I recently presented with Kassy LaBorie at Training Magazine’s Online Learning conference held in Chicago. I opened the presentation by giving a top-10 list of trending topics in the Learning and Development industry. The audience agreed that the list seemed more-or-less accurate – only to learn it was copied from a presentation I gave in 2010! Certain topics, such as gamification, mobile learning, social learning, and others continue to be much written and talked about in the training field. One of these topics however, Social Learning, has I think been considered too narrowly – in at least in one respect – by writers, speakers, and other industry thought leaders.
First, let’s get clear that by “social learning” I don’t mean something that is new, a fad, or – strictly speaking – even a trend really. Social learning itself has been around for millennia – simply put, it is learning through your interactions with others and through the knowledge and expertise of others. What myself and many others in the learning and development field have been rightly stressing as a trend is how new technologies can better enable more frequent, more convenient, and more efficient social learning.
What technologies do most think of when they think social learning? Social Media. Originally referred to as “Web 2.0” technologies, this term refers to everything from popular websites and services such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Wikipedia, YouTube, and more – even Amazon.com’s ratings and reviews. Then there are the similar technologies often used internally in organizations – Yammer, Skype, Chatter, and various social media technologies such as wikis, blogs, forums, video sharing and more that are now built into enterprise platforms such as Microsoft Sharepoint and many Learning Management Systems. All of these technologies can be very valuable – both in our personal lives, but also for increasing collaboration, sharing knowledge, and indeed enabling greater social learning in our workplaces.
Ben Betts, in a recent eLearning Guild research report, summed this up well: "Social learning isn’t new. It is a fundamental part of how we all learn from our experiences. The emergence of social media, as enabled by the Internet, is allowing us to interact socially while physically removed from each other. This has profound implications for how we facilitate learning at distance.”
And yet, when organizations look to technologies to enable greater social learning, is social media the only game in town? Hardly!
Virtual Classroom technology can also play a critical role in your social learning strategy. Used for 15 years for Live Online formal training, tools such as WebEx, Adobe Connect, and others also provide a great opportunity for collaborative, often informal learning from peers as well as the facilitator or trainer. There are many features of these tools that with a little fore-thought and design can accomplish social learning:
- Text Chat – Some people don’t feel that a conversation is happening in a Live Online learning environment if people aren’t talking through audio (not to mention full webcam video). But I’ve seen countless strong online learning experiences take place in the text chat area of the environment – in fact, this can often be better than audio given the time lag that can sometimes arise due to bandwidth or other issues. Experience a robust “chatversation” and I think you will agree!
- Whiteboard – Allowing participants to write on a whitespace area in the tool can be a great way to brainstorm, collaborate on a question or problem, or chime in with their unique perspective. Even better, start to think of “whiteboard” as a verb! Don’t just let them whiteboard on the official whiteboard feature of the tool, but on any PowerPoint slides where it is appropriate.
- Breakouts – Sometimes being able to work together in a sub-group is a great way to consider a case study, practice a new skill and get coaching, work through a thorny process change, or brainstorm ideas efficiently. This is similar to splitting up a traditional classroom into groups at their circular tables or the like, and then coming back together to discuss what each group came up with as ideas or solutions.
- Feedback – You can use formal polls at any time, but also available is a more subtle, informal use of feedback in virtual classroom environments. Features such as “raise hand”, yes/no, checkmark, and others can be used to gauge attitudes, opinions, and the wisdom of the crowd gathered together.
These software features and others can all be used to enable greater social learning in your organization, as part of formal training events or independently. And of course social media platforms can be used in conjunction with virtual training events, to even further enable social learning. Consider the case where the above synchronous features are used in 2-hour training sessions held each week for 8 weeks, and an asynchronous social media platform with discussion forums, activity stream updates, blog posts, and more is used to keep the learning going between the formal learning events. No need for it to end there either – keep the social media platform live and let the cohort of learners continue to learn from each as they continue to apply their new skills and knowledge on the job.
So as you continue to consider how to use technology to enable more social learning in your organization – don’t only think of social media, think of virtual classroom technologies too!