Structured Online Social Learning: A Trojan Horse for Informal Online Social Learning?

There’s a lot of chatter these days about social learning, and different interpretations of what does, and what does not comprise social learning.

Here at Q2, we figure “social learning” is any kind of learning done directly from other people. While we give a nod to the reality that authors are people, and so learning from books is indeed social, what we’re concerned about is the spark that flies when minds connect reciprocally. So any situation in which there is somebody teaching and somebody learning is social. (And hey, if you send an email to your favorite author, and s/he responds, then we’ll call that social, too!)

Many folks think of online forums, or blogs, or twitter when they think about online social learning. All kinds of really great learning does indeed take place in these venues, but because it’s mostly both self-directed on the part of the learner, and informal, there’s a sense that online social learning is essentially informal learning. It is this misapprehension which gives the queasies to plenty of organizations who feel the need to have a more active hand in making sure their employees know what the org needs them to know.

Our clients incorporate social learning in structured training activities, as part of fully developed programs for new hires, for sales folks, and for professionals who need to be brought up to speed on the latest models of thought driving their industries. They do it by following up the presentation of content with roundtable discussions between learners and coaches about how this stuff applies in their day to day work. They present planning exercises, followed up by manager feedback on how the planned encounter went. They ask learners to do presentations for the benefit of their learning peers, and for the peers to present their feedback. And they track all of this varied activity online in a platform which makes it possible to tell at a glance who is proceeding well and where the program might be improved.

What’s more, once learners, coaches, managers and other stakeholders experience formal learning via forums, blogs, wikis and similar tools, they are better equipped to use these tools in more informal settings, and may even request access to them. So if you are interested in bringing informal online social learning into your organization, you might just want to start by incorporating social learning tools in your formal initiatives!