Social-learningIf you were asked to name the top three current trends in business in general, my guess is that “social” would make the list. To say that social media has flipped the business world on its head isn’t an understatement—from product development to marketing to customer relations and beyond, tools like Facebook and Twitter have completely changed how companies function. But social media platforms are just technologies that have enabled a more fundamental transformation, and not just in business: today communication, collaboration, and social interaction take center stage in our lives, in our work, and in our learning.

We’ve all heard that most of learning is informal, and much of informal learning is social (coaching/mentoring, talking in the break room, chatting online, etc.). Estimates about how much of workplace learning happens in this way range from 70 up to a whopping 95 percent. A 2010 survey by The CARA Group found that corporate leaders and trainers recognize the importance of informal learning and the role social media plays in it. They found that:

  • 98 percent of corporate leaders and trainers agree that social media is changing how employees learn.
  • 81 percent agree that social media is valuable for employee learning.
  • 90 percent said they encourage or support informal learning.

Digital learning environments like MOOCs can provide the best of both worlds—social learning tools integrated into formal learning programs. Here we’ll review the social development of MOOCs and look at some of the new platforms and models that are being tested to make the courses even more social and more collaborative.

The social development of MOOCs

One of the biggest criticisms of MOOCs over the past two years has been that they are not social. To hear the critics tell it, MOOC students are isolated learners who don’t interact with their instructors or other learners at all; thus, they miss the most important aspect of learning—that which comes from discussion, debate, and collaboration. This isn’t entirely false, but it isn’t entirely true either, so let’s take a moment to address this criticism.

In their short history, MOOCs have already gone through a couple of iterations. The first MOOC was run in 2008 by George Siemens and Stephen Downes, and it was based on a connectivist model of learning. The goal of the course was not so much for students to master the content as it was for them to develop personal learning networks. To that end, Siemens and Downes provided a structure and learning resources, which were distributed across the web, but learners could engage with those resources and with one another, in any way they chose. This original vision for MOOCs less formal, but ultra-social.

When Udacity, Coursera, and edX debuted, they provided a different type of MOOC—one that looked more like a traditional online course, just on a massive scale. These MOOCs highly were highly formal, but the social part was optional. The courses were housed within a learning management system and even though discussion boards were available, learners could, if they wanted to, complete them without ever interacting with the instructors or the other students. This is the model that critics claim doesn’t provide the social and collaborative learning opportunities that are necessary for meaningful learning.

But MOOCs didn’t stop evolving there, and now practically all MOOC providers and instructors are experimenting with different ways to increase the socialness of MOOCs. Many MOOCs now have Facebook pages and Twitter conversations in addition to the standard discussion boards.

Some educators are experimenting with ways to up the ante even more. The best current models seek to incorporate social and collaborative learning into a more structured, formal environment. They are going beyond just using discussion boards and social media to providing new tools and environments where learners can network and engage with one another in various ways. Here are some current initiatives:

  • A HarvardX course on “Innovating in Health Care” is experimenting with a new way to match students for course projects. To improve opportunities for interaction and collaboration, this course is using Project Lever, which course instructor and application developer Regina Herzlinger described to Bloomberg Businessweek as a “sort of EHarmony for building businesses.” Students in the course are using the application to divide into groups to write a business plan. Companies could use this model to match employees for project teams, even if those employees are located in different offices or countries.
  • Professors at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Utah are currently running a joint collaborative online journalism course. Students at the two campuses are using the same learning resources, taking the courses together, and interacting with one another, but they also meet in groups on their respective campuses with individual instructors. Organizations spread across the country, or even across the globe, can use this model to provide training that is both standardized and personalized to meet learners’ needs.
  • NovoEd is an entire MOOC platform built around the idea of collaborative, project-based learning. Assessments in these courses are all real-world projects that learners work on with groups made up of students from around the world. Businesses can use a platform like this to connect employees in both training programs and project teams.

Challenges to implementing social MOOCs in organizations

The technology to make MOOCs maximally social and collaborative is out there, and much of it is freely available. Thus, the biggest obstacle to organizations getting the most social bang for their buck is attitude. While most organizations have adopted social tools as an essential way to connect with customers, many are still wary of encouraging social media use among employees. But with the rise of the BYOD (bring your own device) culture, this obstacle is becoming less prohibitive. In many organizations, the training department may also need to adopt a different perspective. Rather than thinking of training as a process of delivering content, trainers need to switch gears to providing tools to support social learning among employees.

MOOCs can be isolated learning experiences, but they certainly don’t have to be. Web 2.0 has, above all, revolutionized how we communicate, and MOOCs can capitalize on these same tools to massively boost workplace learning’s social and collaborative quotient. The tools are available and their impact on training can be significant. For more information, check out this article on how to use social media in a corporate classroom.

Copyright 2014 Bryant Nielson. All Rights Reserved.

Bryant Nielson – Managing Director of CapitalWave Inc.– offers 25+ years of training and talent management helping executives, business owners, and top performing sales executives in taking the leap from the ordinary to extraordinary. Being a big believer in Technology Enabled Learning, Bryant seeks to create awareness, motivate adoption and engage organizations and people in the changing business of education. Bryant is a entrepreneur, trainer, and strategic training adviser for many organizations. Bryant’s business career has been based on his results-oriented style of empowering the individual.

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Bryant Nielson is heavily involved in the Corporate Training and Leadership and Talent space. He currently is the Managing Director for CapitalWave Inc and the training division, Financial Training Solutions. He brings a diverse corporate experience of organizational development, learning and talent development, and corporate training, that also includes personal coaching of top sales individuals and companies of all sizes. For the prior 4 years, Bryant was the Managing Director and Leadership and Talent Manager for Lengthen Your Stride! LLC. In this position, Nielson was the developer of all of the courses for MortgageMae University (MMU), the Realtor Development Center (RDC), and of Lengthen Your Stride! (LYS). In that position, he developed material, refined over many years of use and active training, and condensed the coursework and training to be high impact, natural learning, and comprehensive. Bryant has over 27 years of Senior Management experience encompasses running his own Training and mortgage firm, in New York City. He strongly believes that the corporate training is not to be static but should 'engage and inspire' students to greater productivity and performance.

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