I. Hamburg / O. Cernian / H. ten Thij


1. Introduction

Today’s dynamic business is particularly  known by some remarkable and characteristic aspects. Since the new communication means and the so raised speed of market demands have occurred, new products have to be launched in days versus weeks as was still the situation a few decades ago. Also the knowledge to fulfill today’s job requirements is not longer only or immediately available in books or magazines, but it is more than ever before created in industrial organisations in the processes of work or it is still yet existing in the head of experts who usually, but certainly nowadays work at different places. Already for these reasons a personalized and a continuously updated, effective management training is needed in order to cope with today’s rapid innovations in product design and -development, production lay-out and even marketing strategy or to be adequately reflexive towards the fast changing market trends or sudden economical changes (Hamburg et al., 2003).

Especially these aspects show that also in general the job qualification requirements at present are very complex and can be only fulfilled by applying learning methods and -media different from the traditional ones and completely adaptable to or suitable for a personal learning style so that the needed knowledge and skills can be achieved quick and at the right time. To meet these needs of education and training a relatively new kind of learning, originally consisting out of traditional and new methods, has emerged, the therefore so-called blended learning.

It is important to know, and this is fundamental for a good understanding of this notion, that blended learning is not just a mix of traditional and new methods. A cited metaphor expresses this very well for now: "Like chemistry, blended learning is about combining elements to create a desired reaction. However, both practices are not simply about the inclusion of elements but about how the elements are combined. The execution of the formula - by combining the right elements at the right time - creates the desired reaction." (Rick Valdez: Learning.pdf).

Next to this it is also of great interest to know that the design, implementation and evaluation of open, flexible and distributed learning environments to support blended learning are an important success factor of it (Berg et al., 2002).

In this short paper we will present, after the introduction of the main practical aspects of blended learning (part 2) and of distributed learning environments (part 3), also two practical cases (part 4).


2. Blended Learning

The term "Blended Learning" was used originally for the combination of the traditional classroom training with a computer-based training (CBT). At present however, a blended learning programme has many  dimensions which all refer to

·          different learning delivery methods and media including learning on-line (CBT, over the Internet or an intranet), and this also in a traditional classroom setting;

·          varied learning events which can be self-paced ones (at a pace that is managed by the learners) or a collaborative learning that implies a more dynamic communication among many learners, wherever they physically may be;

·          an instruction based to support electronic performance and also to supply information oriented to knowledge management processes;

·          the blending of work and learning and embedding learning in the business processes of organisations.

At NIIT (Valiathan, 2002) the approaches for blended learning are categorized under three headings as presented in the following figure:

  SKILL DRIVEN: Blending
  self-paced learning with
  instructor support to
  acquire knowledge and to
  develop skills
   Blending varied delivery 
   media and learning events to 
   develop specific behaviour 
   and attitude
  Blending varied delivery 
  media and learning events to 
  develop workplace 
Figure 1: Blended Learning approaches (Source NIIT)  

There is not just one simple formula for blended learning to achieve the desired educational outcome, because too many facets and factors have to be considered before selecting the proper elements for a such an approach and even before a blended learning strategy is created. Some of these facets or factors that have to be explored are most certainly the capabilities of the teaching or instructing team (also in connection with the technology and media to be used), the infrastructure of the local organisation or the willingness and receptiveness of the students to use new learning formats.

Although for many trainers the first step in initiating a blended learning programme is to supplement their traditional classrooms or self-paced content libraries with virtual classrooms or other computer supported activities, they can and usually will develop, after having achieved more experience, a complex strategy for blended learning that is also, particularly for advanced skills or -techniques instructors on the work floor, integrated with work and business.

Coming to that stage the least necessary, practical steps that have to be taken in developing a blended learning programme are than:

·          The performance objectives of the learning programme must always be clarified.

·          The target group has to be well analysed with respect to the determination of the options of content delivery methods and the selection of the appropriate media. Very important in this analysis of the target group are of course also the level of knowledge (special and technological) of each member of the group, the preferred learning style and the motivation and the culture of the learners.

