[updated from the original publication of February 2019}

We find the challenge of designing, and engineering, effective blended learning experiences exciting and compelling. Finding the right design is like solving a multi-dimensional puzzle of business goals, organizational realities, performance context, audience needs, and instructional strategies.

What is blended learning?

The term blended learning is often used synonymously with hybrid and multi-modal learning. Blended learning isn’t new, but its definition has evolved with emerging instructional strategies, advances in technology, and further research. For example, in the 1990s, instructional psychology professor Charles Graham wrote, “Blended learning combines face-to-face instruction with computer-mediated instruction.” Over time, new technologies and approaches have expanded the definition to include instruction (classroom, e-learning, etc.), sources of information (resource repositories, job aids, etc.), and methods of collaboration (social, communities of practice, etc.).

In 2003, Harvey Singh refined and extended the notion of blended learning in his article “Building Effective Blended Learning Programs” (published in Educational Technology, November-December 2003, Vol. 43, No. 6, pp. 51-54). In his view, blended learning 

  • ” . . . may include several forms of learning tools, such as real-time virtual/collaboration software, self-paced [eLearning] courses, electronic performance support systems (EPSS) embedded within the job-task environment, and knowledge management systems.”

  • ” . . . mixes various event-based activities, including face-to-face classrooms, live eLearning, and self-paced learning.”

  • ” . . . often [mixes] traditional instructor-led training, synchronous online conferencing or training, asynchronous self-paced study, and structured on-the-job training from an experienced worker or mentor.”

Further, Singh proposed additional detail categorizing learning approaches and choices. Here’s a summary:

  • Synchronous physical – including instructor-led classroom and lecture, hands-on labs, and workshops

  • Synchronous online – including online meetings, virtual classrooms, web-based seminars, coaching, instant messaging, conference calls

  • Self-paced, asynchronous – including documents and web pages, eLearning modules, assessments/tests and surveys, simulations, job aids, and EPSS, recorded live events, video, online learning communities, distributed and mobile learning

In 2017, authors Kristian Spring and Charles Graham wrote Thematic Patterns in International Blended Learning Literature, Research, Practices, and Terminology (Published in Online Learning, 21(4), 337-361). They used a broad definition to overcome disagreements and discrepancies found in the reviewed literature. They circled back to Graham’s definition cited above that blended learning combines face-to-face and computer-mediated instruction.

Actio’s view of blended learning is expansive and is defined similarly to Singh’s, allowing ample room to mix and match modalities to achieve business goals, improve performance, deliver learning outcomes, and solve training challenges in inventive ways. Blended learning encourages L&D professionals to dig deeper, develop a robust understanding of the business and performance goals, and explore different solutions to achieve them.

When done well, blended learning can result in efficient, effective, engaging – and consistent – learning experiences by striking a balanced mix of elements: sound analysis models, instructional approaches, design principles, and learning modalities.

With that backdrop, let’s turn our attention to several factors affecting blended learning design decisions.

Business Context

All training, including blended learning, should have a clear business purpose. Business purpose – and expected results – can take many shapes and may differ substantially based on the stakeholder’s roles. Business Alignment generally improves when the broadest appropriate set of stakeholders are part of the discussion. More and more varied perspectives enrich the conversation about purpose and goals. And when stakeholders make trade-off decisions, the path forward indicates which goals mattered more and which mattered less. 

Work with stakeholders to ensure a clear understanding of the business context and answer the following questions:

  • What are the business goals?

  • What obstacles are in the way of achieving the goals?

  • What metrics will you use to evaluate success?

  • What stakeholder design assumptions may influence the design of the solution?

  • Which goals are a higher priority? Which can be ignored or reserved for another effort downstream?

Performance Context

Effective blended learning design should use the most suitable instructional strategies to deliver content and achieve desired learning outcomes. Before moving to design, two things are essential. First, determine whether the gap/need is indeed a training need. If factors relating to the environment, availability of information, quality of the process(es), employee motivation, etc., cause the gap, solve the problem using other means. Next, for a training need, clearly articulate the work requirements and the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to meet performance expectations successfully. Analyze the work to learn things like:

  • What are the inputs, the work outputs, tasks, and measures of success?

  • What are the characteristics of the work? e.g.,

    • The risk involved with task completion

    • The pace of the work

    • The number of units/transactions

    • The stability of the work/how often the work changes

  • What must employees remember, and what can employees access/find during work/task completion?

  • How does the environment affect the result?

    • Does the environment get in the way? Can training of any kind overcome the environmental impediment(s)?

  • How does the workflow to and from other processes?

  • Who are the customers?

  • Where are the typical, chronic gaps? Where does actual performance not meet expectations?

Learning Ecosystem

Our understanding of blended learning has evolved as we’ve done more and seen what works and doesn’t. One way we’ve adjusted our approach is by assessing an organization’s learning ecosystem to understand what modalities it will support and those it won’t. 

