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Best Practices for Blended Learning Design

A Case Study of the UW Professional Life Coaching Certificate Program

Darcy Luoma

Darcy Luoma, Lead Instructor, UW–Madison Professional Life Coach Certificate Program

Aphra Mednick

Aphra Mednick, Program Director, UW–Madison Professional Life Coach Certificate Program

Association educational leaders who are responsible for developing adult learning programs often struggle with defining what makes for a quality educational program, especially one that relies heavily on technology. National associations are often challenged to come up with professional development programs that garner a strong reputation and brand and also generate revenue. This is the story of a university extension certificate program that is doing both.

My wife recently enrolled in an eight-month program called Professional Life Coaching Certificate (PLCC) Program offered by the Continuing Studies branch of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I witnessed second hand what I believe to be an example of best practice for blended learning design. I’ve been a student of blending learning design theory for a long time, and witnessing this exemplary course helped crystallize for me the key ingredients for creating effective blended learning experiences. First I’ll list the eight key ingredients; then we’ll see how the PLCC course fits into this model.


Key Ingredients of Blended Learning Program Design

1. Branded Provider
2. Star Instructor
3. Cohort Model
4. Rigorous Learning Objectives and Expectations
5. Adherence to Adult Learning Theory
6. Aggressive Use of Different Learning Modalities and Technologies
7. Active Learning Activities
8. Transformational and Social

I caught up with PLCC program director Aphra Mednick and lead instructor Darcy Luoma recently to discuss in general what makes for a high quality certificate program. Play the audio below to listen to our initial discussion.


1. Branded Provider

uwlogo_web_sm_ctr_v2Can you beat the University of Wisconsin brand? Sure, this program is offered under the Continuing Studies banner and is not a four-year degree program. But successful programs leverage the brand of an organization with a history of excellence in education, and this program does just that. If your association is nationally recognized, you have all the more reason to establish your brand as a premier educator for members of your community of practice. As you will hear from Aphra and Darcy below, the goal is to leverage the UW brand and maintain high program standards so that organizations begin to require their employees involved in human resource coaching to carry the PLCC designation.

You can find more details on the University of Wisconsin Professional Life Coaching Certificate Program here.


2. Star Instructor

Hollywood developed the “star system” primarily to put butts in the seats. You can do the same. Marketing an existing author or practitioner, or even creating a “star instructor,” can provide another reason for learners to invest their time and resources to gain knowledge and skills from your program. Your instructor may have already established expertise through the publishing of a book or blog. You can also find ways to encourage the instructor to help with recruiting students, as Ms. Luoma does. In the case of the PLCC program, lead instructor Darcy Luoma already had an established life coaching business with connections and familiarity to the International Coaching Federation (ICF), the national association for life coaches. Aphra and I discussed how the program has worked to create a star instructor.


3. Cohort Model

Classroom session

Darcy and Aphra lead a face-to-face classroom session in the PLCC course.

Although many association online professional development programs are asynchronous so adult learners can partake anytime and anywhere, there is still significant perceived value in an educational program that begins on a specific date and features continuous exposure to peers. Associations have successfully run cohort sessions that begin or end with the annual conference. This provides professional networking opportunities for students and, when paired with the use of online discussion threads, enables strong social learning. In the case of the PLCC program, scheduled face-to-face classroom sessions complement and reinforce concepts from the the online and telephone sessions and help the designers achieve their goal of providing a transformative experience.


4. Rigorous Learning Objectives and Expectations

Since this 9-month program is accredited by the International Coaching Federation, the curriculum must be rigorous. The syllabus includes  a large number of recorded and graded practice sessions, class hours, and domain knowledge (including ethics training). I asked Darcy and Aphra about ICF’s influence on the course.


5. Adherence to Adult Learning Theory

According to Malcolm Knowles, adult learners are self-directed learners who appreciate applying knowledge, performing, and putting skills into practice.  As a protégé of William Horton and his book eLearning by Design, I like to give learners opportunities to do and connect, not just absorb a lecture or a book chapter.  This program practices this concept but also adds a fourth element, being.  I asked Darcy to comment on the amount of “doing” that goes on in her course.


6. Aggressive Use of Different Learning Modalities and Technologies & 7. Active Learning Activities

Desire2Learn screenshot

The online component of the PLCC course is hosted in Desire2Learn LMS.

The majority of the PLCC program is self-directed and enabled by various technologies. Here is a list of the learning modalities listed in the program’s syllabus.

  • In-person Learning
  • Teleconferences
  • Blogging and Discussion Forums
  • Personal Learning Journal
  • Coaching Theory Presentations
  • Passion Projects
  • Individual Supervision
  • Group Supervision
  • Coaching Buddy
  • Personal Life Coach
  • Coaching Clients
  • Written Exam
  • Oral Exam

Many of the activities require the help of technology like the Desire2Learn learning management system. Here Aphra touches on some of the uses of the technology and why it’s helpful.


8. Transformational and Social

Both the classroom activities and online activities have a strong social learning component that is in line with Mezirow’s theory of transformative learning.


Finally, what is also impressive are the types of students this program attracts, especially corporate human resources people who need to improve their listening skills and their ability to ask powerful questions.

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