Harnessing Social Learning Platforms for Interactive Learning Experiences

Jerry Zandstra (JZ), Senior Director of Learning

Miriam Taylor (MT), Customer Success Manager

Jerry Zandstra (JZ): Our topic for this article is how instructional designers can use social learning platforms to create collaborative and interactive learning experiences. But I guess I have a few questions before we jump right into that. Miriam, we’ve both been in learning for a long time and I’m suspicious, can you better define social learning for us and tell us if it’s even really new?

Miriam Taylor (MT): Great question and I guess I’d have to say that maybe this iteration of social learning is somewhat new but social learning is as old as time itself. If you think back before the written word, humans learn by watching each other and living in a community. Humans learned by the use of Oral traditions and each generation teaching the next. So in that way, social learning is not new at all.

(JZ) Okay, I certainly understand that, but in more recent years what can you tell me about social learning?

(MT) Albert Bandura, the renowned psychologist, is who we might consider the father of modern social learning. If we think back to early society, learning was largely about learning or changing behavior; learning new skills. This makes sense because when you’re trying to survive, knowing how to gather food or find sources of water are important skills to have. And even up through the beginning of the last century, most learning was focused on skills so memorization was the main way things were taught. We didn’t know a lot about how the brain worked but we knew if we practiced enough, we would remember it.

(JZ) That connects with how I largely remember my education. What did Bandura introduce that was so different?

(MT) Bandura’s social learning theory is described as a bridge between that ‘behavioral’ theory and what we were starting to learn about how the brain works, the cognitive factors in learning. Social learning also recognizes that learning is social. That we comprehend more and retain it longer when we’re interacting with others.

(MT) and I would add one more thing here Jerry before we move on. I think we have heard more about it lately in particular after COVID. There was a lot of post-COVID burnout, especially in areas of learning in isolation. We understand now more than ever that humans desire social connection. We’ve seen an increase in instructor-led training and workshops over the past few years. And, I’ll help you segue to our real topic now, we also recognize that budgets and the global world we live in often don’t allow for us to have that actual face-to-face connection.

(JZ) Perfect, yes, thanks for that transition. So if we can’t have that face-to-face interaction, then we can leverage technology to create more social learning. Tell us about some of these social learning platforms.

(MT) Simply put, a social learning platform is a digital tool designed to facilitate collaborative learning and knowledge sharing among individuals or groups. It provides a space for users to connect, communicate, and collaborate with each other to exchange ideas, resources, and expertise on various topics and subjects.

(MT) But I think we all will better understand if we start talking about features. Social learning platforms provide places for learners to discuss, upload, download, and share resources, and participate in group discussions or projects. So these platforms include discussion forums, chat rooms, integrated video conferencing, and ways to provide peer-to-peer feedback. If you’re thinking, “This sounds a lot like my clunky LMS from 15 years ago”, you’re not entirely wrong. There are some additional features that we now find such as personalized learning paths curated with AI, assessments with real-time feedback, and other tracking tools. But the key difference is the access to them.

(JZ) What do you mean by that?

(MT) Most social learning platforms are an app on your phone or on your desktop. Think something like Slack, Microsoft Teams, or some of the Google features. And this is only a small list. Gone are the days of logging in, trying to find a “course” and then entering the discussion forum. That’s not to say that modern LMS or LXP platforms don’t contain a lot of social learning features, because they do, but they have made them much easier to access. And of course, there are also these social platforms that stand alone too, outside of your learning management system. Even things such as Facebook groups can be used as a social learning platform.

(JZ) Obviously considering tools and their capability is important, but perhaps we got ahead of ourselves a little. Maybe we should talk through what we want to use them for first, then determine what tool works best. Can you explain some learning strategies for creating interactive learning experiences?

(MT) Sure. Let’s start with one of the more obvious ones, the co-creation of content. We’ve been co-creating content for years-really ever since the creation of the wiki. I still remember my first experience with co-creation. An organization I was working with was revising its core values. The inevitable email went out that explained the need to revise values and to please “reply all”. Within a ½ hour, my inbox was full and I knew there had to be a much better way. Keep in mind this is long before Google Docs or other sharable tools. But I introduced a wiki that day and it worked. Things have come a long way since then for the co-creation of content. I think for a strategy to be truly social learning, it needs to be more than shared editing and commenting. There needs to be a digital space to share via audio or video. In the higher education space, many LMS tools allow faculty to respond to student’s work with a video or audio recording. Those same tools are available to students to co-collaborate together. Another interesting social tool for co-creation would be something like a Miro, Mural, Google Jamboard, or other visual tools that allow you to collaborate and then comment, write across the content, or even vote on options.

