Social Learning: the organization learns how to learn

July 19, 2012 — Leave a comment

George Siemens, Rosario Sica, Stefano Besana

A theoretical framework

We begin with a fundamental premise: Social Learning is not a new trend. Learning models such as those of corporations, guilds and apprenticeships invoked long ago what we now call Social Learning. Going back further in time, the first philosophers practised Social Learning almost exclusively, as the stories which are still told about Socrates, Plato and Aristotle remind us.

What is really innovative, today, is the scale on which we can be involved in a process of social learning. Web-based technologies greatly reduce the barriers that learners were forced to face in the past (time and geography are just two of many possible variables that can be used as an example): the development of social networks and tools such as Skype, Google Talk and mobile devices, the level and scale at which we can be “social” has increased consistently and substantially. In this sense, Social Learning is a return to our more natural way to learn and interact with others.

As regards the relationship between Connectivism1 and Social Learning activities we can see Social Learning as part of Connectivism. Both concepts refer to how knowledge is distributed and emphasize how complex problems can be solved by assuming a network and systemic perspective.

The point at which Connectivism differs from Social Learning is the access to resources and sources including non-social ones. For example, new ideas, very often, are simply reworkings of ideas that followed one another in past centuries. William Rosen in his bookThe Most Powerful Idea in the World, highlights exactly this point, i.e., the way in which people connect to each other’s ideas is not always Social.  Furthermore, the way in which organizations create their managerial structure influences the way in which information flows within the organization itself. Connectivism is linked to (the question of) how this information, these techniques and social structures have an effect on and contribute to innovation, invention and dynamic adaptation of the individual and the company. The biggest developments in the near future – in terms of emerging learning systems – will above all be in the domain of analysing knowledge: in fact, we produce huge flows of data in almost everything we do (a process amplified greatly by mobile technology). Our ideas, our positions, what we read, with whom we interact. Everything is captured forever on Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter and our blogs. Many companies are fumbling in the dark in terms of knowledge and organizational learning.

Recognizing and using wisely the huge amount of data and flows of information that are produced is the first step to moving towards an analytical approach as regards the goals and objectives of a company, as well as being a good way to build competence. Through the analysis of information flows companies can understand how knowledge moves in networks, how people work together, which people should be working together based on the activities they have previously performed and how to deal effectively with complex problems (such as entry into a new market, acquiring a new company, or launching a new product). Analyses of these data – in essence – can help companies better understand themselves.

Most experts and consultants emphasize the social dimension and the way new technologies – Facebook, Twitter and blogs – contribute to making people “social”. They deal with the social aspect as the most critical element within the internal process of learning. We instead believe that people are motivated primarily by information. We constantly process information. From childhood, we try to make sense of the world by attempting to think about it, to evaluate it, to connect the pieces of information we encounter. It is an evolutionary trait: we are living beings based on information. We develop in relation to the information around us.

Looking back at the time when man was a hunter-gatherer, those that survived were those who were able to make sense of the information in the context in which they lived: which plants to collect, which animals to avoid, what to eat and so on.

Our starting assumption is that the dominant trait of humanity is the acquisition, processing and creation of information. We employ social approaches that allow us to manage information better. Too many  people discussing  Social Learning see the social dimension as its final goal. We see it rather in the search for meaning and a way whose primary purpose is to use social approaches to assist us in personal evolution and survival.

In the early ‘90s Lave and Wenger had already intuited the pivotal role of communities of practice and informal exchanges between people in organizations. After more than twenty years from their early work, the organizational landscape has evolved considerably, but the importance of the role of informal communities in building knowledge has not only remained unchanged but also benefited and been strengthened by the great evolutions – both technical and cultural – of all that vast sea that may be labelled as Enterprise 2.0, where the role of the community has become dominant and paramount.

In this sense, Social Learning fits into the organizational dimension connected to learning, the exchange of knowledge, training and the management of human resources that has become fundamental important in all businesses, both more or less complex.

The diagram shown in Figure 1 summarizes well the evolution from the ‘90s to the present of the conceptions of training in terms of the technologies they employed, from simple systems and approaches to basic distance learning up to blended learning and building environments that allow a degree of interaction and an ever-increasing number of functions.

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In trying to give a concrete definition of Social Learning, however, we could argue that it is an emergent phenomenon (not predetermined or planned) that originates from knowledge networks and information flows, both formal and informal, within organizations. Social Learning is, moreover, the reliance on social networks and interactions for help in our own search to give meaning to the information around us. Today “knowing” means to be connected: knowledge is moving too quickly because learning can be considered simply a product that comes at the end of a process. We need to connect to networks of information and “deposit” knowledge in relationships rather than in our heads or in knowledge management systems.

