It’s no secret – recently social media has had a rough ride. So why should we celebrate technologies that enable social learning experiences? Maybe the answer lies in the beauty of a simple human truth:
“Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.” -Bill Nye
Think about that for a moment.
After a decade of affordable high-speed internet access, smartphones, mobile apps and social networks, it’s easy to take our digital connections for granted. Yet there’s no denying that technology introduces us to countless people we would otherwise never meet. And each of those people has the potential to teach us something new.
In a sense, we’re all part of a grand social learning experiment. Sure, we’re bound to hit some speed bumps along the way. But clearly, this is powerful stuff.
Are We Socializing Responsibly?
Of course, the true value of social learning experiences depends on whether we keep our minds open to new ideas. Each of us has the responsibility to show up. And each of us must choose when, where and how we’ll engage.
Which leads me to another question: When was the last time you checked social media? What did you see the moment you logged in?
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Were you bombarded by a wave of heated political rhetoric? That energy seems impossible to avoid these days. But it wasn’t always that way. Remember?
Not long ago, the hottest “free range” debates I encountered involved L&D professionals arguing about the merits of learning systems in networked business environments. Even now, those debates roll on. It may take more effort to find them below the politically charged surface of your favorite social channel. But they’re still alive and kicking.
Occasionally, an LMS hater recommends abandoning these platforms in favor of learning record stores or other alternatives. (Although with 700+ learning systems on our watch list, we don’t see that happening anytime soon.)
Others obsess over semantics. Which label is technically correct – learning experience platform or learning engagement platform? And while we’re on the subject, which acronym is best – LXP or LEP? The hair-splitting name game possibilities are endless. And I can’t help wondering how many eyes are rolling in response. Nevertheless, these are signs of an engaged professional community.
We All Learn, Even If We Don’t Agree
Although these conversations sometimes lack direction or consensus, they are genuine and unfiltered. Plus, they connect real people who share common interests. At best, they provide market education. But at the very least, they offer food for thought.
In fact, according to the Association for Talent Development, the ROI of social learning compared with web-based training is as high as 75:1! So, what are the fundamentals that support this kind of transition? Here’s a four-pronged strategic framework to consider:
4 Pillars of Social Learning Experiences
Do you believe more minds are better than one? If not, tell me this – if you could invest in only one learning experience this year, which would you pick?
a) Two days with 10,000 industry colleagues at a live conference featuring a who’s who of expert speakers, or
b) Two days of private, uninterrupted access to a library of popular industry books, courses and related information.
Each has its own merits, but evidence shows that exposure to diverse people with similar interests will lead to a far more enriching learning experience. Why? Because interacting with others, exchanging ideas and processing feedback help us build stronger connections between topics as we learn.
Here’s another way to think about it. If people simultaneously complete the same online training in isolation, most will remember only basic information. But if you give them communication tools to share related questions and ideas while they’re interacting with training content, you’ve created a social experience that reinforces learning through interconnectedness. You can expect much better recall.
We’ve all heard the adage, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” But learning organizations can’t afford to leave content to chance. The more relevant, dynamic and useful your core content is, the more effective your social learning experiences and outcomes will be.
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Obviously, you need a sufficient quantity of compelling baseline content. On the other hand, too many options can paralyze participants with information overload. Seek balance. Get to know your audience in advance, then provide off-the-shelf and custom content that maps to their specific interests, goals and behavioral patterns.
But above all, be sure to leverage a central advantage of social learning – the opportunity to cultivate user-generated content. For example, you could encourage participants to create “work out loud” journal entries, checklists or other related resources. Or you could challenge them to enhance their learning by teaching others through “how to” videos or blog posts.
To understand how to motivate and educate someone, it’s important to speak their language. Start by studying learners in their natural habitat. Where do they spend their time online? What social environments do they already visit each day? What communication channels and tools fit into their flow of work?
Consider how you can leverage these existing channels with pathways to and from a social learning hub. The answer is likely to vary from one organizational culture and initiative to another. Also, your approach is likely to need adjustments over time, as social tools and preferences shift.
If your existing learning system doesn’t support APIs or microservices that help you easily integrate third-party social apps and tools, you may want to look closer at what’s possible from today’s most innovative learning platforms. For a sustainable infrastructure, you’ll need a system with the flexibility to change along with dynamic social business requirements.
It’s one thing to understand the big-picture reasons for your organization to invest in social learning strategies. But there’s no guarantee your participants will share your vision.
Why should they show up regularly? Why should they share questions or ideas? Why should they develop user-generated content? How will they benefit in the long-run?
The most effective social learning experiences are built on a foundation of community – a sense of belonging and commitment to a common purpose. Does this make sense for your initiative?
Think about how you can set expectations from the start and offer feedback and guideposts along the journey. What kind of communication and processes can help remind individuals that their ideas and contributions matter in the broader scheme of things?
In Summary: Social Learning is an Adventure
Social learning experiences may seem more complex to manage than standard online courses. They may stretch your existing knowledge and toolset, but they can be well worth the effort, as many successful programs are already demonstrating.
Sure, you’ll find uncertainty and risk when you give learners more control over their learning process. You can’t predict how engaged they will be, how much content they will generate or whether the quality of their contributions will meet your expectations. And that’s okay.
What you lose in control may be far outweighed by the benefits to your participants and your organization. Think of delivering social learning as an iterative learning process, itself. Focus on creating the right conditions, and then stand back and see what unfolds. Chances are, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the results.
Social learning is an adventure. Fasten your seatbelt and enjoy the ride!
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Kathleen "KK" Kruse has been exploring communication, innovation and business dynamics for more than 20 years. As an independent consultant, she focuses on the space where humans and digital technology intersect - including content strategy, learning, user experience and information design, community building and social media. A storyteller at heart, KK blends analytical insight, creative vision, and the power of the English language to define and develop narratives that are relevant, useful and persuasive. Her efforts have won credibility and market momentum for some of the world’s most innovative companies, such as Adobe, Apple, Netscape and Yahoo! You can connect with KK on Twitter at (@kkruse) or on LinkedIn at in/kathleenkruse.