Saturday, November 28, 2009

Social Learning: Taking Learning Content to Next Level

Social Learning is the current rage. That's the keyword the Learning Technology providers are clinging on to, the knight in the shining armour who would rescue the stricken companies in the middle of this unending downturn. Learning is invariably social, and even those theorists who would primarily look at the learner as the key driver for all learning activities, can not rule out the role the social context plays. Or, the shared context, as in a classroom, where lot of actual learning happens through interactions between learners or by absorbing another person's point of view of the same learning input. The technology-mediated learning is devoid of this, mostly, because, for all its advantages, e-Learning is mostly a solitary activity.

This leaves it with a crippling limitation. While the e-learning content can be quite engaging, without the social context, learning loses fun, inspiration and ability to inspire thoughts. This may be okay to impart instructions, areas where active thinking and participation by the learners is neither necessary nor expected. Somehow, it works well to impart training on how to perform a defined task, or to prepare for tests. But, this is no good when one is teaching, let's say, strategic thinking, which must start with learners bringing in their own experiences and perspectives on table, and listening to others reflect on those. Surely, a solitary learning experience is no good for these situations.

There are standard ways of creating a social environment of learning in e-learning context. Forum is one of the most used and also one of the most hated words in the discipline. Everyone seems to have a forum, and no one seems to use them. No presentation of an e-learning solution ever concludes without extolling the virtues of a forum, but hardly ever a forum is used. Even outside the e-learning arena, I have seen people getting excited about forums like Yahoo! groups and setting them up with great energy. However, I have hardly ever seen them being used extensively, and more often than not, the forum participation becomes painful with a string of meaningless emails showing up in the inbox all the time.

This is somewhat surprising, because we live in a highly social world. People spend hours cultivating their Linkedin, Facebook and MySpace contacts and lives. In comparison, the reluctance to use the social features of learning environments are surprising. But, one can possibly understand the phenomenon using a metaphor - community parks - why forums don't work.

All over the world, modern town planners set up community parks as the area where people will congregate and conduct their social lives. They set them up at the centre of the town, pedestrianized areas around them and created, mostly, easy 24x7 access. However, in most cases, the community parks became a magnet of drug abuse and prostitution, and drove families and people away from them. In fact, these planned communities had LESS social interaction than the previously unplanned communities, where social interactions happened on side streets rather than community parks. So, by destroying small, integrated neighbourhoods and bringing up planned cities, the urban planners missed the point: social interactions happen in course of normal life, and not outside it.

Same principle applies when one talks about social interaction in learning. It does not happen outside it. I am no believer of forums. I believe that the social features should be contained in the e-learning material itself, and should not reside outside it. I should be able to share my views while in the content, tag it with my favourite YouTube video or bring a friend to chat over it. Besides, people love sharing what they learn, and how they learn, and this must happen not as a separate activity but in the course of learning activity itself. We are already moving from books to e-books, and in no time, we shall arrive at interactive textbooks, with its own dedicated multimedia readers.

Besides, as people learn differently, people participate in the web differently too. The forums, as it exist today, allow only a limited choice of participation. I find it useful to refer to the Social Technographics profile devised by Forrester Research: the six categories of Creators, Critics, Collectors, Joiners, Spectators and Inactives. I do find this relevant to design social learning activities on the web, as it defines how people will prefer to interact and participate. In the context of this discussion, it is actually useful to share the tool here, so that one can build a social technographics of one's learning audience.

So, in summary, bring out Social Learning is more than just adding a forum on the learning environment. It is a whole gamut of tools and activities, available ideally inside the learning content itself. This is indeed the future space for e-learning, but getting there will take more than just tweaking what we have today. In fact, this will need a paradigm shift and a break with the present, which may mean emergence of new players and undermining of some of the current leaders in the industry, who just do not seem to get the concept.

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