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Social Learning Models

February 19, 2009

There is a lot of change happening in the learning space, and at an ever-accelerating pace.  We now have to consider not just traditional learning interventions like instructor-led training, mentorships, WBT, and virtual classroom, but also games, simulations, mobile learning, and of course user-generated content, social networking, and social media.  While we still have a lot of thinking to do on the games and mobile learning front, we have a lot more thinking to do about what a social media plus LMS model might look like.

So what might this model look like?  Well first, we’ve given this combination a name:  we’re calling it Social Learning.  And we’re noticing that analysts are starting to call it that too so we think we’re on to something.  We think that there are two key models in a Social Learning solution:

  • social media and social networking *about* formal content
  • social media and social networking that is independent of formal content

Here is a link to an image of this as well.  You might not know it, but we all already have lots of experience with both of these models (and as a company, Mzinga has been a pioneer in both these spaces – more on that in a future post).

The first model is basically the Amazon.com model that we’re all pretty familiar with.  At Amazon, I can comment on a book (and in their current business model, lots more than just books); I can rate a book; I can have a discussion; I can rate people’s comments and thereby touch on social profiles.  In other words, even though I am not the writer of the book, I can still participate in the meta-discourse *about* the book.  I can still add significant value even though I may not be the original author or “expert;” I can still contribute my own unique knowledge and perspective and derive value from the insights and expertise of others.  If we substitute the word “book” with the word “course” or “learning object,” we have a pretty complete model we can apply to the merger of social media and social networking with formal learning.  So that’s our first model: the “Amazon” model – social media and social networking about a formal piece of learning.

Our second model is also not all that new or original in terms of our collective web experience.  Have you ever used a Listserv?  Or searched Wikipedia or an online forum?  Do you read blogs or participate in discussion forums?  All of these activities represent a different kind of model:  not social media about “formal” content, but rather social media *for its own sake*.  So the other key model is a “Community” model:  accessing social media on its own, much like you would access a discussion forum for its own sake.  This is the idea of spinning up blogs, discussions, social profiles and the like so that learners can share their unique expertise and insights with their peers even in the absence of “formal” content.

While this second model can be done in a light-weight way through the LMS, it may also make sense to spin this model more fully as a complete workplace community that includes groups and sub-groups, file sharing, idea sharing and more robust Web 2.0 sorts of technologies like tagging and friend-of-a-friend (FOAF) sort of recommendation engines.  Then the formal learning elements, like courses, curriculum, certifications, virtual classroom etc… can be woven throughout the user-generated content and peer-to-peer exchanges.

What makes all of this so compelling is the flexibility it brings.  As long as their governments, companies will need to worry about compliance, certifications, formal content, expert-created & expert-mediated content.  This will never change.  Companies therefore will always need the capabilities that the LMS solution brings to the table: tracking, reporting, distribution, permission-based access to content, content linked to competencies – these are things that will remain essential even in a new world of web 2.0 technologies.

On the other hand, the world has changed.  We have moved from a world predicated on a one-to-many model to a world predicated on a many-to-many model.  Almost all traditional LMS content, despite many innovations over the years, is based on a one-to-many model.  CBT, WBT, instructor led courses, virtual classroom, simulations, learning games – these are all expert-driven or expert-mediated content and thus fit the one-to-many model.  Wiki’s, discussions, comments, ratings, social profiles, idea sharing, even blogs to a lesser extent are fundamentally different – these are all user-generated content or peer-to-peer content.  And these approaches are likely going to become the dominant model:  Encyclopedia Britannica has 80,000 articles; Wikipedia has over 2.5 million in English.   If this model makes its way into corporate education, and there is every indication it will, then we will see the emergence of a brand new model within the corporate learning development.

The flexibility in all of this is that companies will be able to mix and match traditional LMS approaches with social media approaches.  This can happen at the culture and business level — companies that are highly regulated can focus on traditional LMS approaches with a little bit of social media woven in, while companies that may be less regulated might lead with social media.  Let’s take two real world examples:  Chevron and Deloitte.  Chevron is regulated “up the wazoo” (that’s a technical term) and needs to prove all sort of compliance in every aspect of its business including some of its core operations.  Financial, pharma, insurance, and healthcare companies might fit the same model at varying levels.

Deloitte on the other hand, while also heavily regulated, is not as regulated in some aspects of its core business – systems implementations and consulting for example.  In this area, Deloitte could benefit greatly from peer-to-peer exchange, user-generated content, and social networking.  In this area of the business, they could lead with social media and social networking into which they could weave formal content and learning where appropriate.  Software companies, consultancies, media companies might fit this model at varying levels.

This same flexibility exists within a company.  In most large or even medium sized organizations, there are similar differences between divisions within a company and even between training initiatives: OSHA training versus Leadership Development for example.  The same learner may be part of both training initiatives.  The OSHA content will likely be expert-driven, supplemented by social media and peer to peer exchanges.  The Leadership Development program, on the other hand, might be heavily-based on social networking, peer-to-peer exchanges, and user-generated content, with links to formal courses, classes and the like.

While this flexibility should result in more effective talent development and greater productivity in the workplace, it also requires companies to think through their needs and objectives and marry these to the appropriate learning paradigm.  Today, we don’t think about appropriate learning models quite as deeply.  Today, we think about levels of interactivity or about delivery models.  We need to start thinking about

  • “who makes the content?”
  • “what is the cost / benefit of user-generated content as it relates to a particular objective?”
  • “if user-generated content is appropriate, does the topic require moderation?”
  •  “what kind of moderation: pre-moderation, post-moderation, technology-assisted moderation?”
  •  “is there a role for formal learning woven into the social part of the learning?”

In other words, we have to think not just about interaction and delivery models, but about the core paradigm itself and whether we lead with a one-to-many approach or a many-to-many approach.  Companies that have effective mentor programs (one to one) and diverse one to many offerings will be better equipped to make these decisions.  Companies who are still primarily delivering via instructor led may find these decisions and evaluation more challenging.  (Of course, that’s where companies like ours can be helpful through strategic consulting and on-going consulting services.)

This is an exciting time in our industry and we’re excited to be on the forefront of these changes.  Based on our discussions with clients, prospects, and analysts, we believe that the future of the industry lies in the merger between formal and social learning into something that is greater than the sum of its parts.  To get there though, we all need to start thinking through how our existing models marry up to the new ones and how we get from here to there.  This post is a start, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on how all of this should come together.

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