Experiments in social learning

Social learning is a really interesting concept. It’s basically the idea that we can often learn better from each other rather than from an expert or teacher.

There’s an obvious usage for the internet and the kind of social tools I write about here in social learning, and an additional argument in favour of making them available within organisations.

Creating easy to use, informal spaces for learning to happen is something I am really committed to – GovCamp and LocalGovCamp are offline examples and lately I have been experimenting in online social learning too.

Two examples are fairly similar. Earlier this week, FutureGov‘s Dom Campbell and I were in Exeter, speaking with Devon County Council’s managers about the opportunities of digital innovation in local government.

My talk was an expansion of this ancient blog post, entitled If Place is a system, lets make it an open source one (slides here). Part of the talk is to tell some of the interesting stories about the birth of hypertext, the internet, the world wide web and free software.

Folk like Vannevar Bush, Doug Englebart, Ted Nelson, Richard Stallman and others. People for whom the primary role of technology was to support learning and knowledge sharing.

Devon

Anyway, before the event, Carl Haggerty and I threw together a very quick private WordPress site to enable some social learning to happen around the talks Dom and I were giving. We kept it very, very simple, choosing five or six examples of digital innovation, providing a bit of background with some text, links and videos, and then opening up the comments for people to discuss how that technology might affect their service.

So, nothing clever, technology-wise. But such a simple setup clearly resonated with people – we had 67 comments in less than a week – many of which were left in the evenings, or at the weekend.

By doing this, we managed to turn a short, half day learning event into a conversation, with ideas and experience being shared between people at a time and in a place covenient to them. It makes complete sense.

I’m taking a similar approach with a group of up and coming local government folk who are taking part in the SOLACE Springboard programme. Again, I’m providing a one hour workshop session later this month, on digital innovation.

To make this a bit more useful, I’ve built a similar site to the Devon one, with a few pages outlining some of the concepts, with some text, videos, documents, links and so on, and encouragement to use the comments to discuss these issues before and after the face to face session.

Again, the aim is to reinforce the discussion at the face to face event and add some value to it – not necessarily to replace it entirely.

The key thing to me in terms of making social learning like this work is to make it as easy to get involved with as possible and to allow it to be as self-directed as possible – not to make too many rules or force people to do things in a certain way. Again – pretty much like GovCamp!

The second example takes more of a lead from social networking ideas, and uses BuddyPress to create a dedicated social learning network.

This was done following conversations with my friends David Wilcox and Steve Dale, inspired by the work on social learning shared by Harold Jarche.

Social Learning NetworkThe site has all the usual social networky bits like profiles, friends, activity walls, groups, wiki type pages and so on. But of course it isn’t the features that matter but how you use them. Steve and David have used this platform to provide an easy to use environment for an exploratory learning exercise on behalf of the Nominet Trust around the use of technology by those in later life – something they both know a lot about, of course :-)

People share their stories, links to interesting things and so on – and follow up what interests them. Nobody claims to be an expert, there are no hierarchies and people get as involved as they want to.

As I have mentioned here before, we do a fair bit of training for various organisations and increasing I see that we need to offer an element at least of online social learning as part of this.

I’m even planning how a whole course could be delivered in this way – although I suspect that’s for another post.

On a slightly related note, this post by Clay Shirky on the concept of the “massive open online course” is a really good read.

Fancy getting a weekly dollop of Dave in your inbox every Monday?

Click here to sign up to my email newsletter.

Comments

  1. says

    Nice post!

    There’s great potential for the use of social learning in public participation. Getting people up to speed on an issue can be a huge challenge, especially when time is short and attention is scarce. Traditional top-down methods (“Here’s your 150-page PDF, thank you”) fail to engage.

    Not only can a social or collaborative learning experience help bring participants into the process, it also might improve the learning materials (as long as the convener is open to incorporating changes) and build trust as materials are essentially co-created rather than consumed.

  2. Tom Phillips says

    This is also a world in which tools like Yammer have huge potential. That applies to both formal and informal learning. You’re right to emphasise the gains from turning learning into a conversation.