How much of their essential job skills and knowledge are people in your organization learning from one another? 10%? 20%? Probably closer to 80%. Do you know what they are learning? Does it align with the goals of your training program? Well, that may be difficult to judge, but one thing is certain: they will remember it. Regardless of how much time and energy you put into creating content and designing your training, your employees will learn more from their peers. In a previous set of articles, we looked at the advantages of using a massive open online course (MOOC) to incorporate informal learning into training programs. Here we will focus more specifically on peer learning and how a MOOC can be used to facilitate, structure, and assess it.

Peer learning is a powerful learning tool, but one that is largely unharnessed in any organized way, often because of the belief that it does not allow for very tight control. One method that many companies have embraced is mentorship, and research has shown that employees who have mentors feel more supported by the organization, show stronger organizational commitment, and are more likely to stay. But peer learning takes place in many other ways—people give one another advice, opinions, and ad hoc lessons all of the time, over email, the phone, and even the water cooler. Although these interactions are casual, they nevertheless account for a large amount of organizational learning, and companies can benefit from not only encouraging but also facilitating them.

There are many reasons for organizations to adopt peer learning:

  • People remember more of what they learn from one another than from listening to a lecture or reading a document.
  • Peer learning is by far the least expensive training option.
  • Peer learning is often more focused on “just-in-time” than “just-in-case” learning and leads to more immediate performance results.
  • People often prefer learning from their peers.
  • Peer learning allows organizations to draw on a larger knowledge base and can lead to new, innovative approaches to problem-solving.

The main challenge for organizations has been that much of peer learning takes place in an unstructured environment so that it is impossible to assess exactly what learning is taking place. However, as more training moves online and starts to incorporate social media, better tools are becoming available to facilitate, track, and perform quality control on peer learning. One of the best ways to integrate peer learning directly into the formal training experience is through a MOOC.

In their short life, MOOCs have already evolved quite a lot. The first MOOCs were based on a connectivist framework, where the building of personal knowledge networks was considered more important than the content learned. Then, with the birth of Coursera, MOOCs started to more closely resemble traditional classroom experiences, with lectures comprising the main learning activity. Now, the pendulum is swinging back toward more collaboration, and preliminary results from new collaborative MOOC provider NovoEd suggest that students are more likely to stick with courses that emphasize social interaction.

We have previously explored the technology-enabled learning tools that facilitate social interaction in MOOCs. Here are some structured and assessable ways to use these tools to ensure that peer learning is in line with your organizational objectives.

  • Social media and the MOOC dashboard. The MOOC dashboard is like the course homepage—it contains course navigation buttons, the course calendar, and links to the course pages and activities. Many MOOCs also aggregate student blog posts and course Twitter feeds directly onto the dashboard so that students can easily access their peers’ contributions. This is a way for instructors to see what issues learners are talking about and to highlight the best or most relevant student posts.
  • Discussion board voting. Many MOOC discussion boards now incorporate a feature that allows users not only to post comments, but also to vote up the comments that are the most helpful or most relevant. “Voting up” moves the comment closer to the top of the discussion thread, which allows instructors to identify and respond to popular questions, clear up any confusion, and contribute to discussions on important issues. It also allows instructors to identify what peer information is garnering the most attention as well as which employees are providing the highest-quality information. In addition, instructors can correct any erroneous information before it is propagated too widely.
  • Content sharing and social bookmarking. People look for answers to work-related questions online all of the time and your organization will benefit from employees sharing this information. Encourage employees to find, curate, or create their own resources and share them via content sharing and social bookmarking sites.
  • Collaborative problem-solving. A series of studies by Kyle Emich and Evan Polman demonstrated that people are more creative and provide better solutions when they work on solving other people’s problems than on their own. Use this to your advantage by assigning group problem-solving projects to be completed in virtual spaces. Combine this approach with discussion board voting by having employees post their problems, offer solutions, and then vote on the best solutions.
  • Peer-led modules or courses. Peer learning allows companies to build extensive organizational knowledge bases and take full advantage of their human capital. One way to maximize this potential is to allow exceptional employees to deliver their own mini-MOOCs. For example, if your organization has an excellent salesperson or a highly effective motivator, consider having that person design and deliver his or her own MOOC to other employees.
  • Gamification. Peer learning is an excellent way to add gamification elements to a MOOC. Learners can earn points for contributing to conversations, asking and answering questions, and having their discussion board posts voted up. Badges can be used as a way to recognize and reward effective peer teachers. The possibilities are enormous.

The main advantage of incorporating peer learning directly into a MOOC is that this learning can be tracked. Using analytics tools, you can see who is teaching, who is learning, and what they are learning. You can identify which people are most influential for different types of content and the methods employees use most to ask and answer questions. In this way, MOOCs bring even water cooler conversations under tighter control.

You also might be surprised at the response. After a recent MOOC that encouraged students to use a variety of social media tools, the instructors noted in a report that “the fire that took off burned by a fuel lying latent amongst a huge number of participants, who pounced, as though having been waiting for some time for such an opportunity. “ Wouldn’t it be nice to see that kind of passion about a training program?

Copyright  Bryant Nielson. All Rights Reserved.

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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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