Can blended learning help your business?

Hiring highly educated and trained staff is what every SME aims for – but can you afford it?

So why not create opportunities which will allow your team to access qualifications while working for you? Tara Askham, from the multi award-winning Nottingham based not-for-profit organisation Infused Learning, explains what benefits “blended learning” can have for every small business.

Education is the key that unlocks so many doors, and when it comes to running a small business, your staff are always your greatest asset. You want employees who are highly educated and qualified in their fields, and as a business leader you want to be able to tempt the best candidates to your door by offering opportunities to expand careers.

But with university tuition fees increasingly pricing the poorest out of the higher education market, and those who have paid for a university education demanding higher salaries to justify their investment, it is becoming harder for SMEs to compete for the best people to work for them. And that’s where Blended Learning comes in.

I set up Infused Learning with my colleague Natalie Sharpe as a direct answer to the problem that between us we have seen over 30 years of being involved in education. We saw too many keen, motivated, bright people who faced barriers to learning through family commitments, whether that was caring for young children or elderly relatives, or through having to pay their bills by holding down a job. We set up our organisation to offer alternative pathways so that people in this situation could still access an education that fitted around the practicalities of complex lives.

Blended Learning describes any time that a student learns partly in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home and partly online. In the latter section of study, the student will have an element of control over the time, place, path and pace at which they learn. So what does online learning consist of? The best blended learning providers will make sure that this type of studying is kept as varied and interesting as possible to keep up students’ motivation and interest. Boredom kills learning and although it is important to learn to concentrate, that does not mean Internet-accessed study can afford to be dull. A mixture of emails, videos, simulations Web 2.0 resources, Podcasts and Screencasts plus any and all uses of technology will create a visually interesting and stimulating learning package. And when it comes to how students deliver their work: Google Documents and Google Chat offer great team-building benefits, with discussion boards, class Wikis and E-portfolios further great resources out there just waiting to be accessed.

Blended learning offers a great way for students to have access to individualised study packages tailored for them. One-to-one tutor support offered over Skype, plus meeting opportunities in the university setting, give a greater opportunity to study at their own pace than in the traditional large university hall where often “one size fits all”, and there is not much room for students to access more help if they need it.

But where is the advantage for businesses in all of this? It is this: savvy SME leaders, by thinking outside the traditional box when it comes to demanding educated candidates, will be able to scoop up great talent by offering the opportunity to new employees that they can have paid jobs which offer the flexibility to undertake a blended learning qualification at the same time – whether it’s an Access course to get them onto a University course or professional qualifications like the ILM (Institute of Leadership & Management) or CIMA (Chartered Institute of Management Accountants) qualifications, for example. By thinking creatively, it’s possible to run a highly efficient, cost-effective business with staff whose qualifications and hunger to achieve are improving by the day.

And that’s not all, offering this type of employment strikes a really important blow when it comes to social mobility. Too many bright young school-leavers are being put off further education that could help lead them to well-paid jobs in the future because of expensive fees and the fact it will mean three or four years where they are unable to hold down jobs or hold other commitments they may already have. By offering these kinds of opportunities, SMEs will also inspire loyalty from their newly fledged staff: something that is highly prized in today’s fluid world where few things last long and newer brighter-seeming opportunities are constantly on offer. It’s up to SMEs to keep on the ball by being aware of this and making sure the grass doesn’t seem greener on the other side.

But it’s not only younger people who benefit from blended learning. We have been able to help people later on in life who missed out on a university education for the same reasons when they were younger. Businesses have got an important role to play in helping shake up society so that it’s not just the privileged who can access the best employment.

Today’s sharing technology offers amazing opportunities to access education via completely free tools such as Google Docs and Skype – which, either on their own or when blended with a traditional education, have such a positive role to play when it comes to producing bright, motivated staff for the increasingly competitive jobs market.

Infused Learning has won awards from The Young Academy, the Big Venture Challenge, Inspire Learning and Nottinghamshire County Council and has just been shortlisted for two NatWest Great British Entrepreneur Awards.