Whether you’re going through a phase of “swearing off” social media or rushing to get the newest version of the iPhone, you have to admit that technology impacts our lives. In fact, technology has become so ingrained in our society that it’s no surprise it’s made its way into the classroom.

Enter blended learning, a learning and training style that blends ILT (instructor-led training) with online resources and instruction. This may be one of the fastest growing learning styles, but it’s no stranger to the learning world. Digital learning has been trying to break into the mainstream since the mid-1900s.

The Mainframe Frenzy

Blended learning ideas can be traced back to the mainframe generation; just take a look at PLATO—Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations—a mainframe computer system from 1960 that enabled thousands of students to access coursework, digitally chat with friends, and yes, play games. (It turns out some things never change.)

PLATO allowed students to learn and communicate through a community of terminals featuring old-school touch screens and graphical displays without an actual teacher present. ILT was about to be shaken up.

While the mainframe tech of this era was pretty clunky compared to today’s ever-shrinking tech, it was also cutting edge for the time. What was really amazing was that for the first time, students could learn in a digital community. In the words of technology guru Brian Dear, PLATO was “the dawn of cyberculture.”

TV Takes Center Stage

Then the 1970s arrived, which meant popular TV programming like “The Brady Bunch” and “All in the Family.” While these were some of the most-watched shows of the era, corporate America and universities were leveraging video for other purposes: employee training and education.

One notable example that involved a university and corporate partnership was the Stanford Instructional Television Network (SITN). Started in 1969, Stanford broadcasted directly to companies they partnered with to provide working engineers with Stanford’s educational resources. Engineers saved travel time, the university gained valuable connections to the corporate world, and professors could stay right on campus.

Employers saw the potential of video. For one thing, video freed up the need for instructors to be present among trainees. In general, the TV cycle was essentially like this: Users watched. Users processed. Users asked questions.

In the Stanford example, as the system developed, a two-way audio talkback system was developed for questions and comments between engineers and professors. But in less sophisticated cases, even the mail service provided some ability for trainees to ask questions to a corporate “teacher.”

Floppy Disks and Personal Computers

You may be wondering when the personal computer arrived in the blended learning arena. Eight-inch floppy disks had been used in mainframes for data storage through the ‘70s, but as time went on, mainframes and the floppy disk experienced an upgrade.

The Apple II of 1977 brought the future of floppy disks and personal computers to life. The Apple II was able to fit two 5.25” floppy disk drives—which made copying disks easy—and could fit on a desktop to boot. The computer design made PCs accessible and information sharing prevalent.

Taking the floppy disk from mainframe to mainstream meant that computer software could now be written, and shared, by companies rather than individuals. Floppy disks weren’t able to store a lot of data compared to today’s storage capabilities—they could only store a measly 360 kB of data by 1983—but floppy disks did make digital knowledge increasingly portable and shareable.

When CD-ROMs Were Relevant

CD-ROMs added a new dimension to the blended learning saga of the ‘80s and ‘90s. CD-ROMs took the best of both worlds: the digitization of mainframes combined with the audio/visual components of video. The network connectivity of CDs allowed learner progress and performance to be tracked—much like the blended learning capabilities today’s tech offers. And with an expanded capacity for information storage, LMSs (learning management systems) began to flourish. CDs, coupled with the Internet, ushered blended learning into the 21st century.

1st Gen Web Instruction

The Internet was a game changer in how the world would share information in the future. And it’s no surprise. It seemed as though the internet had unlimited potential.

With the Internet, computers became even more popular. In fact, the ubiquity of technology is one reason blended learning has gained traction with learners today. And it’s easy to see how eLearning would be preferable to TV-based video or CD-ROMs. Uploading material was easy. Accessing material most anywhere was easy. And tracking learner progress was easy.

Smaller, Smarter, Faster: The Technology of Today

Fast-forward to today. Only 11% of U.S. adults don’t use the Internet, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. We truly live in the Information Age, and blended learning is a direct result of that environment.

Research seems to indicate that blended learning has the potential to give learners more of a bang for their buck. In fact, an analysis by the U.S. Department of Education indicates that learners get more from blended learning than they would from learning strictly online or through ILT.

When done right, blended learning can have a huge impact on learners. With technology permeating our homes, schools, and workplaces, the potential for blended learning to grow is immense. It’s important to keep up with the rapidly changing technology out there, but when blended learning is done right, it provides an excellent platform for learner engagement, a self-paced learning experience, and increased learning results.

The past shapes the present. For the time being, it looks like blended learning is here to stay.

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