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What Does Social Learning Mean to Mzinga?

February 19, 2009

We get a lot of questions about our overall strategy and direction with regard to social media and learning.  Here is a long-ish, but thorough answer to at least part of this question.  Enjoy.

We’ve developed two models which are embedded in the core LMS, a separate strategy that ties into our authoring tools, an extended strategy that wraps all of this into a full-blown community, and a full suite of social learning services.  Within the LMS our two models are:

  • “Amazon” Model
  • “Community” Model

As we were thinking through the development of our strategy, we realized that there were a lot of good models out there already – one that jumped out at us was the Amazon model.  At Amazon, I may not be the writer of the book, but I’m still empowered to participate in the larger meta-discourse about the book – I can review it, discuss it, rate it, and see other people’s profiles who have done the same.  There is obviously a direct analogy here with formal learning.  While many of our learners don’t create the courses, curriculum, and ILT classes they are required to take, they certainly should be given a voice to discuss them, rate them etc…

So basically, in this Amazon model, we’ve enabled organizations to wrap social media and social networking around any learning object in the system and at multiple levels.  If for example, there is a multi-part curriculum on Leadership training, the admin can wrap social media around the curriculum and around individual courses, assessments, surveys etc… within the curriculum.  The social media we support in this model include learning object specific:

  • Blogs
  • Discussions
  • Ratings
  • Comments
  • Social Profiles

From an admin perspective, we made this very flexible – individual social media features can be enabled per learning object and rights to do this can be assigned to specific admins.  This means that organizations can turn things on incrementally or in a “big bang” according to what best fits their organizational readiness and culture.

The second part of our pure LMS model is a Community model.  As with social media outside of corporate learning, we all sometimes go to a blog for its own sake, or to Wikipedia, or a discussion forum, or Facebook.  In this scenario, the social media isn’t “about” anything else; it provides its own value.  Within the LMS Community model, we support an unlimited number of:

  • Discussion threads
  • Blogs
  • Social profiles

Social profiles are configurable and searchable, and can include unique data fields that map to an industry or to a specific organization.  All of the aforementioned features are part of the core LMS and are included at no additional cost.  And like the learning-object specific features, these features are enabled individually to help organizations bridge more easily from today to tomorrow.

The second part of our overall product strategy is the incorporation of social media and networking into our course authoring tools, specifically Publisher.  We call this the “Embedded” Model.

Mzinga Publisher is a collaborative course authoring tool that enables authoring teams to easily co-create courses, from simultaneous authoring to sharing course assets (images, Flash, sims etc…) to built-in review capabilities.  While this feature set was pretty complete already, we’ve extended the authoring side of the tool to include

  • Developer Blogs
  • Developer Chat
  • RSS feeds into the authoring Dashboard
  • Presence
  • Deep audit and reporting capabilities

Another big change is the introduction of a Contributor role within the tool.  As we expand the concept and the roles of subject matter experts, we think that another role will manifest – Contributors.  A Contributor does not control the templates, design or overall course structure, but we think that a Contributor should have an ability to edit and update individual pages in the course.  We think this provides a way to dramatically expand the pool of content creators without sacrificing instructional quality and good design.

We’ve also added a ton of social media to the learner-side of the equation – the course itself.  We’ve made it possible for authors to

  • Embed an RSS blog feed directly into a course as its own page or part of a page (this feed can even come from a blog within the LMS)
  • Embed a course-specific blog into a course as its own page or part of page
  • Enable learners to write new blog posts to share their expertise and ideas
  • Embed a comment capability in any part of the interface or onto a page so learners can add and respond to the comments of other learners
  • Embed a rating capability into any page
  • Search for and embed YouTube videos directly into the course
  • Embed Google Mashups

As with our LMS strategy, what we’re striving for is flexibility.  We know from our years in this industry that one size does not fit all.  This is true across companies, across initiatives, across audiences, across objectives, and across time:

  • The company that is unwilling to use social media at all in 2008 may find itself embracing it in the second half of 2009.
  • An OSHA initiative might not be well suited to discussions and comments, but might be a great candidate for a blog.
  • A Leadership Curriculum may only have a few classes sprinkled throughout the year, but may be heavily weighted toward social networking, sharing best practices through discussions, and on-going blogs by leaders within the company.
  • The course on the new software rollout may be a great candidate for embedded, open-ended blogs and comments to help capture emerging best practices.

The point is that organizations will need to mix and match the social with the formal in the same way we’ve mixed and matched classroom instruction with WBT with sims with games and with virtual classroom.

For those organizations who are ready to move beyond a “course” and LMS-centric view of social learning, we can instead lead with a Community strategy where social networking and social media take center stage with supporting roles by the more traditional formal learning elements.  In this model, we can “hide” the LMS, but still expose certifications, compliance, curriculum, virtual classroom, courses etc… through deep, direct links.  These links can be included in any discussion, blog, comment, idea, file or any other “community” kind of content.  While this is pretty innovative, the thing we’re most proud of is that we’re doing this on a unified platform.  What this means is that a company can start with an “Embedded ” or “Amazon” model and then seamlessly migrate to a “Community” model without sacrificing any of their existing investments or efforts.

The last part of our strategy is to provide a comprehensive set of services consulting to ensure the success of those organizations embarking on a social learning strategy.  While there is a lot of excitement about the subject, there aren’t too many organizations that know how to manage social learning or workplace communities, nor are there many organizations who have designed overall strategies that include social learning.  Most instructional designers also lack experience in moderating discussions or driving participation in on-going discussions and interactions.  We provide services that address all of these issues – strategic consulting, community management, moderation – in both perpetual and initiative-based models.

At the end of the day, what we’re trying to do is provide an easy way for companies to move from their existing formal learning strategies to more social, collaborative learning models.  We think that this shift is inevitable, but organizations may need to get to this future in different ways.  All we can hope to do as vendors is give our customers the broadest and most flexible toolkit possible (including the option to not use any of it) to achieve their objectives, and a suite of services and consulting options to ensure their success.

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