultant, such organizations are not common. Ironically, even companies that rule the world in terms of their products, struggle to deliver blended learning to their own employees. The best corporations have most of the following:

  • LMS (for classroom and web-based training)
  • Virtual classroom (e.g. WebEx, Centra, GoToMeeting)
  • Video conferencing
  • Integrated learning paths, coaching system, performance support (e.g. Q2Learning’s eCampus)
  • Social media and collaboration suites (e.g. Jive, Yammer, SharePoint)
  • Informal mentoring tools (e.g. Chronus)

Sounds cutting-edge, right?  The truth is; many of these do not have an elegant way to tie all of these pieces together. As of 2012, most still struggle to create a seamless curriculum for workers, connecting all of the formal and informal learning components into a simple, integrated whole.

More Common Work Environments

What if students come from businesses like these listed below? Most likely they have never used any type of integrated online learning tools.

  • Local government employees
  • Medical practices
  • Small law firms
  • Financially strapped social work agencies
  • Scores of other small businesses

What Do Working Adults Expect and Need? 

In terms of infrastructure and delivery, most adult students won’t really know what to expect from an online course.

  • They need help to navigate the LMS and other online tools in your blended landscape.
  • Effective orientation can be the key to their success.

Rick Wagonseller, Director of Graduate Recruitment and Marketing at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, found that working adults need a strong orientation program in order to navigate the LMS and related tools. “I would say most of our adult distance education students were new to the online learning environment. While some had used web conferencing tools like WebEx in the workplace, most had never used an LMS like Blackboard or Desire2Learn. Our orientation program was very effective and dramatically reduced helpdesk calls.”

Scaffolding – Tying the Pieces All Together

Hannifin and Hannifin (2003) used the term “scaffolding” to describe the need to organize blended experiences and provide structure for learners attempting to navigate a blended solution.

  • Scaffolding is not just about the technologies used to deliver the solution.
  • It includes the instructional design approach and chunking of experiences to ensure the learner is oriented from beginning to end—not an easy task when many tasks are self-directed.
  • Training guru Allison Rossett wrote a Special Report on Blended Learning Opportunities (2006), which offers several examples and practical models for how to organize a blended learning experience with optimal scaffolding. (To download, please click here).

The Bottom Line for Higher Education

In terms of delivering well-organized learning experiences that feel integrated and manageable for the learner, higher education institutions appear to have the lead. Implications?

  • Don’t be too quick to adopt radically new technologies. Your adult students may be plenty challenged with the infrastructure you have in place.
  • Strengthen your orientation programs. Include blended or virtual tours of all tools—and most importantly—how they all work together.
  • Help professors and instructors understand blended learning do’s and don’ts, pros and cons, so they can design appropriately and support their students.

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Hannafin, M. & Hannafin, K. (2003). A Framework for Scaffolding Performance in ADDL Environments. In A. Rossett (Ed.), Proceedings of World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, and Higher Education 2003 (pp. 1602-1605). Chesapeake, VA: AACE. Retrieved from

Rossett, A., & Frazee, R. V. (2006). Blended Learning Opportunities. American Management Association White Paper.

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