Five ways to get your social learning right

Tim Powell-Jones gives us five easy ways to succeed at social learning.

What is social learning?

Almost all learning is social, and occurs every day across our networks and connections, whether online or not.

In recent research to find out what makes learning experiences memorable, participants were asked to outline an experience that had stayed with them, and every single one chose to speak about something with a social component, whether that was learning from a teacher, taking part in group activity, or testing what they had learned in a group of friends.

It’s pretty clear that this is not only an effective but also enjoyable form of learning. So why do attempts to implement social learning online so often fall flat? Empty discussion forums, expensively developed tools with almost no users, ambitious peer assessment strategies that confuse and disengage users. We’ve all seen these and many more.

So here are five tips for getting social learning right:

Know your learner

Learning depends on what people bring with them.

Of course, one factor is their pre-existing knowledge, but what about other affective factors? How much time do they have? Are they feeling confident and happy? Do they have a long history of successful education experiences, or is this one of their first?

Great social learning features help you put your knowledge to the test, make new connections and work out how to take your ideas forward together.

By building research-based user personas, we can map out the right journey for learners and carefully identify the points where they will benefit from contact with others, and get full value from interactions.

Advanced computer programmers may require a familiar environment to share knowledge and answer each other’s questions – why hello there Stack Overflow – but it’s a different matter if you want to try to support young people in building digital skills, or motivate disengaged workers. There is, unfortunately, no one size fits all solution.

Give it a purpose

Sometimes the only purpose for a social learning feature is a reminder that other people are online, having the same problems as you, and that’s OK. However, we should be more ambitious in our interactions.

Think about all the times you have been in a physical classroom, then try and remember if the unstructured free for all discussion of a typical forum ever took place, and if it did whether there would be any learning in that conversation (spoiler – nope).

Great social learning features help you put your knowledge to the test, make new connections and work out how to take your ideas forward together. Just like in a classroom a good teacher sets up an environment where the conversations are productive and full of lightbulb moments, online course designers need to make sure there is a clear communicative outcome to the interactions they plan.

Earn it, then make it easy

If the purpose of your social learning features is to motivate your learners, then you are in trouble. In fact, they may well turn off immediately if asked to give their opinion, contribute to discussion or brave the terrifying ordeal of recording a video message.

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Scaffolding techniques can help get around this, such as engaging input content, clear examples of what to do, tooltips to show how to do it, and being able to see where others have done it successfully.

Building confidence steadily towards one effective interaction is far more impactful than placing less meaningful interactions throughout your course, so save that video message until then end when people are ready to do it.

Does something else already do the job?

Great, you’ve found out all your millennial audience are hooked on! So let’s try and replicate that then. Except…wait, there’s something that already does that…

Similarly, if your company executives regularly learn from small group discussions with their peers in the canteen and enjoy this greatly, then digital tools that try to replace this only serve to put up barriers to the experience.

Your social learning should open channels of communication that don’t already exist, or can be improved upon. Maybe the executives enjoy the conversations, but if only the boss could hear and act on what they say…

Be aware of the stakes

Think about what is riding on the interaction, and what the learner gets from it versus the amount of effort they need to put in.

The absolute best ways of raising the stakes on any interaction is the possibility (no matter how slight) that someone will acknowledge it and respond. Twitter understands this implicitly, as does the teenage short story writer hoping for a retweet from @StephenKing.

The job when designing experiences is to balance these stakes, and think carefully about what people might want to be public, what they might want to be judged, and what they want to keep to themselves.

Don’t be afraid though!

Social tools may not always work first time, but through an ongoing process of refinement and iteration you can deliver some really memorable experiences for learners. The rewards of getting it right are more than worth the journey of getting there, because this is how we learn, and every day technology is giving us new and better ways to replicate that learning online.


About the author

Tim Powell-Jones is Lead Learning Designer at The Moment. The Moment specialise in designing digital learning solutions.



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