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Blended Learning
for Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises


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Twenty-three million small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) provide around 75 million jobs, that is two thirds of all jobs and 99% of all enterprises in Europe, states the Observatory of European SMEs. SMEs tend to maintain their staff even during economically difficult times, which makes them an important, stabilizing pillar of the national economies. The increasing globalization and the consequent competitiveness together with changing legal requirements force SMEs to permanently build up knowledge beyond their core area of expertise (EU 2003).

Blended learning, a mix of online and face-to-face learning, can combine the positive aspects of both, classroom-based learning and e-learning environments (Bonk and Graham 2006). Yet, although blended learning seems to be quite suitable for SMEs, current uptake of this learning method is low.

A lot of research has been done on a number of very specific aspects of blended learning, often with a higher education student population. An open research approach seemed adequate, to leave enough room for emerging topics, to give enough room for all the stakeholders to get involved, and to find out which of the previous research in relation to blended learning and e-learning are actually relevant in the context of SME learners.

The research question emerging is:
“What are relevant characteristics for successful blended learning for learners in SMEs?”

These "Top 10" results show which aspects were ranked as important aspects. Due to the nature of the Delphi study as an explorative study, these results must not be read as quantitative results, which they are not. Aspects not mentioned or not selected can not automatically be considered of no importance. Nevertheless the study gives the big picture of what was considered important enough to be submitted by the panelists in the initial round, what the panelists ranked as important, and what the panelists finally ranked as the ten most important aspects.

In order of relevance the final “Top 10” characteristics for successful blended learning in SMEs from the IT sector are:
  1. Time Flexibility
  2. Cost Efficiency
  3. Support Mechanisms
  4. Accessibility
  5. Efficiency
  6. Quality
  7. Self-paced Learning
  8. Results Measurement
  9. Content Design
  10. Learner-centeredness
These characteristics put a balanced emphasis on the areas design, skill-driven learning, and the access to knowledge, quality assurance and cost effectiveness.
Surprisingly social interaction was not selected.

In order of relevance the final “Top 10” characteristics for the sub-panel Tourism SMEs and the sub-panel Large companies are:

Tourism SMEs Large Companies
  1. Self-Paced Learning
  2. Time Flexibility
  3. Geographical Independence
  4. Cost Efficiency
  5. Workplace-Related Learning
  6. Results Measurement
  7. Efficiency
  8. Accessibility
  9. Individuality
  10. Flexibility
  1. Usability
  2. Communication
  3. Blend Design
  4. Motivation
  5. Results Measurement
  6. Self-paced Learning
  7. Time Flexibility
  8. Getting out of daily business
  9. Content Design
  10. Flexibility

In comparison to the IT SME learners the sub-panel Tourism SMEs selected social interaction as an important area, whereas design was not selected.

The large companies sub-panel choose clearly different areas, compared to the IT SME sub-panel. There was a strong emphasis on design and social interaction, whereas cost effectiveness was not considered important. Skill-driven learning and quality assurance only show a weak consideration.

A sound approach for blended learning in SMEs should consider the “Top 10” aspects selected and the characteristics outlined above in combination with the results of the case study, which showed the importance of the role of the tutor or trainer. All interviewees pointed out the importance of a personal touch for a successful blended learning scenario.

Recommendations for Providers and Trainers
The results give some indication to which preferences exist among SME learners. Providers can apply these aspects for their product development. For example “student interaction” is among the TOP 10 from the provider sub-panel, whereas the SME sub-panels did not select the social interaction- related aspects at all, preferring feasibility and individuality. This gives some indication that providers should include feasibility and individuality as requirements for their development in addition to features that enable student interaction.
Trainers put a strong focus on design-related aspects, which are not in high demand with the SME sub-panels. Support mechanisms and self-paced learning are much more important to the learners according to our results. This is also confirmed by the results of the case study in regard to the role of the trainers. Emphasizing the support and enabling self-paced learning should not replace the design aspects though. But if in doubt, the SME-selected aspects should be preferred.

Recommendations for SMEs
The results show that providers and trainers interested in blended learning for SMEs have a highly different view on the topic. There is an opportunity for SMEs to get into a dialogue with providers, and trainers where possible, to change their approach to blended learning. This might not be feasible for the individual SME; however most companies are members of some of the organizations listed in Appendix C and can transport their view of the topic through these communication channels.
Another option would be openness towards new learning technologies. A lot of the implementations that enable, for example the individuality of social interaction or the time flexibility for access to knowledge are based on new technologies, often web 2.0-based. An openness to using these learning technologies can easily bring together the diverging approaches of SME learners and trainers or providers.

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A Good Mix in Blended Learning
For Small and Medium-sized Enterprises
In Particular from the IT and Tourism Industry

Thesis Executive Summary

Thesis Abstract

Related Papers

Thesis Appendices

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National College of Ireland
School of Informatics
Sabine Moebs, MSc by Research
This study is partially funded by: Logo Up2UML project EU Logo - Education and Culture - Leonardo da Vinci
last update 12 May, 2008