Budget cuts force companies to spend every dollar effectively, and training, especially when it requires travel, is often the first line item slashed. Cuts in continuing education can have a negative effect on a company’s bottom line. A proficient staff builds an overall sense of achievement among the employees, leading to increased productivity and innovation in the workplace. A staff trained to operate equipment properly can offset maintenance costs. Specialized equipment, such as research-grade microscopes, become mere inventory without the proper training required to use them.
Allowing staff members to attend off-site training programs can pinch productivity while depleting ever-shrinking training budgets. We sympathize with managers who face the temporary loss of an employee and the impact that has on meeting output goals. We have found that using a “blended learning” approach, one that augments classroom training with online resources accessed from the student’s lab, seems to work well.
Student feedback regarding the blended learning model at Hooke College of Applied Sciences has been overwhelmingly positive. Students comment that the post-course activities helped reinforce the concepts and practices learned during the course. Students are incorporating course information into their day-to-day work and standard operating procedures and using some of the online exercises as internal proficiency examinations for their colleagues. Inspired by this feedback, we wanted to share our experiences thus far with our blended model so others may benefit.
Pre- and post-courses form a “Web sandwich”
The blended learning model begins before students step into a classroom. Introductory Web-based modules reviewed prior to the course ensure that learners are ready to take full advantage of the classroom sessions, understand the course’s purpose, start at the same knowledge level, and learn terminology to be used in the course. The online content consists of narrated learning modules, each lasting approximately 30 minutes, followed by a brief quiz. Students also have the opportunity to fully explore virtual versions of microscopes used during the course, so they have a greater understanding of each part’s functionality before beginning hands-on instruction in the classroom.
At the close of classroom instruction, students are given unknown samples to analyze back at their laboratories— offering students an opportunity to put into practice the skills learned in the classroom using equipment available at their workplace labs. After the students complete their own analyses, the post-course phase of Web-based activities begins. Students gather online with the instructor and former classmates to discuss the unknowns. Each one-hour online session is structured to allow students the opportunity to lead a discussion of at least one unknown sample. Students take turns describing their findings, while the other students who attended the session make comments and offer feedback in the order in which they queued up. These post-course sessions allow those with little experience to build confidence, while those with more experience can share insights with their less experienced colleagues.
The post-course environment encourages the exchange of ideas, such as for alternative techniques and approaches to identify the unknowns. New sample types more pertinent to the student’s own work can also be explored.
When the rubber meets the road
The post-course sessions also help to uncover equipment and supply deficiencies in a given laboratory. Students have reported basic supplies such as refractive index liquids for unknown particle identification were not available in some labs. In several instances solvents required for novel sample preparation techniques were on a prohibited list.
Chuck Zona (author) and a Hooke College of Applied Sciences instructor help students reinforce and apply their classroom training in a post course Web conference session.
Students also faced unforeseen challenges when participating in post-course sessions. When their obligation must be to their workload, students are encouraged to email their results, which instructors evaluate; they then schedule a discussion with the student when it is mutually convenient. A small percentage of students who used specialized equipment such as scanning electron microscopes commented that it was either difficult to reserve instrument time to analyze the unknowns or that those instruments were not working properly. We recommend to students who could not analyze the samples that they still attend the post-course sessions and participate passively, listening to those classmates who had analyzed the samples.
Students are asked to complete a six-category post-course survey rating the impact of the course. The categories receiving the highest ratings were: sharing of course materials, course value, teaching staff training, and workload. Based on their feedback, the knowledge and skills learned during the course are being integrated into the students’ day-to-day work, and they are sharing their new knowledge and course materials with their colleagues. This type of “hands on” distance learning clearly is of great benefit to those interested in professional development and continued learning.
In the end, a company’s bottom line can be strengthened from the bottom up. We all look for ways to trim budgets; our blended learning training method ensures that staff receive thorough instruction while minimizing absence from the workplace, maintaining productivity.