The assessment focuses on seven dimensions covering a range of infrastructure, resource, and process capabilities. Our goal is to understand what the ecosystem will – and won’t – support. Assessment insights help us avoid developing instruction that cannot be deployed and improve the odds of creating a successful blended learning solution. Some parts of the ecosystem assessment include:

  • Budget

  • Training facilities

  • Availability of instructors and coaches

  • Support and engagement of organizational/departmental/functional leadership and staff

  • The organization’s instructional design staff capability and capacity

  • The existence of, and quality of, analysis, design, and development processes

  • Authoring environments, tools, and capabilities

  • Learning management system/learning content management system (LMS/LCMS) capabilities

  • Tools for content management or distribution (e.g., SharePoint)

  • EPSS (e.g., WhatFix, etc.)

  • Data collection and reporting tools (e.g., xAPI)

  • Audience access to computers and mobile devices


The audience also affects blended learning decisions. Consider:

  • The number of learners

  • The “work station” technology, including computers, mobile devices, tablets, etc.

  • The average (and range of) competence with digital tools, resources, etc.

  • Whether the employees are in a centralized location or many different locations

  • If the focus is on current employees, new hires, or both

  • The typical experience of learners

While this list focuses mainly on demographics, other audience factors, such as organizational learning culture, may also influence design decisions.

Ideal Versus Feasible

Designing blended learning solutions requires trade-offs based on priorities, investments, limitations, and organizational preferences. The starting point is often an ideal solution for the business need, performance context, and audience. Still, as designers weigh organizational realities and limitations, they may make trade-off decisions to reach a feasible solution. It’s not always easy, but a blended learning solution that balances all these requirements is a win.

Let’s explore three blended learning cases. 

Underwriters in a mid-sized commercial insurance firm

Business Context

The leadership team wanted to improve the consistency and quality of underwriting, make better use of new underwriting technology, and reduce new underwriters’ time to proficiency. The leadership and learning teams uncovered these challenges:

  • Managers were inconsistent in reinforcing standards.

  • Organizational silos affected ownership.

  • The organization hires both recent college graduates and experienced individuals.

Performance Context

An underwriters’ job is complex. Underwriters were responsible for sales, account management, and technical underwriting in this organization. Their work is heavily regulated and requires detailed analysis, judgment, and business acumen. In addition, competing needs – from the broker, the market, and leadership – influence an underwriter’s decision-making process. 


The organization had many guides, policy documents, and white papers stored on internal sites available to underwriters. It also used some effective “off-the-shelf” courses covering essential, foundational content. However, the budget was small since the organization had to stay within tight financial parameters.


The organization had an LMS to support training and technology to support social learning. In addition, underwriters had access to computers and mobile devices.


The underwriter population was 200, with relatively low turnover. Underwriters were hired into small, remote offices and traveled extensively to serve clients.

Design Highlights

The blended learning solution to meet this client’s unique situation included:

Off-the-shelf content: The organization leveraged existing content and assessed and curated off-the-shelf courses because of the small budget for new training development.

Structured coaching: To bridge the gap between general underwriting knowledge and company and job-specific aspects of performance, structured on-the-job coaching provided instruction, guidance, and feedback to the underwriters. The organization provided coaches with training, supporting guides, playbooks, and ongoing coaching.

Resource library: The organization had extensive resources but worked to reorganize libraries to make them practical development resources.

Communities of practice: Underwriters worked most of the time remotely, so the organization established communities of practice to support training experiences, encourage collaboration, and enable coaches and underwriters to engage across the development experience.

Simulations and performance assessments: To achieve the business goals to reduce time to reach proficiency and improve underwriting consistency, the organization decided to include engineered, scenario-based simulations and performance assessments as part of the evaluation process to measure performance milestones. Knowledge checks gathered evidence of knowledge acquisition, and performance assessments engineered scenarios and job-specific work, assessed by coaches under real-world settings.

The blended learning model was part of a larger design of a learning strategy and development map that outlined the development experience from “basic” to “advanced” and in various product areas (e.g., auto, general liability, umbrella, worker compensation, etc.).

Branch staff in a retail bank 

Business Context

The leadership team wanted to improve numerous facets of retail bank new-hire training. They wanted training that improved banker readiness and made new hires proficient faster. They also wanted to change a historical pattern, where a new hire was “owned” by the training function and were sequestered in a “training environment” for several weeks. 

Additionally, the bank fundamentally altered its customer experience, shifting some customer interactions online and automating others. Updates and changes occurred unevenly, hitting markets, regions, and branches at different times and velocities.

Performance Context

In light of the bank’s changing customer experience expectations, technological landscape, and rapidly evolving marketplace, the bank wanted a workable and articulated definition of banker readiness.

A complete picture of the work, knowledge, and skill requirements emerged through a performance analysis of all branch roles (e.g., Teller, Seller/Banker, Assistant, and Branch Manager). 

We established and recommended a staged approach to reaching proficiency milestones, anchored, in part at least, by several dozen high-volume customer interaction scenarios. Those scenarios reflected most work outcomes the stakeholders thought would drive their business results.

Other than a few select management, sales, fiduciary, and risk responsibilities, which assistant and managers owned, all other tasks, activities, and scenarios became part of the new hire training experience.

