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A Brief History of LMS Social Learning

What kind of social learning features should you expect in a modern LMS? Independent learning tech analyst John Leh explains

Do you think “social” learning functionality was invented with the rise of social media? Think again.

Social features were built into learning management systems (LMS) long before social media (as we know it today) was invented.  In the 1990s, threaded discussions, coffee groups, collaboration centers, forums, FAQs and chat clogged-up a seldom-used “tab” in every major LMS.  We used to say in the LMS sales business, “Extend learning beyond the classroom.” Or, “Let your baby boomers share their knowledge before they retire.”

Training and development leaders and instructional designers loved the idea of social learning.  Setting the business case aside, it was easy to dream blissful holistic learning theory dreams.  The possibilities were endless and so were the starting spots.  Many times after the purchase of the additional cost, social learning LMS module, C-level executives started asking the L&D folks about the following:

  • How much time is all this going to take away from work?
  • Do we have the bandwidth (personnel or technical) for this?
  • What are we really getting out of this?
  • Why are we doing this?
  • What happens if we do nothing for now?

Because there were no concrete, measurable answers (except for the last question), many organizations chose to do nothing.  Those learning and development organizations that did try to launch the social LMS components found quickly that making social learning successful is much more difficult than buying it and turning it on.

Content:  The LMS Social Learning Problem

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Content was, is and always will be the problem and the solution for any social learning effort.  At first, organizations decided that the learning and development professionals and subject matter experts would be the suppliers of the content but as any blogger could tell them, producing regular content – that is interesting – is extremely difficult.  I’ve yet to figure it out.

Compounding the not-fresh-enough, not -engaging-enough content problem, many organizations turned on the LMS social learning features for all types of users making every social learning forum or community seem extremely barren despite their best minimal efforts.  The first time a learner visited a community and there was nothing new an alarm went off and it sounded something like “Whoop.  I knew this was a dumb idea! Whoop.”  Few learners returned to hear the alarm a third time.

And just like that learners stopped visiting, content creation dwindled, online discussions became dated and social learning died a quiet and quick death in most organizations.  RIP social learning.  Get to work everyone.

Out goes the 1990’s and the first five years of the new millennium with the  LMS industry sitting on the potential of Facebook and Twitter billions yet never aware of it and believing they failed.  Social learning was the right idea at the wrong time and opportunity turned away unanswered.

Social Media – Enter Upstage Left

In the 2000’s, while LMSs were selling social learning castles in the sky, the new social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn built them in the cloud.   Social media is online software that allows users to create and share content to their personal network of users.

Videos, tutorials, articles, podcasts, pictures, text, web pages, eBooks, PDFs, Office documents and much more can be shared with everyone, groups, friends or individuals in your network.  With a newsfeed you can monitor easily what is being shared in your network, like it, learn it, save it, ignore it or forward it.

Social media worked so well because it solved the historical content conundrum by enabling and encouraging the users to create and propagate content.  That’s it.  Instead of the organization shouldering all the content creation, the community was now the main contributor.   Once you have a community with a constant supply of fresh content, users visit more and more often.  I had to delete Facebook from my smartphone for just this reason.

The Rebirth of LMS Social Learning

Since 2010, new and progressive cloud LMS providers have been integrating the best of social media features with social learning and guess what – it’s working.  Organizations are finally able to create sustainable communities using their LMS. The long-promised benefits of holistic formal/informal learning are beginning to be realized.  (Generations of instructional designers everywhere can take a well deserved, long time coming “I told you so”  deep breath.)

Here are five of my favorite LMS social learning/social media enhancements that I’ve found in the industry after formally reviewing 72 LMSs in the last year:

1.  Integrated Social Interface – Learners now have shareable user profiles with pictures, resumes, news feeds, group memberships, posting, sharing, liking and rating capabilities.  The learner LMS homepage looks like Facebook.  Upcoming training, notifications, catalog, news stream and dashboards are just panels you can turn off, on or rearrange.  Social learning now has a front seat in the LMS as well as the online content.

2.  Content Curation – In LMS, curation is a fancy word that means taking the best user-generated content and elevating it to featured content, formal content and sharing it more broadly. Content curation is an easy way for an organization to find and distribute great content and eliminate poor content.  For example, having your customers share projects, templates or workarounds they developed with your software product has broad appeal to other customers as well as internal product development and marketing teams.

3.   Gamification — The integration of gamification into the social learning experience is another recent advancement.  LMS gamification includes contests and games overarching all content in the LMS and is used to motivate and encourage learners.  Learners are awarded points for using the LMS, taking content and participating in social learning.  As points accumulate, users earn new levels, badges and distinctions that are displayed on their profile, leaderboards and social news streams.  Learners can also earn tangible rewards such as gift cards or discount coupons.

4.  xAPI (Tin Can) – xAPI is a communication standard that allows for the tracking and reporting of informal or formal learning activities that a user does outside of the LMS portal.  Using the new xAPI, cutting-edge LMSs are providing learners the ability to record external learning activities they completed, conferences attended, websites visited, books read, videos watched and MOOCs completed on their user profile, transcript and share to their social learning networks if they want.

5.  Mobile Performance Support – The best LMSs have created learner apps that take the LMS and social networks out into the field via mobile devices.  If a channel partner needs help selling a complicated product, they can access the internal network of solution architects to help real time.  Or a maintenance engineer can take a picture of an unknown product malfunction and distribute to other engineers for diagnostic advice.

Conclusion

There is no longer a demarcation line between social learning, traditional learning, gaming, compliance and performance support in the modern LMS.  You don’t go to another tab, window or even your laptop to collaborate.  It’s hard to say where the social learning starts and formal learning stops in the new LMSs.  It doesn’t matter.  It’s just learning.  Welcome to 2015.

Thanks for reading!

 


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John Leh
About John Leh (160 Articles)
John Leh is CEO and Lead Analyst at Talented Learning, LLC. Named among the “Top 20 Global Elearning Movers and Shakers” in 2018 and 2017, John is a fiercely independent LMS selection consultant, blogger and podcaster who helps organizations develop and implement learning technology strategies – primarily for extended enterprise applications. His advice is based on more than 20 years of industry experience, serving as a trusted LMS selection and sales adviser to more than 100 learning organizations with a total technology spend of more than $65 million. You can connect with John on Twitter at @JohnLeh or on LinkedIn.

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