How to use Labels for Learning & Development Approaches

There are a range of labels or overarching terms in use in Learning and Development (L&D) to describe different modalities or approaches to learning e.g. eLearning, mobile learning, social learning. My recent search to understand how the L&D profession defines the term ‘blended learning’ led me to think about the pros and cons of the way we use labels in the L&D field.


An Example – Blended Learning

There a range of views on what the term ‘blended learning’ means, exemplified by Taruna Goel’s 2010 post ‘Make It Blended‘ (As an aside, it was prescient of Taruna to product that the specific blend would change over time as more possibilities became available via technology).  The situation had not changed In 2015 when Jane Hart  ran a poll on what the term means. The poll results show a range of interpretations, with 49% selecting ‘a training programme containing a mix of face-to-face and e-learning.’ This dominant view is reflected in the Wikipedia definition.

Other people have suggested that in addition to using a range of delivery formats and media the range of aspects that can be blended include:

– social contexts* – individual / one-to-one, small group/cohort, community
– learning strategies* – exposition, instruction, guided discovery, exploration
– communications media* – same-time/synchronous, own-time/asynchronous
learner opportunity to learn, do, share and teach

* source – More Than Blended Learning by Clive Shepherd, 2015

Clearly when discussing blended learning it’s important to explain what you actually mean by the term for people could have different interpretations. I like the approach taken by Chris Coladonato who told me “I don’t call it blended learning, I simply say we are creating a learning experience that is a blend or mixture of a few different media formats and delivery modes to create an experience that will achieve our desired performance outcomes….and meet your needs.” The point of sharing this explanation from Chris is not to propose that this is the correct definition of ‘blended learning’.’ Rather it’s to suggest that a plain language explanation of what you are trying to do and why in a specific context is clearer than using jargon that others might not understand, or may interpret differently to you.

Pros and Cons of Labels

What are the benefits of using labels such as blended learning, mobile learning, working out loud (add your own to this list – there are plenty)? When they first emerge these labels can alert us to emerging trends in our field – be they something that is genuinely new, or something that may have been around for a while but we have moved away from or have the opportunity to use in a new way, usually through technological advances. They can invite us to explore and have conversations. They prompt us to examine our practice both individually and collectively. They are triggers or reminders to consider a range of approaches – to be flexible in our practice, and an invitation to consider a wider range of options in designing learning experiences.

However, if we latch onto labels or get lazy in our use of them or thinking about them they can become unhelpful. It’s easy to throw a term around or focus on one aspect of an approach without taking the time to understand it or critically examine it. This leads to myths (e.g. social learning requires the use of technology) and unrealised potential. A ‘mini-industry’ can arise around an approach with people overcomplicating it and making it seem harder to implement and less accessible. Jane Bozarth’s ongoing reminders to keep ‘showing your work‘ simple and accessible is a plea against this kind of overcomplication. Different interpretations of a label can impede discussion and development of our practice rather than promote it. Confusion and rigidity can result, rather than openness, flexibility and increased effectiveness.

How Should Labels Be Used?

Labels can be useful shorthand to refer to learning approaches, however should be used with care. To help me use them effectively here are some guidelines I’m adopting:

  1. Take the time to understand a label before you start using it or applying the approach that it refers to.
  2. Identify the essential characteristics of the approach in order to avoid unnecessary over-complication.
  3. Consider whether the label is redundant. Does the approach it describes already exist under a different name?
  4. Consider whether the label is necessary. Use labels sparingly. Could you use a plain language description instead?
  5. If it’s appropriate to use the label, then clarify what you mean when you use it. Keep it as simple as possible.

What do you think of these guidelines – Agree? Disagree? Got something to add? Post a comment if you’d like to continue the discussion.

PS – My Conclusion on Blended Learning

In the case of ‘blended learning’ my view is that it’s too broad a term and has too many interpretations to be helpful. The important point is to be flexible in learning design.

My thanks to Chris Colandonato and Shannon Tipton for sharing your views on this issue with me.

  1. #1 by Cat Malcolm on January 18, 2017 - 5:40 am

    Thanks for the prompt Michelle. I use the term blended a lot. What I mean is learning experiences that use a range of mediums. There are a mix of individual and group activities. sometimes the group activities are virtual and sometimes face to face. It doesn’t trip off the tounge but it’s a better description.

    • #2 by Michelle Ockers on January 18, 2017 - 11:29 am

      Agree that while it’s a wordier explanation it’s more accurate. And different to what some other L&D practitioners would categorise as blended learning. Hence my conclusion that this is one label that is not especially helpful. Thanks for commenting Cat.

  2. #3 by Dave Lee on January 18, 2017 - 10:07 am

    #6 – If you are in a marketing department of a vendor – don’t coop labels.

    • #4 by Michelle Ockers on January 18, 2017 - 11:26 am

      Good addition – marketing does have a habit of misusing labels to jump on the bandwagon

  3. #5 by divergentlearning on January 18, 2017 - 3:21 pm

    I think in some ways all learning is blended, we often haven’t recognised this though! The 70:20:10 concept has grown from a recognition that there is much more learning going on than what the L&D team are running. The opportunity is to be purposeful about that blend – to choose media and modes to suit the learners, the context, the content – whatever means will deliver the desired outcomes. I’m generally cautious with labels. I find the definitions to be quite fluid and changing over time (which is ok). I like the “keep it simple and explain where necessary” approach of your guidelines – the words we use to describe something shape the way we think about it, so it’s important to use well considered words!

  4. #6 by Marjie on January 20, 2017 - 7:19 pm

    Thank you Michelle, interesting and thought provoking article. It reinforces the importance of approaching all aspects of life through the lens of curiosity. After reading your points, I did my own mini survey, and what became clear is the impact diversity in the workplace has on perspectives of ‘labels’. So, using plain language descriptions rather than labels to ensure that everyone is on the same page is certainly one guideline I will be adopting.

  5. #7 by Bruno Winck on January 21, 2017 - 2:49 am

    As you said labels are useful as shorthands for ideas as we encounter them, to keep our thinking short. We should not confuse them with innovations, or worst trademarks (I’ve seen this yesterday). Often after deeper explorations, people end up realizing that two names correspond to the same concept. very common in science, math or IT. In your case, it seems that blended learning is just a return to the idea that good learning benefits from using a diversity of methods. My take is beware inflations of labels if they just name shallow ideas with no real differentiation.

    • #8 by Michelle Ockers on January 21, 2017 - 6:13 am

      Perfectly put Bruno “blended learning is just a return to the idea that good learning benefits from using a diversity of methods” (if, indeed, we evern strayed from it).

      Doing the deeper exploration is important – hence the suggestions to understand the label / practices to which it refers. I think I will add another guideline about having conversations with other practitoners about the label as part of understanding it and determining whether it is helpful to use the label.

  6. #9 by Barbera Peters on July 13, 2017 - 12:30 am

    As you talked about blended learning, I was fascinated by the result of 49% people selecting the mix of face to face learning. I never thought of labels having such an affect on people and their learning skills. It makes me wonder what it would like if the world didn’t have labels on anything. After learning this I am ready to go get a label maker and try learning techniques with my kids.

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