E-learning Goes Social

If Corporate Culture Does Not Include Agility, Transparency, Usercentricity, Empowerment and Creativity, Your Work is Cut Out For You

Social media are hot. The Pew Research center reports that 74 percent of American adults use the Internet, and usage in other developed countries is similar. Facebook, which recently touted signing up its 500 millionth user, is now visited more often than Google. Top videos on YouTube are getting more than 250 million views. Twitter reports 50 million tweets per day — an average of 600 tweets per second.

Today, when people look for information or want to learn about something, they turn first to theWeb. They want to find what they need fast. They want it short and focused. They often prefer pictures and video to large amounts of text. The Web has evolved from a vast collection of linked documents to a dynamic collection of applications and communications. The implications for how e-learning is delivered are enormous.

We are on the threshold of a major revolution in e-learning.We have the technology
that makes social e-learning possible. But social e-learning is not just about tools. For it to be truly effective,we need to get to the next level: where people are as comfortable in the virtual learning environment as they are in the physical world and they find it compelling and an indispensible part of their work lives.

WEB 2.0 MAKES IT POSSIBLE

Social learning is not new; it’s the most basic form of human learning. Every educational experience has a social learning component. What is new is the ability to integrate social learning into web-delivered training. This opens up an enormous opportunity to expand the breadth and depth of training we can deliver.

What makes social learning on the web possible is Web 2.0 and its capabilities that
enable people to connect, communicate, collaborate and form relationships. Using standard tools like blogs, discussion boards and wikis, learners can interact with peers and with mentors. They can ask questions, post content and ask others for feedback. They can rate the usefulness of content posted by others. They can offer advice, collaborate on learning activities, and learn from each other. With the Web, learning can be integrated into the work process, so it’s truly “just in time,” contextual and experiential. The result is deeper and better learning.

We have become adept at delivering training over the Web, but we are less effective in supporting learners in transferring their newly acquired knowledge into actionable skills. That’s where social learning can help.

In the remainder of this article we will address some of the questions you may be asking yourself:
>>What is social e-learning?
>> Is social e-learning right for my organization?
>>What resistance amI likely to encounter?
>>What skills can I teach with social e-learning?
>> How do I get started?

WHAT IS SOCIAL E-LEARNING?

We define social e-learning as “the learning that takes place when learners interact with each other and with mentors over physical — support some degree of socialthe Web.” All communities — online or learning. In the workplace, of course, we want to leverage social learning to support high-quality skill development and application of new skills to work situations. What makes social learning so powerful at doing this is that it offers modeling (observing how others address a problem) and feedback (getting useful feedback from peers and mentors).

PSYCHOLOGICAL ROOTS

Those with a background in psychology will recognize the link to the work of Albert Bandura whose 1977 text Social Learning Theory was enormously influential. Bandura demonstrated that a lot of learning comes from observing others, trying the same tactics yourself, judging how well you are doing, and making corrections.

It’s the nature of social learning that the learner has to be intrinsically motivated. If the learner is not motivated or willing to perform self-reflection, it’s unlikely that much learning will occur. That may be seen as a problem in organizations that simply want to assign training and be assured that the learner has passed the test.

COMPARED TO TRADITIONAL E-LEARNING

Teaching people a set of facts or rules is straightforward. Teaching people how to apply the rules in real-world situations can be a lot harder. In the real world, there may not be enough time or resources. Information may bemissing; corporate politics and culture get in the way. E-learning modules cannot typically deal with the complexities of the real world. Computers are not yet skilled enough to algorithmically provide the kind of useful feedback that is needed to teach skills like critical thinking and problem-solving. Social learning can address these issues in amuchmore cost-effective way.

So it makes sense to blend conventional e-learning courses with a social learning component. For example, you can use traditional techniques to teach someone how to read a financial document. But creating the insight that leads to financial acumen requires that the learner go through a lot of examples and receive a lot of constructive feedback. That’s better done using social learning.

Social learning is about learning how to apply new skills from other, more experienced and knowledgeable people. By collaborating with others, observing how they handle situations and modeling personal responses, the learner integrates the new information in a way that makes it usable. And that makes it really powerful.

