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A Brief History of LMS Social Learning

Social Learning


Social learning was a feature of Learning Management Systems (LMS) long before social media was invented.  In the 1990s, threaded discussions, coffee groups, collaboration centers, forums, FAQ and chat clogged up a seldom used “tab” in every major LMS.  “Extend the learning out of the classroom” or “Let the baby boomers share their knowledge before they retire” we used to say in the LMS sales business.

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

Content was, is and always will be the problem and solution to 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, engaging 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, webpages, eBooks, PDFs, Office documents and much more can be shared with everyone, groups, friends or individuals in your network.  With a news feed 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.



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!


Social Learning in the Extended Enterprise Webinar

I admit it, social learning for your employees is tough to figure out.  Social Learning is much easier for the extended enterprise audiences of channel partners, customers, members and users.  Join me for this webinar and I’ll define the varying levels of social learning in today’s extended enterprise LMS solutions.  I’ll outline what is working and what is not and for what audience groups and show social LMS functionality from 8 different vendors!

Finally, I’ll discuss tips on selecting the best social LMS features for your organization! Don’t miss this engaging and fun session!  You can register here for Social Learning in the Extended Enterprise Webinar on Tue, Feb 24, 2015 12:00 PM – 12:30 PM EST.  If you can’t make it, register anyway and I’ll send you the link to recording.  


Are You Shopping for a LMS and Need Help?

Social learning, mobile learning, gamification, certification, cloud, NextGen, LMS, LCMS — holy cow — you have to be a full time expert to keep up on all this stuff!   We can help.  Schedule a free consultation with Talented Learning’s CEO and Lead Analyst John Leh by filling out the form below:

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John Leh
About John Leh (127 Articles)
John Leh is CEO and Lead Analyst at Talented Learning, LLC. Named one of the Top 20 Global Elearning Movers and Shakers of 2017, John is a fiercely independent LMS selection consultant and blogger who helps organizations develop and implement technology strategies – primarily for the extended enterprise. John's advice is based on 20 years of industry experience, having served as a trusted LMS selection and sales adviser to more than 100 learning organizations with a total technology spend of more than $65 million. He helps organizations define their business case, identify requirements, short-list vendors, write and manage RFPs and negotiate a great deal. You can connect with John on Twitter at @JohnLeh or on LinkedIn.

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