After hearing Mark Oehlert and Brent Schlenker do such a great job on eLearning 2.0 at the Guild’s Summer Seminar, I got my own chance to talk about it to a corporate group, but with a twist. Much of elearning 2.0 is about informal learning, but the organization was moving to using social networking tools to scaffold their move from face-to-face to more online learning. So I was asked to talk about social networking and formal learning.
I started from the informal picture, however, both to introduce the 2.0 tools (their environment in particular had blogs, feeds, wikis, discussion boards, portals, and profiles), and to talk about some case studies of successes. I led to the point that the informal participation has big upside potential, but you can’t spring it on them when they move beyond novice stage, and that wrapping it around the formal learning is a vehicle to help them become comfortable with the tools. That is, the first reason to use social networking around formal learning is to make it part of the repertoire of the community.
I then segued to my second point, which is that social networking tools are better formal learning. To help make learning ‘stick’, to achieve our goals of retention and transfer, I have previously suggested that there are several activities that accomplish the memory elaboration, specifically connecting it to personal experience, to exercise and extend the conceptualization, and to apply the concepts to specific tasks. Each of these can be accomplished well through social networking tools.
For example, blogs are really personal (or group) journals, and it’s easy to have a learning task to reflect a couple of times a week (for example) on what the current course means to you personally. It can be to explain things observed in the past, how it applies to current situations, or how it will better prepare people for the future. It’s about re-activating and re-processing the information (Thiagi‘s exercises, for instance, are great at getting people to re-process information), but here adding in that connection with pre-existing personal context. Of course, reading other learner’s blog posts, and commenting, can extend the value of the individual post.
Discussion boards are a great way to support extending conceptualizations. Learners can be asked to post a response to a thought question (or even to have to create one), and comment constructively on someone else’s post. Well-written questions can ask learners to rethink the information in ways that the lecture and examples didn’t cover. The point is to reprocess and elaborate the information. Critically reflecting on another’s elaboration requires integrating their thinking with your own, for a real challenge in coming to grips with how they’ve interpreted it (and opportunity to refine one’s own understanding).
While simulations may be the ultimate learning application environment, another valuable tool are group assignments. Having the learners respond to a challenge where, in teams, they create some written output collaboratively on a wiki is a great chance for them to have to express their understandings. In doing so, by applying the concept to a context, they need to a shared understanding of the concept, which fosters greater comprehension.
Profiles, as well, can help individuals flesh out information about their fellow learners, and make more meaningful connections (as well as potentially track down useful mentors). While not as rich as face to face interpersonal interaction, adding personal details helps extend their persona in ways that bring technology-mediated interaction closer to that personal exchange.
These few examples suggest how social networking not only facilitates informal learning, but can and should play a role in formal learning, for the sake of both formal and informal learning. I’m finding it increasingly difficult to think about when formal learning shouldn’t include a social aspect (except the situation of ‘critical mass’ in totally asynchronous learning).
I’m still not convinced there’s an LMS that integrates social networking tools in a way that makes a smooth segue from formal to informal, though I know Mzinga’s making a stab at it. You want to move to loose coupling, yet you want seamless integration. Not sure what the reconciliation is of these. Your thoughts?