NOT NECESSARILY COMPLEX

Adding a social learning component does not have to be technologically complex.A simple form of social e-learning, for example, can be constructed by simply adding a discussion capability to an e-learning course. A no-frills discussion board allows participants to ask questions, seek advice, get comments on their ideas, and generally learn fromothers. A simple Facebook group about how to look for a job has a social learning component.

At the end of the day, the real challenge is to envision a environment that is rich, engaging and empowering so learners will see its value. The quality of the instructional vision and design make all the difference.

POSSIBLE RESISTANCE

It is hard to think of a training process that would not be improved through a social e-learning component. But don’t be surprised if you run into some resistance.

Here are just a few of the concerns you may run into:
>> Companies are at different stages in adopting Web 2.0 tools. Some companies question their business value, while others are concerned about issues like security or what employees will say on line. To some, the very terminology “social community” or “social learning” may suggest an environment they see as inappropriate to the workplace.
>> Some employees are worried about being criticized or feeling foolish for posting on line. The vast majority of people who go on line to read do not feel comfortable posting.
>> One of the strengths of traditional e-learning is that you are teaching to criteria and getting a score. Social e-learning may need to be measured differently. This can be especially difficult in a highly metrics-oriented organization.
>> You’ll need to think about how mentoring will work. Will you use peers? Or designate leaders or coaches to make sure comments stay on track, avoid rants and correct misinformation? Can you find the resources to support the community?

Web 2.0 is not an easy fit for all companies. Corporations that are successful using social media share five characteristics that we call a “Web 2.0-friendly culture.” They are: agility, transparency, user-centricity, empowerment and creativity. If these words don’t describe your corporate culture, you may have your work cut out for you.

TEACHING SKILLS

Ten years into the new millennium, things feel quite different from just a few years ago. It is clear that business is changing and that problem-solving, decision- making and critical thinking are important skills. A number of recent studies (including a 2006 study conducted jointly by The Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the Society for Human Resource Management) have found that employers feel strongly that the critical thinking skills of new entrants to the workforce need improvement to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

The implication is that it’s hard to find, attract, hire and retain proficient critical thinkers—and it won’t get easier any time soon. Without social learning, it is very difficult and expensive to teach these complex skills. As a result, training in these areas is usually limited to a relatively small group. But social e-learning is proving to be a cost effective way to tackle the problem.

GETTING STARTED

Social media and Web 2.0 tools offer a cost-effective approach to teaching many of the skills required by 21st-century organizations. The technology is simple, affordable, and evolving rapidly. We are in a period of experimentation, so you will encounter examples of different approaches and a lot of room for improvement. There are few, reliable best practices to reference.

Because there are so many ways to think about social learning, it’s hard to offer suggestions that will apply to every situation.Here are some of the tips we have found effective:

>> Assemble a cross-functional team to assess your organization’s culture to see if there are issues that are likely to cause problems. Consider your organization’s fit with aWeb 2.0-friendly culture.
>> Decide what you want to teach. Consider such areas as critical thinking, leadership, innovation and strategic thinking where long-term coaching is important for deep learning.
>> Identify the environment where the social learning will occur. This probably will be an on-line community. Make sure the technology supports your instructional model.
>> Determine who will manage the community and how rules will be developed. Self-managed communities can often be the most cost-effective. Establish rules that treat people like responsible adults: insist members use their real names and treat peers in a respectful, professional manner.
>> Determine what form of mentoring or coaching you will offer. Peer coaching
is, not surprisingly, the most inexpensive, and you may be able to supplement it with a few enthusiastic senior mentors. Consider reverse mentoring where younger workers mentor older ones. This is often very effective for helping older workers become comfortable with social media tools.
>> Integrate conventional e-learning modules and other resources where they make sense.
>> Don’t be dull. Create a learning environment that’s fun, fast, engaging and uses a full range of multi-media.
>> Create opportunities and incentives that that reward posting and active participation, not just reading.
>> Figure out what metrics work for you so that you can measure how your social e-learning environment is progressing.
>> Don’t underestimate the time and resources necessary to keep the community
vibrant, growing and useful. Start simple, and use an agile, iterative process to grow your social e-learning environment.

—Authors: Anne and Charlie Kreitzberg run Cognetics Interactive, a design and consulting company that specializes in social computing, user experience and organizational effectiveness. She holds an M.B.A. from NYIT and is on the faculty of theWharton School.He holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology. E-mail them at anne@cognetics.com and charlie@cognetics.com.

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