We are not dealing, therefore, with the simple application of social technologies (or 2.0, according to by-now dated label) to the context of learning, trying to evolve the classic logic of LMSs (Learning Management Systems) towards models similar to those of well-known social networks. Rather, we need to rethink training and learning development in a way that integrates more with the flow of operating activities. We need to think of the learning organization as a living organism that is constantly evolving.

Let us understand better the context of referral and the principles of Social Learning through the analysis of a case study.

Applying Social Learning: a case study

We will try to explain the basic concepts of Social Learning with a practical example related to a situation in which many organizations may find themselves: a large multinational company needs to review
their Learning Management System, which is becoming obsolete. The portal that delivers training content was based on a platform whose functionality is rapidly declining. In addition, the company also needs to move towards a system with lower maintenance and management costs and that can be maintained independently, without relying on external vendors for every need, even a small one. The project, then, started with the aim of porting all the historical data and SCORM/WBT packets so as to be able to continue to offer the training program to all the company’s. (We are talking about a population / user base of more than 5,000 people).

This is a classic use of this platform, based on precise and concrete learning objects in which the e-learning part is used in a very traditional way, as a simple static content provider and file repository. In essence, the mode of learning underlying the platform is based on a very simple concept: users of the platform access training courses they are assigned to and training is performed in a passive manner, limited to observing the explanation shown on the monitor and completing a comprehension test at the end of the trail.

The challenge in this project was therefore to provide customers not only a mere porting content from one platform to another, but integrate the four dimensions of learning, which we consider indispensable in the design of a Social Learning environment:

Training & LCMS (Learning Content Management System): a company – small, medium or large – needs to provide courses for which tracking is required (we are only looking at those required by law: 626, Privacy, etc.) and a tool that will be a classic LMS must be present in a Social Learning environment.

Creating a Social Learning project doesn’t mean throwing away years of experience and knowledge about the e-learning world, but rather means to valorize these experiences in a changed context. Another topic to cover is assessment and reporting which very often need to be produced and cannot be left uncovered.  Introducing a platform which covers these needs within the context is certainly important and useful in order to deliver more traditional training.

The Content Management System: This deals with content management and its delivery/presentation in an as user-friendly way as possible, with appealing graphics and meeting the classic user-experience principles: it is not uncommon to find company training management platforms and learning courses provided with interfaces which are not in line with these considerations: user-unfriendly and complicated environments with a very bad user experience are unfortunately quite common. It’s better not to underestimate the way contents are delivered, because learning can only be effective in an environment provided with good cognitive affordance. Moreover – considering the basic project idea – a CSM is aimed at allowing an easy upload and sharing of contents and – secondary but equally important – at supporting an extremely wide range of formats. Here’s what makes things much easier for people dealing with training: creating modular and specific learning paths.

Self Learning: companies’ repositories abound with contents that can enrich and integrate training paths. When planning new learning platforms it is necessary to expect the integration of more sources – both internal and external – in a self-service way. Moreover, being fully consistent with the lessons of the previously mentioned 2.0: relying on folksonomies, on modular and customizable paths and focusing on the single user’s needs today more than ever form the winning keys in a learning process/path.

Community & Social Network: communities – the “social” aspect – are the real cultural, social and technological revolution that has involved us over these years. Being able to valorize practice communities and related networks is a distinguishing crucial point when it comes to creating a learning environment which can generate value for the whole business ecosystem.

New formats: wiki, social bookmarking, storytelling, gaming and micro-video are just some of the tools that users should use in order to generate contents to feed the platform in a bottom-up way. The goal should be to feed a repository to create a Youtube, a company Slideshare or something else, and provide learners with all the necessary tools to share learning-related contents quickly and easily.

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To make a comparison, the environment should be able to allow the maximum level of presence3 inside, at least. Only in this way will the users really be free to experiment with new formats and get a true benefit from them in terms of significant learning.

For example, for the project we talked about initially, the four dimensions (fig. 2) have been integrated by using OpenSource technologies which covered different themes and needs. With regard to LCMS management they chose to use Moodle which has become a point of reference, especially over recent years, in the LCMS field. It just takes a look at the statistics on the official website http://moodle.org/stats/ to realize that. Nevertheless Moodle is still bound – by choice and by necessity – to a classic view of learning and is missing most of the functions found in more social tools (just think about the tool that manages learning, Schoology (www.schoology.com/home.php)). So how can we meet these limits and customize the Moodle interface more effectively? An integration process with CSM and Social components has started. Now all that is needed is to define an environmental integration process, most of which we have discovered to be already provided for and implementable through a plug-in.

