How Blended Learning can Improve Industrial Automation Training

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Over the past decade, there has been a proliferation of remote or distance learning using the internet (often referred to as e-learning or online education) in the technology and industrial automation education areas (Allen & Seaman, 2006; Bersin, 2004; Bonk & Graham, 2006; Ma & Nickerson, 2006; Rossett, 2001). Typical approaches for e-learning are web-based (asynchronous) and streaming of video with a live instructor (synchronous) over the internet (Rossett, 2001).

Kazmer and Haythornthwaite (2004) quoted from Pew Internet and American Life Project (The internet and education, 2001) that "On any one day, at least one million people in the U.S. are online taking a course" (p. 7). Claims have been made by early pioneers such as Whalen (2000) on the improved learning achieved and cost effectiveness and by extension, return on investment (ROI) of this form of training compared to that of traditional classroom-based training. Zhang, Zhao, Zhou, and Nunamaker (2004) indicated that learning using information technologies was rapidly growing due to the increasing demands for quicker time to gain competency in a subject and the issues of globalisation and accelerating competition.

Kanyongo (2005) referred to L.J. Smith (2001) who listed the benefits of e-learning as being "accessibility, flexibility, participation, absence of labeling, written communication experience and experience with technology" (p. 1). On the other hand, L.J. Smith (2001) listed the problems for e-learning being that of "team building, security of online examinations, absence of oral presentation opportunities and technical problems" (p. 1).

Brown and Lahoud (2005) noted the remarks of Moore and Kearsley (1996) that courses delivered at a distance can be as good as that of traditional classroom instruction. They felt that the key to a good quality course is the way it is designed and delivered. After an extensive review of the literature, Lorenzo and Moore (2002) supported this assertion, by saying that online learning can on occasion be better than traditional classroom learning. Though Mendenhall (2007) indicated that this was becoming less true as the technology becomes more supportive. However, lab work was still better done in the traditional setting. The purpose of this research was to investigate whether this lab work could be effected successfully over the internet.

Research Background

Blended learning is combination of classroom learning which considerably utilised online learning facilities such as u-Link and Blackboard to have advantages of these two approaches to learning (Allen & Seaman, 2006; Bersin, 2004; Bonk & Graham, 2006). It is useful to briefly examine recent research which examined blended learning, classroom and e-learning.

Boyle, Kolosh, L'Allier, and Lambrecht (2003) compared five groups using a common asssessment: blended learning in three variations (text objects from a textbook, instructor-led or an instructor-led customised course), e-learning and a control group who received no training. The results indicated that there was a significant improvement of blended learning over e-learning; but not much difference between the blended groups. E-learning demonstrated a marked improvement over the control group.

Hentea, Shea and Pennington (2003) noted that distance learning programs are increasingly using hybrid or blended models to maximise the level of interaction between students and university staff. They quoted the Thomson learning test on adult learners (Kiser, 2002) which investigated three groups (blended learning, online learning, and no training) performing tasks using Excel (Kiser, 2002). The test results showed that the blended learning group performed tasks 30% more accurately and 41% faster than the online-only group.

Bernard et al. (2004) performed a meta-analysis on distance learning (referred to as DE), including synchronous and asynchronous techniques versus classroom learning, and "found some evidence, in an overall sense, that classroom instruction and DE are comparable…" (p. 420). They were however perplexed at the wide variability in the data, which cast some doubt over even these findings, and they made some disparaging remarks about the poor state of distance education research.

Weinstein, Wiesner, Zappe, Yu, and Bandyopadhyay (2005) compared the online versus classroom (face-to-face) formats for a number of large enrolment general education university courses. Their findings were that there were no differences in the exam scores, pre- and post-tests. A large number of students found the electronic materials (powerpoints, images, online quizzes) useful in learning the materials. A large percentage of students felt isolated from the instructor in the online version. Both lecturers and students noted the flexibility of the online format.

The approach proposed in this research in only assessing at two levels of reaction and learning, should be contrasted with Lewis and Orton's work discussed in Bonk and Graham (2006) who have indeed assessed for all of Kirkpatrick's four levels, a large number of managers engaged in one of their blended learning programs over 10 months. However the program was intensive involving three phases of 48 hours (Phase I), five days in-class (Phase II), and 25 weeks online (Phase III). It is unclear how many were assessed in levels three and four but it appears that they were assessing approximately 6,600 participants.

Neumann and Carrington (2007) produced an international synchronous e-learning session for 450 learners situated on 41 university compuses in Australia and New Zealand in March 2006. They then drew each group of participants into local discussions, thus creating a blended approach. They felt that overall the training was successful.

Research Problem

In conclusion, there has been a significant amount of work comparing the classroom, blended learning and e-learning but minimal research as applied to engineer and technician training. Leading on from this suggested research, the hypotheses will be discussed in the next section.

There has been some conjecture about the best blend between online education and traditional classroom instruction (Banks, 2004). Blended learning (Bersin, 2004; Mackay & Stockport, 2006) is a combination of the different training media such as classroom instruction, on-the-job training and e-learning. Banks referred to Brookfield (1990) and Berge and Schreier (1998) who noted that traditional education models were constructed around the concept of "one place, learning at one pace, following one path, and at one time" (p. 6). He drew on van Dam (2001) who noted that online education has the potential to remove these limitations but would find it difficult to duplicate what works really well in the classroom. Simonson (2003) believed that for online learning (or distance education) to be successful, it is critical that distance education systems are designed to allow similar learning experiences for both distant and traditional classroom-based students.

