Published On: May 16, 2014By
Social Learning - How social is your LMS? Independent learning technology analyst John Leh helps you assess the social strength of your learning systems

Social learning – hype or reality?  If you lined up the 100 greatest minds in our industry, you would get 50 opinions on either side of the argument.  You know what they say about opinions…

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, rather than sitting in a classroom listening to a lecture.

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.

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 an 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, 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 five levels:

5 Levels of Social Learning

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 formal statistics to prove it, I estimate that 70-80% of organizations still fit into 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
  • Billboards
  • News
  • Mail, notifications, announcements, text messages

Two-way interaction features:

  • Chat
  • 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 a threaded discussion than WordPress

All of these tools began as stand-alone features 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, curricula 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 with 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 with peers
  • Ability to share content recommendations with peers
  • Ability to add content tags(new word for keyword metadata)
  • Identification of the most popular and highly rated 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 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 yourself.

The downside is integrated products have different user experiences, so the overall experience is not as seamless and tight as homegrown 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 login 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 a 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.  As a result, social learning is part of the primary learning workflow rather than a separate workflow, altogether.

Personally, I think separation of workflows is a key contributing factor to non-use of 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 these capabilities:

  • Friending and following – users need to friend each other to see deeper information
  • User profiles – bios, photos, resumes and 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
  • Ability to conduct text, audio and video chats and webinars, and record and share them for further discussion and learning
  • Polling – including response statistics
  • 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
  • Tracking comments or social interaction frequency/volumes can count as credit toward learning activity completion (a 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)

Conclusion

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.  Thanks for reading!


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About the Author: John Leh

John Leh is CEO and Lead Analyst at Talented Learning and the Talented Learning Center. John is a fiercely independent consultant, blogger, podcaster, speaker and educator who helps organizations select and implement learning technology strategies, primarily for extended enterprise applications. His advice is based upon more than 25+years of learning-tech industry experience, serving as a trusted LMS selection and sales adviser to hundreds of learning organizations with a total technology spend of more than $100+ million and growing. John would love to connect with you on Twitter or on LinkedIn.

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