In 1962 the Jetsons depicted life 100 years in the future, to the year 2062. Online doctor consultations, home exercise, video calls, remote working — the world was a futuristic utopia of tools that made life easier and better through technology. At the time, these practices sounded like a script from a science fiction story. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, we have had to quickly adjust to a similar new reality.

Bridging the online/offline gap

Our shift to online practices required significant effort, a readiness to learn new skills and reframe old concepts and ways of working. UNSSC, like many learning institutions around the world, explored technology to deliver face-to-face learning experiences in a virtual classroom environment.

We can now say that we succeeded in converting and delivering our programmes in an online format. Although we still miss face-to-face trainings, we cannot deny the recently discovered advantages of online learning. For instance, organizations realised that they can easily connect employees globally, reduce travel costs, environmental impact, offer more flexible learning solutions, and provide ongoing access to learning resources.

But who said it needs to be either/or and not both?

This is where the hybrid learning - also known as blended learning - comes in. The learning practice combines different components (online and/or offline) to get a mix that perfectly suits learner needs. This approach broadens learning possibilities and helps tailor training activities, so they complement each other and create better and more effective learning environment. Here are just a number of options in the Learning Battles Cards tool.

The value of blended learning

I believe that it is important to treat both online and offline environments as equally enriching experiences. That way you have more options to fit your time schedule, your resources and any other factors. If done well, a blended approach can boost learner engagement by giving them more freedom to adjust the learning process to their needs and support continuous informal learning that goes beyond the fixed time and space of the course.

At UNSSC we are already familiar with the blended learning approach. Our “Leadership Skills for the Administrative and Programme Support” training is the perfect example of that. The online component includes self-paced instructional activities and three instructor-led webinars. Furthermore, participants exchange individual reflections through assignments and discussion forum activities. The training combines both synchronous (any form of education, instruction, and learning that occurs at the same time, but not in the same place) and asynchronous (any form of education, instruction, and learning that does not occur in the same place or at the same time) activities. Some of them are autonomous and some include group interactions.

Two weeks after completing the online component, participants meet on the UNSSC campus in Turin for the face-to-face component of the course. This part is designed to complement the online component, and foster their leadership skills by using the “Lego Serious Play” methodology.

Each element of the hybrid training has its own rationale. Firstly, the access to self-paced materials helps participants come prepared to the session. Secondly, online-webinars enable participants to interact and exchange a rich set of ideas. Lastly, the face-to-face training consolidates individual learning and strengthens group work.

Nailing a winning blend to deliver hybrid programs

When designing your hybrid training, you can mix and choose different elements and modalities. To do that, you need to have your learning objectives clearly defined and be aware of any limitations and risks that you may encounter.

You can then start crafting your programme by considering the following factors:

  • - Learning Environment: Will it be online or offline? Many activities can be performed in both types of environments, e.g., online forum discussion vs. an in-person debate, video recording vs. an in-person lecture.
  • - Communication style: Will you use synchronous or asynchronous activities or both?
  • - Ways of working: You should consider whether the ways of working will be more individual or collaborative. Can participants work alone, in pairs or in a group setting?
  • - Tools: This should ideally be done when you know exactly what you plan to do, otherwise you might get lost in the number of different software, providers and features. Try to be as specific as possible about your key expectations, for example “I’m looking for an online conference platform that would enable a group of 30 participants to discuss and move between breakout rooms during the 2-hour session”. You might want to look for a full suite solution, but sometimes it might be easier to combine various tools, especially now when software providers provide options for tool integration.

Remember that your training programme is not set in stone. Once you run your pilot session and receive feedback from participants, don't be afraid to redesign, adjust and play with its structure to continuously improve your course’s format.

Future learning practices in a post-pandemic world

Even though UNSSC used the hybrid learning approach before the pandemic, most organizations still used face-to-face training. In the “new normal” that we currently live in, we cannot ignore the fact that effective online solutions exist and provide higher flexibility to individuals and organizations. Alongside the practice of face-to-face training, we must continue to consider a wide range of available learning solutions and online activities. This requires constantly learning new skills so as to respond to new challenges. This includes: redesigning course components so that they can be fully onlinedelivering engaging live virtual trainings, as well as supporting and facilitating virtual events from a technical perspective. As much as some would like, there is no going back to the old way of delivering training.