(JZ) What’s another strategy for social learning?

(MT) Discussion forums or message boards get a bad rap but can be very useful. I think at this point in almost everyone’s career, you’ve taken an online course where you may have had to share in the discussion forum. The problem is that there was one question posted, everyone shared the same answer and then there was no discussion to be had. But I’ve seen them used to great effect when a facilitator is active in responding, asking follow-up questions, and soliciting feedback from participants. I’ve used them as pre-work before training. I often ask participants to watch a video, read an article, or participate in a short online module and then discuss their thoughts. I’ve also used them to debrief after a training session. This extends the learning and improves retention as well as allows for new ideas that the participants might bring to the discussion.
One other thought is to combine the co-creation concept with discussions. Asking participants to post a first draft of a concept, presentation, or other project and then provide feedback to each other before revising is a great use of a discussion forum or message board.

(JZ) I know there is one more strategy that you want to mention because we’ve both seen it used so poorly when there is so much potential. Talk to us about webinars and live virtual teaching sessions.

(MT) You saved the best for last. Yes, I may get on my soapbox a little for this one. Using Zoom, Teams, Google Meet or any other tool like this has such great potential for social learning but instead, we find ourselves stuck in the rut of the talking head. In a post-COVID world, no one has the patience for that anymore. It takes more time and effort but if you’re planning to host a webinar that is largely a presentation, take some extra time and think of 2-3 questions you can poll your audience with. But don’t do this just for the sake of creating some interaction, ask good questions, share the answers, and respond to them. If you are able, actually pivot your presentation depending on what your participants share. That is, at a bare minimum a small bit of social learning. I always recommend having at least 2 people host a webinar. If you’ve ever listened to Jerry host any webinars at Ingenuiti, you know he is the master of asking questions and sharing responses from participants. Adults have a depth of experience and we usually learn more from each other than the webinar facilitator. Don’t be afraid to let others ask questions, answer each others’ questions, and respond in the chat. From a practical standpoint though, having 2 facilitators makes this go much more smoothly.

(JZ) And then, aren’t you teaching an online professional development course right now that has a live virtual component? How do you create social learning in a class like that?

(MT) Yes! This has been so much fun. It’s an instructional design professional development course with a global audience. It’s also 10 weeks long so we have to work hard to engage and keep the social sharing alive. We do have a live session once a week and we make frequent use of the break-out groups. We debrief in small groups and then have them report out. Small groups are easy to set up on any platform that you might be using these days.

(JZ) To wrap up then, social learning isn’t without its challenges. You’ve alluded to some of them already but why don’t you walk us through a few of them and then how you would mitigate these?

(MT) Sure. The biggest challenge is the actual “social” part. Not everyone is confident with the technology, although that changed quickly during COVID, but some may not feel confident sharing online in a learning setting. I always try to be very transparent about the training situation. I let participants know ahead of time it will be interactive and they should come ready to share thoughts. That sets the stage. Then the best way to help others feel confident is to start small. If you’ve ever facilitated a classroom setting, you know throwing out a question to the audience at the beginning will often cause an uncomfortably quiet room. But, if you present a question and then ask them to turn to their neighbor, you get a roomful of wonderful discussion. The same is true online. Create pairs and virtual rooms for everyone to discuss in. You may need to show them how to get into the virtual room but it quickly removes barriers. Then share out and gradually move to groups of 4-5.

The other challenge I’ve seen is that social learning requires a great degree of commitment by the facilitator. Posting a question and digitally “walking away” is the best way to kill any kind of community. As a facilitator, you have to stay actively involved if you’ve designed an online discussion or co-creation type of experience. As I mentioned earlier, if you’re hosting a webinar, you need to plan ahead and design an interactive experience with plenty of opportunities to discuss and share.

(JZ) Miriam, thank you for your time today and your very practical ideas around social learning.

(MT) Jerry, it’s always a pleasure to discuss learning with you and I’m looking forward to our next opportunity.