5. ICNEE, 26-28 May 2003, Lucerne / Switzerland




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Ileana Hamburg, Institut Arbeit und Technik, Wissenschaftszentrum Nordrein-Westfalen, Gelsenkirchen, Germany

Oleg Cernian,  University of Craiova, Computer Science Department, Craiova, Romania

Herbert ten Thij,  I.E.R., Eindhoven, Holland


Keywords: Open Distance Learning, Blended Learning, Blended Learning Community, Distributed Learning Environments


Nowadays many organisations are looking for new approaches to improve individual and collective learning processes of their staff in order to cope with many changes and to be highly competitive. One solution is the blending of traditional and IT-based learning supported by distributed environments and learning communities which give also a strategic impact on business processes of the organisation. In this paper we briefly present some characteristics of blended learning processes, blended learning communities and distributed learning environments. We give an example within the EU-Minerva programme, called the “ViReC e-Initiative”.



In order to cope with  nowadays problems like the tremendous  globalisation process, the increasing of market competition, and the rapid technical developments, many organisations are looking  for new  approaches of knowledge  acquisition and transfer; and, similarly, for attaining performance it is also required a fundamental rethinking  of the design and implementation  of  the  learning  programs.  A  continuous  individual  and  collective improvement of learning processes is required in order to cope with the flood of information (due also to the growing use of the Internet) with an active participation of learners, as well as managers and trainers.

In the last 10  years new learning methods using information technologies (IT) have been introduced, like  computer-based training  (CBT), open distance-learning  (ODL),  e-learning, and distributed learning (DL). Experiences made with such forms of learning (Cernian et al, 2000; ASTD, 2001; Berg et al, 2002; Hamburg et al, 2002) show that their exclusive use does not contribute that much to real improvements in quality, effectiveness, convenience and to a cost reducing of learning processes. New methodologies have been sought and found to achieve these objectives, while still making use of IT. Most of these converge into a blending of traditional and  IT-based learning supported  by distributed environments and learning communities and give a strategic impact on business processes of the organisation. 

According to E. Massie, one of the main reasons to use blended learning is the understanding that most people "are not single-method learners" and that "good instructors have always combined  great  story  telling  with  print  and  whiteboard  words  and  graphics,  with  takeaway tools or even homework" (Rossett, 2002).

In this paper we briefly  present some  characteristics of blended learning  processes, blended learning communities and distributed learning environments and, in the upshot, it is given an example within the EU-Minerva programme, called  .ViReC e-Initiative..


Initially,  the  term  blended  learning  had  the  meaning  of  a  simple  linking  of  traditional classroom training to e-learning activities. Today, the meaning was extended and comprises the use of a combination of two or more different training methods such as:

* classroom instruction combined with on-line instruction,

* on-line instruction combined with access to a coach or faculty member,

* simulations for "on-the-job training",

* managerial coaching combined with e-learning activities.

Particularly collaborative software, Web-based  courses  and knowledge  management practices are considered synergistically when the term blended learning is tackled.

At present, it is customary to notice that blended learning solutions are an efficient route to initiate  an  organisation  into  e-learning. Blended  learning  is  bringing  evident  benefits  to  the learner,  the  training  staff  and  the  organisation's  bottom  life.  Blended  learning  allows organisations  to  gradually  move  learners  from  traditional  classrooms  to  e-learning  in  small steps, making this change easier to accept. Training professionals can move small sections online  as  they  develop  the  needed  e-learning  skills.  Cost  and  resources  are  also  a  driving factor. Many organisations have already spent a lot of money for developing materials, so that blended learning allows them to supplement or complement existing courseware rather than replace it.

Referring to varied blended learning approaches, the NIIT (Valiathan, 2002) categorises them into three models:

--- Skill-driven learning combines self-paced learning with instructor or facilitator support to develop specific knowledge  and skills. Demonstrating procedures through Learning Labs or through the class room have to be organised. 

--- Attitude-driven learning, which mixes various events and delivery  media to develop specific behaviours. This approach should be used to teach  content that requires learners to try out a new behaviour in a risk-free environment (e.g. soft skill courses  role  playing  or  negotiation).  It  is  important  in  this  case  to  create  Learning Spaces and Discussion Forums with Videoconferences.

--- Competency-driven learning,  which  blends  performance  support  tools  with knowledge management resources and mentoring to develop workplace competencies.

Learning that facilitates the transfer of tacit knowledge requires a competency-driven approach. Developing and maintaining a Knowledge base and Knowledge Forums can support this kind of learning. Blended learning focuses on optimising achievement of learning objectives by applying IT to match the personal learning style and contribute to transfer the needed knowledge to the right person at the right time...  There is no one formula to achieve the desired outcome - many factors need to be considered before selecting the elements of a blended solution. Figure 1 shows  some of them.


Figure 1: A Blended Learning Model (Source: B. Allen, 2001)



A way to  comply to some of economical and technical  challenges  and nowadays job requirements may be, beside the application of different methods of learning, the use of a new organizational form called a community, as well as to increase the use of training in a collaborative distributed learning environments. 

Communities become  a boundary  for a smaller container for knowledge  and define relationships that can be used to increase individual effectiveness and  a company's overall competitive  power.  For  most  learning  professionals  today,  the  question  is  not  if  building communities  will  deliver  value  to  the  organisation,  but  rather  what  kind  of  community  is needed and which are the steps involved in building it.

In this paper there were considered three ways  to apply the  community concept to foster blended learning.

*  Ice Breaker  blended  learning  communities  involve  warm-up  activities  prior  to  a face-to-face meeting. By engaging learners in structured introductions and pre-work through videoconferencing, online discussions, etc it becomes possible to accelerate openness, knowledge sharing and collaborative learning when participants finally come together in person.

