Why Is Social Learning Important?
Humans are social creatures, pretty much programmed to connect with each other. And at work, often without realizing it, we’re constantly collaborating and sharing information. Effective learning programs should be designed to encourage this natural tendency by supporting learners to come together to share insights and expertise.
Supporting social learning can increase the effectiveness of your learning program by:
- Encouraging a sense of ownership in and engagement with the learning story
- Increasing comprehension through shared sense-making
- Providing valuable support, especially for dispersed learners
- Aiding understanding of the real-life context of learning and its practical application.
What’s more, today’s learners really appreciate more social forms of learning. In LinkedIn’s 2019 Workplace Learning report, over half of the learners surveyed said they valued more social, collaborative environments—both in the office and when they’re engaged with online learning. This is particularly true of newer entrants to the workforce, such as Millennials.
So What’s the Hype Around Social Learning?
Social learning is seen as something new (despite the fact it’s something that’s happened since the dawn of time!). But what we hear most often is that organizations must invest in the latest L&D tools to enable social learning:
Our organization needs to buy a platform dedicated to social learning, otherwise it won’t happen
The other myth we often hear about social learning is the need for moderation in order for it to happen in any way. There’s often a real fear about what might happen if people are allowed to share their views with freedom.
We have to moderate. Who knows what our learners might say!
How to Deliver Successful Social Learning
In reality, you don’t need a dedicated platform to bring your learners together. It’s a thing people already do: it’s WhatsApp, Skype chat or Google Hangouts. It’s email or that quick chat over a coffee. As long as they’re connecting, it’s social learning—so why not design it into your learning programs?
With regard to the moderation point, we’ve seen that generally learners can and do self-moderate, especially in smaller cohorts where learners are going through a program together. But even if something is said that is potentially critical or disruptive, it’s better it’s said in a forum where there’s potential to explore and solve the problem, rather than it going unheard and unaddressed.
If moderators are in place, they need to steer, not stifle conversation. Learners can often feel a sense of group paralysis when it comes to starting those initial conversations, so a moderator’s role should be to encourage and instigate discussion.
It’s this scaffolding and support of social learning that is critical to success. Regardless of whether you’re bringing your learners together online or face-to-face, careful consideration of how to foster discussion is vital to building up a strong community.
Examples of How to Support and Scaffold Social Learning
One way we instigated discussion in a large-scale learning program for a healthcare organization was to post really thought-provoking content learners could react to. We submitted a poem, describing a patient’s experience of treatment. What happened next was something we didn’t anticipate. A learner found and posted a poem in response, from the perspective of a physician. This then triggered a whole stream of discussion.
In other projects, we’ve adopted a wide range of ways to bring learners together. While it’s easy to think that online forums are the main tool for social learning, we’ve found that other methods can be really effective at fostering discussion too.
For example, we’ve enabled learners to run their own webinars. While these kinds of semi-structured meetings could also happen face-to-face, the webinar medium is more flexible and can accommodate a varied and global workforce. The other benefits are that comments do not interrupt the discussion (but can be seen by all in the discussion panel) and that they can be recorded and still accessed, even if the learner didn’t attend.
If you’re thinking about empowering your learners to try something like this, create guidelines and ‘how-tos’ to ensure your learners feel confident. Providing opportunities to practice are also invaluable.
Social Learning: Keep it Simple and Meet Your Learners Where They Are
It’s easy to think that social learning requires ‘a big solution’ such as a new platform, but ultimately the best approach is to keep it simple.
Focus on ways to meet your learners where they are. Find out where and how they currently collaborate and learn from each other and then identify ways to support and scaffold those behaviors within your learning programs.