Research Aim, Objectives, Question and Hypotheses:

Aim and Objectives

The overall aim proposed is to determine whether blended learning with a hands-on interactive approach applied to synchronous e-learning will improve the reaction, learning achieved and return on investment (ROI) of industrial automation training compared to that of either classroom training or e-learning? It is argued that in many respects blended learning is better than only using classroom training or e-learning, will measured in terms of reaction from the participants, learning improvements and ROI. The specific hypotheses developed to achieve this aim are based on previous research findings; the most significant being that of Banks (2004).

The research described here is an investigation on whether a combination of e-learning and classroom learning, or blended learning, would improve the reaction, learning achieved and ROI of training in the engineering field of industrial automation compared to that of either only classroom training or e-learning. The associated costs and benefits to a corporation in improving its bottom line in terms of technology and industrial automation training as compare to classroom-based education will be also examined. Research done so far in a more general environment such as information technology, as opposed to a specific engineering discipline such as industrial automation training, indicated that blended learning has the same effectiveness in terms of learning achievement as traditional classroom learning (Banks, 2004; Boyle, Kolosh, L'Allier, & Lambrech, 2003). In summary objectives of this research are:

To compare effectiveness of blended learning in terms of learning achievement with traditional classroom learning

To compare effectiveness of blended learning in terms of learning achievement with e-learning

Research Question

The following research question will be analysed in this research:

Whether blended learning will improve the reaction, achievement and return on investment (ROI) of industrial automation training compared to that of only through the classroom or e-learning?

Research Hypotheses

As noted in Banks (2004), most evaluation techniques use one of Kirkpatrick's four levels. The most basic measurement is based on "reaction" to the training. Hence the first hypothesis used this as a measure.

H1: Synchronous e-learning produces an improved student reaction compared to that of classroom instruction alone.

H2: Remote labs or simulation software are not used extensively as part of e-learning courses for engineers.

H3: There is currently no extensive use of e-learning and blended learning for engineers and technicians.

H4: There is significant growth in blended learning courses for engineers and technicians.

Methodological Approach:

When defining the methodology to use, it is important to base this on proven techniques and instruments used in past research. Due to the requirements of this research and in order to achieve the research aim and objective, quantitative approach will be employed in the research methodology. Among different quantitative research tools, online questionnaire survey is selected as the most appropriate research method, in view of the fact that large number of participants (about 400 engineers and technicians) world-wide will be questioned to have the results which can be generalised.

Bonk (an e-learning specialist and widely published academic) who runs a professional survey company ( provides the software for the construction of the instrument. Some of the survey questions in the instrument will be derived from his work. As e-learning is a relatively new approach to training in a traditionally conservative engineering environment, it is possible that most respondents in the industrial automation business have not used e-learning and the concept of blended learning may be unknown; hence the need to minimise the possibility of respondents attempting to answer questions on issues they have no knowledge.

Based on the research discussed in previous sections, this proposed work is structured around an online-based questionnaire survey with a sample size of around 400 respondents. The large volume of responses to the online survey makes enough amounts of data made available for assessment.

Whilst the hypotheses above are needed to be tested, the survey should also be designed to extract as much information about the state of e-learning and blended learning in the engineering and industrial automation area, as the degree of use (of the e-learning) technologies in this particular arena is unknown due to the paucity of literature considering this issue.

The intention of the survey is to maximise the number of actual learners in e-learning and blended learning activities (as opposed to the human resource or training departments, for example). It is believe that individuals from a training department or training vendors who organize or sell training solutions, would perhaps give biased opinions based on what they believe the recipients should feel about the training. Most of the survey instruments identified were designed for those participants who had completed a specific e-learning or blended learning course shortly before filling in the survey. It is also important to ensure that only those participants who know what e-learning or blended learning meant, complete the entire survey; and after general questions of general training requirements a graceful exit point will designed for the others.

A questionnaire survey will be done using the web on a worldwide basis (as opposed to any one individual country) to attract as many respondents as possible, as it would appear that the number of technical professionals using both automation equipment and applying e-learning or blended learning is limited. This will provide information on the degree of use of blended learning and e-learning in the industrial automation business sphere.

For dada analysis SPSS software will be utilised. Univariate and multivariate analysis such as multiple regression, and MANOVA are going to use to have full picture from the collected data and relationship between dependant and independent variables. The first step is to examine the data from a univariate point of view and to look at appropriate graphs and descriptive statistics and confirm whether the data are normally distributed or not. Also a look at the descriptive statistics (such as the mean) for the data, gives some valuable feedback on what the real issues are that will be indicated by the data. In the second step a choice of multivariate analysis method comes down to a dependence or an interdependence analysis.

Ethical Considerations of the Project:

It is important to maintain the confidentiality of all respondents and firms participating in the research. No individual responses will be distributed to any organization, firm or society. Data will be collected and stored in a way that only the author has access to them. Only aggregated results will be distributed in such a way that the individuals could not be identified. Data will be deleted after final analysing and terminating this research project. Authorisation to proceed with the research will be given by the Brunel University Human Ethics Committee

Dissertation Outline:

The dissertation is structured as follows:

Chapter 1 - Introduction and overview. This contained background to the topic; details of the research problem; definitions and methodology.

Chapter 2 - Literature Review. This examined parent and immediate disciplines insofar as analytical models and research questions.

Chapter 3 - Research Methodology. A justification of the paradigm and methodology.

Chapter 4 - Results. An analysis of the data and assessment of the patterns of data for each hypothesis and the research question.

Chapter 5 - Conclusions. Conclusions about the hypotheses; implications for theory; limitations and suggested future research.


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