The bank employed a distributed risk management model, providing robust guidance, but putting ultimate control (observations, diagnoses, and improvements) in the branch manager’s hands.

Additionally, the analysis process identified tasks and activities that were likely to change in the near term.


Being highly regulated and having a robust internal audit function, the bank maintained a rich library of policy documents, process maps, compliance and risk guides, and playbooks. They were disorganized and hard to locate, but the contents were accurate and complete in general.

A second resource was a large population of experienced team members who could be coaches/mentors for new hires.


The organization used a sophisticated LMS with automated workflows for training assignments, completion tracking, evaluations, and reporting.


Each year, the bank hired several thousand employees to fill the branches. A hefty year-over-year turnover rate coupled with new branch expansion drove the large-scale hiring. New hires’ experience and education level varied by market, region, and locale. Additionally, staffing models were notoriously tight, where small branches had three FTEs (with a part-time floater to cover breaks or time off), and larger branches had six FTEs. 

Design Highlights

The blended learning solution to meet this client’s unique situation included:

eLearning: The organization developed custom eLearning to cover foundational knowledge, basic concepts, key terms, and basic software functionality.

Instructor-led workshops (and virtual instructor-led workshops): Within the workshop structure, new hires practiced engineered scenarios, completed systems tasks, and engaged in role-plays to mimic customer interactions. 

To improve the authenticity of the role-plays, experienced team members temporarily left their branches to participate in the training experience, playing the part of customers. They followed a well-designed script and brought their own experiences with customers to life.

Structured coaching: Structured on-the-job coaching bridged the gap between training and branch-specific aspects of performance. Playbooks and train-the-coach instruction helped coaches successfully localize instruction, provide guidance, and give feedback to the new hires. In addition to training, the bank provided coaches with supporting guides, playbooks, and ongoing coaching and feedback.

Resource library: The organization had extensive resources. Each relevant resource was cross-referenced to the appropriate performance, task, and training.

Simulations and performance assessments: The organization included capstone performance assessments so new hires could demonstrate proficiency with high-volume scenarios that defined each developmental stage. The assessments included:

  • Simulated whole-task practice

  • Interleaved scenarios of mixed type and mixed complexity

  • Tracking and reporting

Hiring managers received data from each capstone performance assessment to help them understand strengths and weaknesses to guide coaching. 

Auditors in an Audit, Tax, and Advisory Firm 

Business Context

The leadership team wanted to accomplish four things:

  • Simplify and standardize foundational knowledge training.

  • Introduce better, more realistic practice.

  • Reduce overall new-hire training time.

  • Modernize the learning strategy and shift to a blended learning approach

Performance Context

An Auditor’s work centers on practical analysis and sound judgment. They must apply financial, audit, process, and systems concepts throughout their work – and meet well-established regulatory expectations. 

Early in their career, just after completing new hire training, their role and work are bounded by specific tasks and predictable client scenarios. Therefore, we clearly articulated a performance outcome for new hire training that met leadership’s goals.

Because we defined a boundary, leadership could see how, over time, as Auditors’ expertise and proficiency improved beyond the new-hire level, they could take on additional duties and more complex client scenarios. 

The organization was moving lower-level tasks – often the very tasks that new Auditors used to learn their trade – to specialized teams or was eliminating those tasks through automation. 


The organization had a task-oriented Auditor guide covering nearly all primary and standard practices stored in a binder at each Auditor’s desk. In parallel with our effort, the organization moved the resources to an online knowledge management system.

Technology & Resources

The organization had an LMS and tools like WhatFix and Axonify to support training and technology to support social learning. They required experienced Auditors to set aside time to coach junior auditors.


The organization hired about 1,000 Auditors a year. Most new hires joined the firm with a bachelor’s degree in accounting, finance, or business and were competent in GAAP principles.

Design Highlights

The blended learning solution to meet this client’s unique situation included sixteen augmented flipped-classroom events. Each event covered a specific aspect of the Auditor’s work and combined eLearning content, a workshop, and follow-on engagement.

eLearning: The organization developed custom eLearning to cover foundational knowledge, basic concepts, key terms, and basic software functionality. 

Instructor-led workshops (delivered virtually during COVID): These workshops focused on engineered realistic practice, providing the Auditors with an opportunity to practice numerous low complexity scenarios. In this setting, the instructor’s role shifted from a purveyor of information to a coach, focusing on the Auditors as they completed the scenarios, answering questions, and providing feedback along the way. 

To help the instructors make the shift, we delivered several train-the-trainer sessions and provided a robust instructor kit, a playbook, and ongoing coaching.

Resource library: The organization’s extensive resources – and the knowledge management tool – were used extensively during the workshops.

Post-workshop engagement: After completing each new-hire training event, Auditors received emails containing quizzes, exercises, reminders about best practices, and assessment simulations.

Blended learning can be simple – combining face-to-face instruction with eLearning, or more complex, as the three examples above illustrate. Successful blended learning moves designers away from a dependence on one modality, enabling them to select the best training tool for the job. When well designed, blended learning maximizes the benefits of each modality, delivers content to the learner seamlessly, and directly aligns to business goals and performance requirements.