How to design for Social Learning: Three Tips

In the past there were only learning designers: People who design training material. Then e-learning designers accompanied them: People who design e-learnings (online courses). Now there are social learning designers in the learning design business: People who design online social learning experiences (learning with and from each other on the web).

I’m a social learning designer, and I have a question. Although we are called social learning designers, is it actually possible to design for social learning? Or should we be called social learning facilitators instead?

I decided to get to the bottom of this, and what would be a better way than using existing social learning tools to get to an understanding?


In the Curatr MOOC (Massive, Open, Online, Course) “exploring social learning” I discussed everything that there is to say about social learning together with a bunch of different Learning & Development (L&D) experts. We read articles, watched videos, wrote down our opinions and experiences and reacted on them. I can tell you, we wrote a whole lot of messages. I was surprised to find out that I wasn’t the only one who used to work in e-learning and switched to social learning. Social learning and e-learning may seem similar, since they are both about online learning, but in reality the difference is huge.


In my previous job I designed e-learnings: Online trainings that would replace classical learning. The users had to go through a set of interactive content, make little tests and perform quests to get to the last level. Once they were finished and passed the test, we assumed they had the knowledge they needed.

It was fun to make but I worried about the effectiveness. What do we lose when we replace classical learning with online learning? What happens to the chit chat and discussions on the subject matter that arise after the training or during the coffee break? Are those not the highly valuable factors in a training? Are those not the moments in which content really lands? E-learning is missing this social factor.

I’m not the only one doubting the effectiveness of e-learning. E-learnings seemed nice in the beginning, however now, are widely considered to be a learning tool that delivers a lousy experience and costs tons of money to develop.


Social learning is the new trend in L&D. And I like it!

Although social learning seems to be new, it is as old as mankind. You learn from your environment, from conversations and by observing and imitating others. You are often not even aware that you are learning. With contemporary technology we are able to extend this social learning from the coffee corner to the web.

It has enabled us to get to knowledge more easier, to connect and have conversations with many people who use a different coffee machine than yours. We keep our knowledge up to date by reading blogs, looking up resources on the Internet, and we build professional networks through the web. When we want to know something we consume short knowledge bites on the web and go on with our job. What we mean these days when we talk about social learning is learning on the web with and from others. About using social media as a facilitator or catalyst for social learning.


So let’s go back to my question: Can you design for social learning? Or can you only facilitate it? When designing e-learning you are in full control of what it is the user will learn. You design the exact path and branches of content that the user will munch. You design the images and interactive elements. And when the user is finished you know what they have consumed.

This is all different with social learning. After all, social interactions cannot be forced. It’s something that happens. It’s something you can not control, instead it is something you have to let go.


At first sight it seems that there is not much more to design than just the environment in which this social interactions will take place. But if you are a good social learning designer this is not where you stop. Although you cannot control social learning, you can guide it. The biggest design challenge for social learning designers is designing the right guides. Here are three tips to guide social learning.


Think of colleagues you meet at the coffee machine. If you know they are interested in the newest Internet trends, you are more likely to move from talking about the weather to a conversation about internet trends. Social learning almost only happens when the users are having the same interest. So if formal online training and social learning are situated on the same platform, the formal training can function as a creator of common grounds and so stimulate social learning. In a way you are simulating the chit chat and discussions of a classical training. This seems a platitude, but in many companies the L&D department believes that when they set up a social feed on their intranet they stimulate social learning.


You could offer more guides by giving voluntary assignments in which each others deliveries are shared. Let users share their thoughts on a matter, let them discuss it and inspire each other with their ideas. If you are lucky the users might flow into an ongoing discussion. You could even create a weekly challenge in which the users share their delivery. The user with the best delivery might be rewarded. By challenging your users you are looking for the hidden knowledge within your community, the best delivery could be seen as best practice. You might end up with a nice collection of inspiring best practices.


Most important of all. You have to make sure the users will visit the social learning community. Without visits, no communication and no learning. Visiting the platform should be like getting your coffee at the coffee machine. It has to be integrated in the daily routine, and the user has to be thirsty for it. Meaning the platform should contain relevant content for daily tasks, it should be interesting on a daily basis. And very important, it should be clearly present: The smell of the cup of coffee of the colleague next to you might make you walk to the coffee machine to get one as well.

If you want to make the step to social learning, consider how you do it. Don’t just introduce a social media tool and expect that it will be used and more important that they will learn by it. Guide them in the design instead and let it go!

Good luck.

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