Three Simple Ways to Get Started with Social Learning

Social learning a lot of us hear a lot these days — we know, vaguely, what it is, and we know that it's happening, whether we like it or not, every day. And yet the vast majority of our money and energy goes toward formal training programs, not these social, off-the-cuff initiatives. Why is that?

For one, formal training is what we know best, so it makes sense that learning and development professionals gravitate toward it. And secondly, social learning is hard to define — and even harder to foster, facilitate, and encourage in a productive and planned way.

But it can be done. It just takes a little foresight, and a commitment to being a facilitator, rather than an instructor.

What is Social Learning, Again?

When they hear social learning, lots of people's minds go straight to social media. But social learning is about much more than that — and much less. Here are a few smart definitions of it:

  • Albert Bandura defines social learning as a theory that explains how people learn from one another through observation, imitation, and modeling.
  • Marcia Conner and Tony Bingham suggest social learning is participating with others to make sense of new ideas.
  • Etienne Wenger suggests in a social theory of learning that people learn when participating with others in the pursuit of a specific practice.

When you add them all up, social learning is about people learning from each other and creating their own learning through participation and practice.

Most trainers probably already do most of that, through activities in formal training classes. That's great. But social learning can happen anywhere: in class, in the break room, or over the Web. The problem with in-class social learning is that it requires a top-down approach where the trainer creates an activity, schedules the session, and directing the students. The point of social learning is that the learners get to decide when, where, and how they learn.

So where, then, do the learning experience designers (LXDs) fit in to the process? Once again, we are facilitators. Our job is to design activities, implement technologies, and/or create environments that support what people do naturally. Here are three easy ways to do just that:

Examine Activities

As we said, many in-class activities are essentially exercises in social learning. But do they need to happen in a classroom? Is there another environment where the participants can run the discussion themselves?

For instance, most customer-service training classes start out with a discussion of best- and worst-case stories. That helps participants activate prior knowledge of the subject, and grounds the rest of the session in those experiences. But that conversation doesn't really need to happen in class. It could be during team meetings, casually by the water cooler, or in a group over an enterprise social-networking platform.

Try a Free E-2.0 Tool

If you don't already have an enterprise social-networking tool in your organization, don't worry. Just about every platform offers some sort of a free version you can try out. Yammer, Clearvale, and Socialcast all offer free versions. You may find that employees  are already using one of these tools on their own — which is great. The point is to make it easier for people to connect with each other to get work done. In this case, the work is learning something new to help people do their jobs better or to help them solve a problem.

Start By Solving a Problem

Instead of rolling out some big, grand social learning strategy for your organization, start small. Think of a problem that needs to be solved, and see whether social learning can help get that done. For instance, if you've been asked to help develop a leadership-development program, instead of just searching for a content provider or a leadership expert to come in and talk to your employees (both of which are good ideas, by the way), think about how you can use social learning to accomplish the same thing.

In this case, try looking up that leadership expert on YouTube and sharing one of their videos with your staff. Have your leaders discuss the video and their reactions to it over your (probably free) online collaboration tool. Pose questions, and facilitate a discussion about what they've learned and how that knowledge can be implemented into their everyday jobs.

The point really is to get people talking to each other so they can learn from each other. That's social learning.

Gather people

Learning professionals should focus on finding ways to make it easier for people to come together toward a common goal. Enterprise social networks can certainly support these connections. What are other ways learning professionals can help people to gather and participate in learning new things to help them in their jobs? What learning activities do you facilitate in your classroom sessions that could be applied on a social media tool in your organization? Please feel free to comment below with your ideas.

This is the fourth post in a series, "Critical Skills All Learning Professionals Can Put to Use Today." If you missed either of the first three, check out Part 1 (Five Must-Have Skills for Learning Professionals: An Update), Part 2 (Required Learning for Training Managers: Business 101), and Part 3 (Three Ways to Speed Up Instructional Design). Next week, we'll continue the series with a discussion on collaboration.

Bill Cushardauthor, blogger and Director of Training and Development at Allonhill, is a learning leader with more than 12 years of experience in training and performance improvement at companies such as E*TRADE Financial, Accenture, and Time Warner Cable.

Image used under Creative Commons by Flickr user Tatiana12.

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