·          The scalability of the audience that can be achieved by the learning solution (local or distributed, large or small groups, etc.) has to be studied and valuated. 

·          Appliance oriented information about the content of the blended learning programme has to be obtained (e.g. dynamical content or static, who will deliver the content, should it be a soft-skill content or a behaviour-related one?).

·          A financial analysis of as well the content development as the costs of delivery has to be carried out (e.g. alive learning formats are more expensive  than a stable content for a big audience).

·          The local infrastructure has to be known in order to establish the delivery options (e.g. with mobile or static devices).

In the following table there are selected -to support decisions concerning training delivery options or to estimate their value anyway- three methods with an indication of their strength and weakness (IDC, 2000):

Delivery Method



Cost to Develop/Deploy

Instructor-led training

Familiarity and Interaction

Ability to scale


Test-based training

Portable, universally available

Timeliness, no interaction or feedback


Technology based training

High-bandwidth Internet (HBI)


Low-bandwidth Internet




Web based training

Strengths of HBI, scalable, video capability



Strength of LBI, common technology

Engaging, disconnected


Engaging, interactive, easy to update and to deploy

Technology not universally deployed



Dependence on Internet traffic

Time to develop, hard to update

Time to develop, connection to the Internet










Table 1: Training Delivery Options

An important factor to be kept always in mind when organising blended learning is that it can maximise learning efficiency by its effective integration. Recent studies at the University of Tennessee and Stanford give us all reasons to be convinced that a blended learning strategy actually improves the learning outcomes because of the providing of a better match between how a learner wants to learn and the learning program that is offered.

There are however a lot of other benefits that especially industrial organisations can have by using blended learning, for it can help them to have more productive staff and also can they cope that way more efficiently with national and international changes. A few of these benefits to be explicitly mentioned are:

·          The different delivery methods extend the reach of a learning programme or knowledge transfer;

·          The costs and time for development and deployment can be better balanced by combining different delivery modes;

·          Business results can be optimised in various ways e.g. by achieving the learning objectives in less time or by reducing travel costs and -time.

To improve the view on the benefits if blended learning, but moreover to understand even better the practice of blended learning we present in the following the main aspects of flexible learning environments that support different forms of learning.


3. Flexible Distributed Learning Environments

Life long learning is one of the success factors in order to cope with the many, still going on economical changes of the last decades by effects such as the globalization and the rapid technological developments. Often staff of the same organisation do work and learn at different places and also on different times. Moreover, the necessary knowledge to fulfill job requirements is not longer or immediately available from books or magazines, but is yet in the heads of the experts being gradually more developed in the labour environment where there is commonly less pressure to publicize acquired knowledge or research- an development results. So besides the application of different methods, also flexible and distributed environments are necessary to facilitate such forms of learning and to help people to utilize distributed knowledge, and to store, retrieve, present and use it on the job (Cernian et al., 2000). Two important aspects offered by distributed environments are that the learners can access a wide range of resources rapidly and economically through Internet-based channels as the Web or through CD-ROMs and that they can participate in social learning communities at any time and at any place that suits them well.

There are particularly two forms of distributed co-operative learning that can be supported very well by flexible virtual learning environments:

·          Tele-seminars, that can take place synchronously as chat-sessions or asynchronously by sending e-mails. In most cases an expert steers the discussion. Self-organised learning is than also possible in ad-hoc shaped learning groups.

·          Tele-tutoring, which is a learning form where the trainees first work out the learning contents, e.g. by reading web-sites conform an instruction and after that they send their questions to an on-line tutor per e-mail. A complex form of tele-tutorials are co-operative simulations. In these the participants play determined roles and they interact with a simulation of the object domain.

