I want to explain my views in a little more detail on this blogpost and I hope you can humour me. And feel free to tell me I'm wrong.
We can't set a low bar for 'social'If the mere use of a social media platform makes a learning experience social then we've been social all along. I do a lot of classroom training as well. My classroom training is never about being a sage on stage. It's full of real world activities, interpersonal interaction and experience sharing. I do a lot of socratic facilitation in the classroom - I use my questions to draw out experiences, perspectives and lessons for the group. This said, I decide on what questions I want to ask, the agenda and the topic for discussion. If you think of lrnchat, it's quite the same thing. There are a set of pre-defined questions and a pre-defined topic for discussion. The only thing that's different from doing this with a facilitator in a classroom is that now we've distributed the discussion and there are several more participants than there could possibly be in the old world. So yeah, it's a far more scalable approach, I don't believe it's any more social. Now this isn't a criticism of lrnchat - I love being part of the discussion. All I'm saying that this is no different from formal interactions we've practiced earlier.
My bar for 'social' is quite high
I believe that true social learning has a few important characteristics. And this is where the 'new' social learning is different from the old. Here's what I think are non-negotiable criteria to dub any learning as social:
- Democratic: To me the classic example of social interaction is gossip at a watercooler. Gossip emerges from the ground up. It doesn't need someone to lead, though a regular gossip fellow can facilitate the conversation and lubricate it. The key ingredient with social interactions at work or otherwise however, is that the crowd decides the agenda, the crowd decides the conversation. When a minority decides the agenda for a large group, then the interaction can still be social, but not enough to be any different from older models. Learning is truly social when individuals can decide what they want to learn and how they wish to collaborate on it.
- Autonomous: The key factor with social interaction in real life is that it moves by itself and is not controlled by a facilitator. I look at my social network on Facebook and on Twitter and even my enterprise social network to behave this way. We aren't talking about a specific platform, it's about a pattern of interaction. Now a facilitator can help make the flow of the interaction smoother, but in no way does the facilitator become responsible for the direction of these interactions. We can term something as social learning when it gathers a pace of its own without intervention from a trainer, facilitator, manager or leader of any kind.
- Embedded: One of the key aspects of social interaction in real life is that it's about life in general. It's not a separate exercise. I share stuff that I'm passionate about, I talk about things happening in my life. I blog about issues on my mind at a given point in time. Learning is truly social when it's embedded into the context of work. Think about this - I face a problem at work I know nothing about. I post a question about it to a company social network. Soon I receive a response from another colleague in a different team. That's the kind of interaction I'm speaking of - 'just in time' learning.
- Emergent: Social interactions have no predefined structure. The structure emerges from the natural interactions of a participating group. A big problem with enterprise social learning is the desire to structure before you start. Predefined structure has its uses - I don't doubt that. The uses however are limited to finite amounts of information - such a sitemap for a website. The nature of social communication is that it's frequent and high volume. You can try second guessing the structure for this endless stream of communication and you can also guarantee failure for every such attempt. As I've mentioned earlier, everyone's structure is different. Andrew Mcafee has written quite eloquently about the concept of emergent structure. "These are all activities that help patterns and structure appear, and that let the cream of the content rise to the top for all platform members, no matter how they define what the cream is. Without these mechanisms, online content becomes less useful – less easy to navigate, consume, and analyze — as it accumulates. With these mechanisms in place, just the opposite happens; the platform exhibits increasing returns to scale, and becomes more valuable as it grows." You should read the complete article here.
My aim is not to stir a hornet's nest with my statements in this post. In fact I've been wanting to write this post for a while but was wary that I'll upset some of my friends by terming what they do as 'not' social learning. Frankly if you don't agree with what I've said, feel free to post in the comments section and shout at me. I'm no theorist, but from experience I've built a bit of an opinion. If it resonates with you, I guess I'm thinking right. If it doesn't, I guess I'll learn from you. Look forward to hearing what you have to share. Until next week, bye!