5 principles for a successful formal online social learning experience – and it’s not about the tools

silhouettes-78014_640There has been a lot of talk about the use of social media tools in formal workplace learning; and I am regularly asked to review initiatives of this kind. In many instances, the use of social tools has simply been “bolted-on” or “shoe-horned” into existing training or e-learning practices, in which case it doesn’t tend to work very well at all. Firstly, those who are very Social Web-aware don’t like to be forced to “be social” in a way that has been defined for them, and those who are not yet familiar with the Social Web, don’t like to be forced to use unfamiliar tools they are not comfortable with.

The whole point about social tools is that they are fundamentally “enabling” tools not “command and control” tools. So any formal social learning experience shouldn’t focus on the use of social media tools to perpetuate the command-and-control training model, but on enabling a deeper “social learning experience” – and to do this it needs to embody the underlying ideas and concepts of the Social Web that people enjoy.

“Organising” – and I use that word loosely – a formal social learning experience therefore involves 5 key principles”

  1. scaffolding the learning experience – enabling a framework for learning to take place – both in terms of the infrastructure (technology) but also in terms of providing the right conditions for learning to take place. The framework should give just enough structure, without constraining personal and social learning
  2. offering as much autonomy as possible – it should allow people to participate in the ways that they feel most comfortable and best suits them, and it doing so take responsibility for their own learning
  3. focusing on enabling the social interaction – whether it be discussion between the group, knowledge sharing, or collaboration in some other way, e.g. co-creation of content or co-solving a business problem
  4. supporting the experience with content as appropriate – it shouldn’t be driven by the content – but rather supported by essential resources on the topic to get people thinking or conversing or doing, and it should also encourage participants to provide content (links or their own resources) in whatever format they prefer. Tthe workshop leader/organiser’s role is much more about guiding the learning experience, than dominating it.
  5. and of course driving it with a performance outcome in mind– it needs to be focused around what participants will be able to do as a result, and, ideally, at the end there should be some form of peer-assessment, so that it is their colleagues who rate their performance.

So what’s the best name for this type of formal online social learning experience?

In the educational world, the term MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) has been associated with a similar, connectivist pedagogical approach – although unfortunately that term is now being applied to the delivery of large-scale online courses rather than to the adoption of the underlying philosophy. At the Social Learning Centre, we have used this approach, and call our activities “online social workshops”.

It is clear that both the words “course” and “workshop” conjure up images of training rooms and classes – and are therefore not Screen Shot 2013-05-10 at 08.45.03ideal. So, if you do use them it undoubtedly means you are going to have to explain that your initiative is not the same as the “courses” and “workshops” individuals are used to, as we constantly have to do – at least until people have experienced them! However,  on the plus side, it does means you are still using the traditional terminology that organisations are happy with!

But, as the future workplace necessitates a move towards continuous team and professional learning (as I outlined in my mini eBook, The Workplace Learning Revolution), this type of semi-organised social learning experience might well be a useful “half-way house” for those organisations which find it too big a leap to take in one go.  So it might be a useful way of kick-starting a mindset that values self-organised learning and performance improvement through knowledge sharing and collaboration within teams.  Sometimes you have to start by modifying a format that people know – before you can move them onto a new format. So looking at it from that perspective, this approach could well be seen as a stepping stone to the future …

Finally, If you’d like to find out more about how to organise and run an Online Social Workshop (OSW for short), then I am running one on this topic at the Social Learning Centre over the summer. This workshop will help you to plan an online social workshop, and scaffold its framework, and you will also have the opportunity to run a short session yourself during that time with the other participants. Find out how to join up HERE.

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Jane Hart

Founder at C4LPT
Jane Hart is an independent Workplace Learning Advisor, Writer and International Speaker. Every year she compiles the Top 100 Tools for Learning activity. She also offer a number of online workshops on modernising workplace learning. Find out more about Jane and her work.

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