*  Follow-on blended learning communities which can serve as vehicles for keeping people engaged, connected and productive for a designated period of time. 

*  End-to-End blended learning communities include both Ice Breaker and Follow-on learning activities. They can be seen as  a  "digital sandwich" since the face-to-face meeting is typically "sandwiched" between group interactions supported by e-learning and collaboration tools and technologies. 

Stephen Covey (1989) stresses that the collaboration in learning processes creates a sense of synergy, an atmosphere of excitement and passion for learning, for working together, supporting the process of knowledge acquisition. In the traditional model of training, the main  role  belongs  to  the  trainer  as  the  ongoing  initiating  actor.  In  the  collaborative  learning processes, by using distributed learning environments, the relationships and interactions among people represent the main channels for acquiring knowledge as well as creating new ones and this process is supported by the use of IT.

One of the main attributes of the open distance learning (where teachers and students being physically separated by time/or location can interact) is the role of self-directed learning, e.g. without the regular presence of a teacher to drive the learner. Content is generally delivered electronically via any of the multiple options available in e-learning, although elements of a classroom are not precluded.

Referring to distributed learning environments, many of their "ingredients" like text, graphics, audio and video or the use of group discussions are not new in teaching. Some of the aspects which make a learning environment revolutionary is that it enables learners to access a wide range of resources rapidly and economically, e.g. through the Internet and facilitate learners to participate actively in social learning communities at any time and from anywhere. 

There is a number of factors that are to be considered very important for providing learning support to students through collaborative distributed learning environment, like the following:

*  analysis of the target group of learners (their prospective learning needs, experiences, etc.),

*  planning  who  will  be  a  part  of  the  team  for  the  design  and  delivery  of  course materials and   
    to what they are responsible for,
*  providing learning materials that are specifically designed to be used also through the Internet and  
    developing electronic libraries for students, 
*  providing students with mechanisms and systems for reliable learning support,  
    finding instructional strategies which take best the advantages of the new media,
    which are effective for a subject area and for the target group of learners.

Learning  in  these  kinds  of  distributed  environments  present  numerous  challenges.  Some  of them include building trust and common ground, coordinating the communication and work activities within the distributed environment and controlling the discussions. Some specific problems which emerge in distributed learning environments are the following: 

---  Social presence:  because  of  the  limited  communication  channels  it  is  rather difficult to know always who is the learning partner, what he or she does and where he or she is. A method of increasing the social presence is to structure the learning environment in virtual rooms and to build in guarantees of trusted or reliable member identities.

--- Cognitive orientation: often it is difficult to understand what subject is discussed and what the structure of the learning material is. The development of a well established  learning  community  that  uses  the  environment  can  facilitate  these understanding problems. (Covey, 1989), (Hamburg et al., 2002).

--- Communication and plots that usually go off smoothly in .face to face. situations, sometimes can split in a distributed learning environment. The carrying out of learning protocols within the use of learning environment could be a solution in such a case.


The project .ViReC e-Initiative. . University Virtual Resource Centre based on a distributed learning environment.  represents  an attempt with a European dimension to change learning environment  through  blended  learning  in  higher  education  institutions (http://cs.ucv.ro/ViReC). 

A  qualitative  collaborative  distributed  learning  environment  in  a  network  of  European universities  and  research  institutions  will  be  set  up  ensuring  an  open  access  to  improved  training methods and educational resources, as well as the best practice applied at the partners in the Consortium (four universities and two research institutions) by outlining an innovative development of  IT-based educational products.  This project is clearly oriented toward the development of innovative practices and services, having in view setting up a virtual resource centre composed of a learning environment and use of ICT tools, as well as to arise awareness of the impact of blended learning in education.

Several remarkable results are foreseen, among them the most challenging achievement will certainly be the creation of a number of virtual laboratories interleaved with some real devices/equipment. 

The project outputs try to use blended learning and distributed learning environments even in cases where classrooms or real labs are the main forms of training, e.g. including a learning program that provides seeking resources over the  Internet and the Web about a topic,  a product, a process or a device. 

The following table includes some of the features of the distributed learning environment:

Synchronous Tools 

Audio Conferencing

Web Conferencing

Video Conferencing


Instant Messaging

White Boarding

Asynchronous Tools 

Discussion Boards


Website Links

Group Announcements

Messaging / E-mail

Surveys & Polls

Decision Support Tools

Content Integration 

Interactive CBTs

Streaming Audio & Video

Narrated Slideshows

Web books

Document Management

Resource Library

Document Collaboration

Version Tracking & Control

Permission Based Access

Table 1


In addition to the above mentioned features, simplicity and easy-to-use facilities are outstanding  attributes  of  the  ViReC  environment:  learners'  time  should  be  spent  about  the topic at hand and not about how to use the technology. 

We  would  like  to  use  blended  learning  models  based  on  the  collaborative  learning environment with students in higher education and vocational training institutions. It is also planned the use a blended learning model in a course on educational technology for educational leaders that will provide them with a number of practical hands-on-opportunities to experience IT-enhanced learning.

By its structure, the virtual resource center is reproducible, allowing integration of cross- curricular approaches. It will foster collaboration between learners and educators and will also stimulate multidisciplinary activities.



In elaboration of the .ViRec e-Initiative. project the authors used blended learning strategies based on distributed learning environment by following the idea that a learning process is a continuous process inseparable from work and that this process can be improved by providing a better link between the way a learner wants to learn and the learning program, including also an IT-tool that is offered. 

As workgroup collaboration, knowledge management and learning technologies, as well as processes  converge,  "communities" of all kinds will become increasingly prevalent as a means of capturing informal or tacit knowledge that exists within the organisation, but is not accessible through formal training programmes.



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