Learning has always been social. From classroom-based courses to group study sessions, we like to learn with and from other people. It allows us to ask questions, share perspectives, and brainstorm approaches to a problem. It helps us engage with what we’re learning in different ways than independent study does. 


When it comes to e-learning, many of us still consider it a solitary activity. We envision the learner reading or watching training videos on a laptop, shut in a room away from distractions. We worry about the lack of interaction and what it means for e-learning’s effectiveness.  


But it doesn’t have to be that way. New technologies are changing the game, and research shows that social learning can boost training effectiveness and engagement.


The Value of Being Social 


In an e-learning context, social interaction applies to more than just the popular networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter. It includes any means of facilitating communication between users.  


The trick is to wade through the myriad of social options and choose those that are the best fit for your resources and your community. Because there are so many options in the toolbox, how do you decide which ones to use?  


When you incorporate social tools, consider the following questions: 


  • How large or widespread is your community?
  • How dedicated are the learners?
  • Do you want the ability to track user participation?
  • Do you have the resources to moderate discussions?

As you think about the types of interaction you want among your users, three distinct categories to consider are opinion-sharing, conversation, and content. (See the Social Learning Matrix.)




1| Offering Opinions


The "opinion" category of tools includes those that provide unambiguous feedback, like a poll, star ratings, or the ubiquitous “Like” button. Better yet, people love to be asked their opinion.  


This type of tool can be incorporated into any course regardless of the community size, and it requires minimal effort on the part of users to express their opinions. For instance, one click and they’ve “Liked” or rated a course component. 


Polls are also a great way to generate user participation. They are an anonymous and “safe” way for users to express an opinion. You can design polls to provide targeted feedback based on the users’ selections and their unique characteristics—how users self-identify. Plus, it’s relatively simple to measure how many people are using these tools, if not necessarily who.


2| Joining the Conversation


Such tools as forums, discussion boards, and the traditional ask-and-answer comprise the "conversation" category of social learning technologies. Here you do need to concern yourselves with the size of your community. An unofficial rule of thumb is that only 10 percent of users will actively contribute to the discussion, while the remainder will merely browse or “lurk,” according to a theory developed by engineer Will C. Hill in the early 1990s. 


If you’re uncertain about whether your community can support a full-blown discussion, start by using a blog and see if you are able to generate conversation through user comments on your posts. Discussion boards can be organized so that these comments are grouped or threaded by topic, as in a forum, or not grouped at all.


Ask-and-answer tools also fit into this category, providing the opportunity to generate conversation between peers or with an expert.


Adopting more of a layperson’s definition of social media, you might also create a Facebook or LinkedIn page as a place to connect people. On Twitter, your followers can reply to your content or retweet it to share with their followers and stimulate further conversation.


3| Sharing Knowledge


The third category to consider is content sharing: wikis and document-, link-, and case-sharing tools all have potential to help learners enrich a course through the resources they add. These tools probably best match the classic definition of social learning—because users can share their experiences, learn from what others have done, and apply it for themselves.  


The issue with the tools in this category is that they’re not inherently social. For example, case sharing allows peers or instructors to share their personal experiences, but requires something extra to get the conversation going. A wiki is only social if multiple users are contributing.


To incorporate case-sharing or similar tools, you will need to add another social media component—like a blog that has enabled comments or links so the content can be easily shared and discussed.


Lessons Learned


When Monarch Media began using social media, we quickly had to learn a few hard lessons. We initially designed one of our training projects to include forums and document sharing, but because the tools were external to the course content, users had to go out of their way to utilize them and participation was predictably minimal.


By the next iteration of the course design, we had built on these constructive lessons. To engage more of our users, we redesigned the course pathway so that the interactive tools were incorporated side-by-side with core content.


When designing for a small community of about 200 users, we employed topical polls, case studies from peers, and an ask-and-answer blog moderated by an expert. Our anonymous polls asked provocative questions and enabled us to provide follow-up information targeted for different types of participants. The polls provided a more accurate measure of user participation compared to, for example, the blog, which users could read without actively participating. We also measured user reaction in a survey given after the course. Users named the blog as the tool they found most valuable, despite the low participation rating.


Putting It All Together


When it comes to creating social learning opportunities in your e-learning course, start small and build on your successes. Even simple web tools like polls or blogs provide learners with a great way to interact socially and engage with your e-learning course. These tools also give them a means to spread their knowledge and enrich your content with unique, user-generated materials. Use the chart to help you sort through the options. By building on the age-old practice of learning together in groups, social media adds a 21st century twist to collaborative learning.   

*For a larger view of the Social Media Matrix, visit the Monarch Media website

This article is reprinted with permission from Planet eLearn newsletter (Monarch Media, Inc., Winter 2012).