Yet we still haven’t dealt with the management of informal aspects, which we have covered also in this case by a special plug-in to create internal communities in Joomla: this plug-in is JomSocial (http://www.jomsocial.com). By integrating this plug-in all the development areas have been covered. The case above is meant to be a starting point to understand how to build up an as rich and stimulating learning environment as possible with a few simple tools, which could take into consideration all the needs of the actors involved.

The technical difficulty of creating an environment like this is modest. Besides the planning, the real challenge lies in the maintenance and involvement of learners. In any case the idea remains that a Social Learning project – and, generally speaking, every Social Business project – is to be planned as a tailor-made project based on the different and specific needs for each context and case.

By forcing ourselves to try to extend what we learned from the example above to a general context, we underline how social technologies can guarantee the possibility to create wide and articulate training and learning paths. The application of social technologies to training in classes can later evolve the mature considerations made about blended learning so far by taking it to a new level which can valorize different contents. In this sense in fig. 3 we have included the diagram shown in Scotti and Sica (Community Management, 2007-2010). It clearly shows how the planned and catalogue training is only able to cover a part of the mare magnum where learning takes place.

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In this sense the creation of communities that support knowledge is a fundamental requirement in order to facilitate those silent aspects that couldn’t be valorized otherwise.

Assessing Social Learning

Even when assessing learning it is necessary to review and rethink methodologies and technologies: it is clear that old logics cannot be used and applied to new paradigms, but the whole framework of learning processes, of the individual and – more in general – of the company, must be reviewed. A large amount of research is heading in the direction of using Social Network Analysis (SNA) to assess training and learning.

In the early 2000s, we used a Social Network Analysis project involving a department of a large University in the US to assess over 100 people. We tried to understand how these people collaborated with one another, where they would go to ask for help and how they used social networks to solve their everyday problems.

Understanding the essential nodes of the department network was an important starting point on the path to an organizational change. In a very similar way, today’s companies need to take in consideration new analytics and innovative assessment models to reconfigure their structure. The knowledge lying in most companies is not properly connected. Very often certain people work on some problems without knowing what others are doing, without any awareness. When analyzing the results of learning on both an individual and organizational level, we need to rethink the way in which we identify and analyze the results of the training interventions. Analysis tools play an important role in the mapping of organizational knowledge. In this sense, the analyses provide us with a model to start from to reconfigure our company. In the past, leaders have sometimes taken decisions blindly. For example, the joining of two departments was carried out because it made sense financially.

Very little attention has therefore ever been paid to knowledge and to how learning and the building of knowledge could be influenced. With this type of analysis we can better understand these “blind spots” and eliminate the risks in reconfiguring the departments in our company.

In this sense the Kirkpatrick model (based on an individual assessment of the impacts of training) – well-known to those in charge of assessing learning – can be revisited and evolved into a wider assessment approach extending the analysis levels to a larger and “network” dimension, also able to assess the most widespread organizational impacts that involve the communities found within the company (see fig. 4). Specifically we ask ourselves: in what way are collaborative networks emerging? At the end of the training course, which networks have been improved and what new cores have been born? How is knowledge moving inside the company? Have internal affinities towards the course themes changed? How should work teams be organized to improve company efficacy and efficiency?

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We can therefore identify four other dimensions to support those initially provided for by the model, in order to better assess the impacts that the training course has on the working network:

  • Affinities: at the end of the course has the level of affinity of the participants changed towards to the themes dealt with and the more general goals?
  • Social Knowledge: through the training course was knowledge spread inside the company by taking advantage of informal networks?
  • Network Creation: have collaborative groups and new links within the course been created that can then be extended to the rest of the company?
  • Network Development: have we developed the creative cores already present?

The integration of these “new” assessment methodologies and processes within the classic models that are already well-known to those in charge of training allows us to have a complete assessment framework of the company and fully understand the formal and informal exchanges within the company.

Notes

  1. For references to the Connectivist approach please consult the George Siemens volume: Knowing Knowledge
  2. SCORM (Sharable Content Object Reference Model) means a reference model which allows the independent exchange of contents on the platform. A WBT (Web Based Training) is a training package supplied on the web.
  3. At the level of psychology of new media (Riva, 2008) we define the concept of presence as the feeling of being inside a digital environment given by the possibility of putting into practice our own intentions.

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