Social learning is the sharing of information and knowledge among peers via interactive discussions and computer-based methods. Such methods include blogs, instant messaging, group discussion boards, wikis, video chats and other social media applications.
By any measure, social learning is one of the fastest growing segments of the training and education space. Its growth is being propelled by a variety of popular technologies and applications, demand for greater individual control over learning experiences, and the training profession’s eagerness to improve learning.
Social learning occurs whenever individuals consult peers, friends and experts to gain information. Their ability to do so is broad, thanks to the proliferation of widely available tools in the marketplace. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Skype, online encyclopedias and group discussion boards are just some of the popular social media applications being employed today. Collaboration technologies such as webinars and virtual instructor-led training provide additional avenues for peer-to-peer learning.
Within the workplace, training organizations are vigorously incorporating social learning into their programs. They are motivated not only by the demands of tech-savvy young employees, but by opportunities to improve learner retention and lower training costs. In addition, new data mining technologies allow users to quickly search and locate certain stored informal content.
Structured social learning represents both an opportunity and a challenge for the training profession. Companies clearly benefit when informal content from employees contains useful ideas and just-in-time solutions to problems not addressed in formal curricula. At the same time, many organizations struggle to effectively manage the influx of informal content and to measure the actual benefits gained from it.
Organizations are discovering that it’s relatively easy to obtain usage data and other transaction measurements from social media contacts. By keeping track of activity within a social learning community, training departments can draw basic conclusions about its impact. But correlating those social exchanges with actual knowledge and performance requires metrics that are not easy to obtain.
Certain businesses are embracing social learning within structured learning networks. For example, among the most visible is the Cisco Learning Network, which encourages social exchanges among users taking formal training.
Here are some best practices in social learning that have been identified by training professionals.
- Encourage collaboration. The key to social learning is learning through collaboration with colleagues. Among the most beneficial are conversations that feature story telling and problem solving of workplace challenges.
- Measure true success. It’s helpful to know how people are utilizing social learning opportunities, but measuring that activity is limited in value. Organizations should also identify success criteria such as a trackable performance metric for a sales team. Also, process automation can yield measurable business results.
- Stress formal learning. A foundation of formal learning must be the basis of every social learning network. Learners start with a foundation of knowledge, and build around it via informal learning methods.
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