So, what is social learning? Social learning refers to all the informal ways people learn through observation and interaction with others then modeling learned behaviors. This could be anything from kids learning sassy language at school to you sharing professional advice with LinkedIn groups to working one-on-one with a mentor. I think most people would agree that the majority of everyone’s daily learning happens informally vs. sitting in a classroom.
For organizations, the question becomes, can we formalize this informal learning, get it into our LMS and capitalize on it? Phrased like that, it seems kind of silly, but as an industry, we’ve been trying to do exactly that for over a decade. In the year 2000, most LMS systems already had collaboration centers and threaded discussion groups tied to courses or groups of users. I’ve seen few client organizations use these original social learning features effectively. Turns out that the overhead of managing and keeping content fresh is pretty heavy and the effort collapses under its own weight without a lot of attention and fresh peer-to-peer content.
The LMS social learning features certainly preceded Facebook and Twitter, but just never caught on in learning management systems until after the broader social media revolution. With the explosion of mainstream social media in the last five years, older LMS providers pulled out their old informal learning features, dusted them off, rebranded them and are trying again.
Newer progressive LMS providers have extended these feature sets to emulate the familiar feel of Facebook and Twitter. As a result, client organizations are also dusting off the idea to see if the new technology has made social learning more feasible and measurable.
With the all the hype and reality, it’s tough to know what you really need. Here is my unsolicited advice; you should never buy a LMS for the social learning features unless you have a measurable social learning business plan. If you can’t justify who would use it, why and the business impact –skip it for now. Social learning is not going anywhere, let others bleed on the cutting edge.
In my experience, I’ve found social learning is more applicable for extended enterprise audiences than for internal employee populations. Non-employee users like your channel partners or customers are voluntary users and social interaction can drive adoption, customer loyalty and increased sales. Although this is also true for internal employees, you can also just tell them what training they are compelled to take and make it much easier.
Over the last ninety days, Talented Learning has reviewed some of the world’s best LMS solutions and we have consolidated every social learning feature we found into 5 Levels of Social Learning outlined below:
Social Learning Level 1: The Introvert
Not all LMS solutions have social features and they are quite comfortable being introverted. (Somewhat like me in real life.) These vendors have absolutely nothing to support social learning, are proud of it and coincidentally they are the ones that claim that social learning is hype. They also tend to be the older generation of LMS companies that are more geared more towards administration vs. end-user experience.
However, many client organizations agree with this point of view and don’t want their employees wasting time chatting and socializing on the clock. With all the other training challenges of eLearning, learning management and limited bandwidth, social learning is an easy bridge they can postpone crossing. Although, I don’t have concrete statistics, I would estimate 70-80% of client organizations still fall in this category.
Social Learning Level 2: The Basics
If a vendor says they have social learning, you can assume they mean they have at least the following feature sets: One-way push information features:
- RSS Feeds (for an example, check out the Talented Learning RSS feed)
- Mail, notifications, announcements, text messages
Two-way interaction features:
- Question and answer
- Discussion boards, threaded discussion, forums or best practice centers tied to classes or topics
- Blogs –in many cases these look more like threaded discussion than WordPress
All of the above features started out as stand alone places in the LMS and over time were loosely integrated into the user experience. Now they can be included as specific learning activities in learning paths, curriculums and certifications.
Social Learning Level 3: Peer-to-Peer Personalization
The peer-to-peer personalization feature set introduces interaction incorporated into the typical user workflow. Peer-to-peer makes it more relevant than monitored discussion boards and more likely to be used. This is more consistent to how we use social media in our personal lives. It starts to incorporate contextual learning and recommendations that adapt to end users and their habits. Functionality in at this level includes:
- Ability to rate content — Amazon 5 Stars ratings and eBay-like comments
- Ability to share content to peers
- Content recommendation to peers
- Tagging content (new word for keyword metadata)
- Most popular content, highly rated content, frequently accessed content
- Learner-generated content — upload ability
- Find-the-expert functionality with people search and communications via chat or mail
- Extended Enterprise Communities – connect employees, customers and a partners in a single environment with access to learning (formal and social) and more
Social Learning Level 4: Let’s Integrate
So far, the above features are almost always built directly into each LMS vendor’s product. A new trend over the last few years is for LMS vendors to wash their hands of developing social learning but rather leverage the existing social networks out there.
The logic is pretty sound. Your social groups may already exist on one or more social platforms, so why not tap into these networks and use their inherent capabilities to extend your LMS without any additional investment. Additionally, it’s a lot easier to link to an existing social network than build it out yourself.
The downside is integrated products have different user experiences, so the overall experience is not as seamless and tight as home grown products. The integrated social learning features are great for extended enterprise audiences like channel partners and association members because many times you do not know who they are and the integrations automate the account creation and log in process. It also allows users to leverage their existing investment in their personal and professional social contact networks.
Here are some of the integrated features we found:
- Open Social Integrations –allows users to create accounts, log in, port contacts, access feeds using their existing Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, SharePoint, Twitter or other existing social accounts credentials.
- Social “Tiles” display Twitter or other social network feeds on a user’s homepage. Many LMS solutions have the “tile” or “widget” concept for a user homepage and displaying feeds is now an option.
- Integration with existing corporate social networks like Yammer or Bloomfire to share courses on timeline, invite users from your contact list and share success in your personal feeds.
- Post course enrollments, completions, awards, badges, levels or other gamification progress to your social network to encourage comments, competition and additional enrollments.
Social Learning Level 5: The Extrovert
Level 5 LMS vendors believe in social learning and use it as the differentiator. They support integration into existing social networks, but additionally, they have developed the capability internally and as a result , social learning is part of the learning workflow vs. another workflow.
Personally, I think the separation of workflows was a contributing factor to non use of the original LMS social learning features. Full-blown social learning LMS solutions have most or all of the above Level 1-4 features and also incorporate:
- Friending and following users –users need to friend each other to see deeper information
- Bios, resumes, user photos, user status tracking
- Personal activity feeds, journals and news streams
- Ability to provide peer “recommendations” or “kudos”
- Web conference events integrated into social groups– video, screen sharing, recording
- Capture chats, video chats and webinars, record and use for discussion and learning
- Polling with stats
- Shoutbox, sponsor and marketing tiles and links
- Unified comments, network and learning access and workflow
- Unified user interface with learning and social together
- Relationship tracking
- Social dashboards for all users
- Seamless integration with LMS gamification features
- # of comments or amount of social interaction can be used as criteria for learning activity completion (form of gamification)
- Full/automatic file versioning for user uploaded files and other content governance workflow
- Manage the social engagement of users and have relative scores for users (more engagement, higher score)
As always at Talented Learning, we’re not about making predictions or judging vendors, but rather, we document what is out there, what is being used and help clients find appropriate vendors based on their business requirements.
Social learning, especially with the new mainstream social media capabilities, is still so new, that every organization is trying to figure out what if anything to do with it. Social learning has tremendous potential and there is no shortage of ideas nor hype on how to leverage. In the end, it depends on the makeup of your user audiences — mainly age — on whether you need an introvert or extrovert social learning LMS.
Stay tuned for our Top 5 Social Learning LMS providers in an upcoming post next week!
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