Distributed co-operative learning requires communication, co-ordination and co-operation. Nevertheless some problems which appear in such learning processes (in conventional situations they do not exist or exist only in a weak form) have to be considered in the development of learning environments that support such processes:

·          Social presence: because of limited communication channels it is difficult to know always who is the learning partner, what he or she does and where he or she is. A method to increase 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 is of the learning material. 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.


4. Examples

VITAL (Virtual Teaching and Learning) is an environment for computer-supported co-operative learning by distributed groups and has been developed at GM-IPSI in the CLear project ( /clear). Its focus is on supporting small and medium-sized groups of adult learners in job-oriented continuing training. The learners at various  locations have computers inter-connected by data networks. Each participant has his/her own private room in VITAL. Other rooms of different types can be arbitrarily created during a learning process. In addition to private rooms, VITAL provides group rooms and auditoriums. In group rooms learning groups can discuss specific topics, in auditoriums trainers or tutors presenting teaching material are best supported (Wessner et al., 1999).

VITAL provides a communication and co-operation environment which can be flexibly adapted to various learning scenarios by supporting, e.g.,

·          synchronous and asynchronous learning,

·          co-operative and individual learning,

·          co-located and distributed learning,

·          pre-structured and self-organised learning,

·          symmetric (group discussion) and asymmetric (presentation) learning.

VITAL utilizes the metaphor of virtual rooms as a basis for modeling the learning environment. In the virtual learning world the participants of a learning process play a certain role (e.g. learner, trainer, tutor, expert).

The virtual learning world consists out of virtual rooms which are represented in analogy to rooms in the real world. A virtual room has a certain room type and a unique name. It provides a display of the current participants of the room (group awareness), a shared  workspace, and a set of specific functions for navigation, manipulation and communication.

Specific browsers provide information on available rooms, inhabitants of the virtual world, and their current location in the virtual world. All participants in one room have the same view of the room and its content.

Chat and audio conferencing tools are used for synchronous communication inside a room. In addition, a structured question-answer-dialog supports the learning process on demand. Asynchronous communication is supported by the integrated message and e-mail tools.

Each room has a library in which hyper-media documents are stored. In the shared workspace hypermedia objects such as texts, graphics or tables can be created, imported, manipulated and annotated individually or co-operatively. By linking documents inside a room or across room boundaries arbitrary complex hypermedia structures can be realised.

Figure2: A virtual auditorium in VITAL (Source: Pfister et al, 1998)

The screenshot (Figure 2) shows  a virtual auditorium in VITAL. Five persons learn about the right-of-way at  intersections and junctions. In the upper left corner the message board, a  structured chat window, is displayed. The browser in the  lower left corner shows all rooms and their current inhabitation.

The second example  refers to a co-operative learning environment that will be developed within the project “ViReC e-Initiative” – University Virtual Resource Centre based on a distributed learning environment. This project represents an attempt with an European dimension to change the traditional, locally bound learning environment through blended learning in higher education institutions (

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

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

In the “ViReC e-initiative” project we would like to use blended learning (BL) models based on a DLE with students in higher and vocational training institutions. It is also planned to use a BL 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.


5. Conclusions

Blended Learning is a rich opportunity for today’s knowledge transfer. Especially when a quick or a wide dissemination of advanced knowledge is involved or (technological)  knowledge  with a fast decrease in value, or when time is short for updating knowledge or the training of (new or innovative) job requirements. A particular advantage is that most opportunities of BL are not locally bound to a specific or the traditional learning environment. This means, especially for industrial organisations, that training or instruction can be offered even better than before on or next to the work floor without loosing too much time or to spend extra time. Of course also the classical way of teaching can profit extremely from BL and this moreover when the available teaching means are incomplete or inadequate, or a collaboration of learners would improve their abilities to master the offered subject-matter.

It is for these reasons also to point here again to the importance to empower individuals in industrial organisations to become an active participant in the learning and collaboration process.

The projects to which we are committed have not only research objectives in the field of blended learning and flexible learning environments but they have also as an objective to convince organisations that BL provides very well and in an optimal manner a natural way to work and learn.



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