Passing Notes in Class
Remember passing notes in school? Kids still send notes around the classroom these days – only the notes are text messages. Many of those notes are the classic witticisms about inane lectures, boring teachers, the countdown to the bell. But those silly snippets do something else: they weave social bonds and there is evidence that those bonds are essential in learning. Call it social learning.
Educational psychologists have studied social learning for many years but it’s the explosive growth of social networks that is bringing it into the mainstream. Suddenly the idea of social learning has currency – giving our need to understand it real urgency. The numbers are breathtaking: Facebook did not exist 6 years ago. Now it has 500 million users. In a review of academic conference presentations on learning technology topics, the number of papers on social learning went from a handful to hundreds between 2007-2009. For those of us on the front line of learning development and delivery, the question is: should we implement these tools in our training? Can our trainees learn anything – or learn better – with social tools?
First, let’s define social learning. At the heart of it all are the theories of Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist who worked in the 1930’s, who died very young, and whose work was unknown in the West until it was translated into English in 1978. His seminal work, Mind in Society (1978, Harvard University Press), says it all right there in the title: we’re social beings. Next up, Albert Bandura finds us highly dependent on each other for much of our learning – we mimic others from infancy. Many other educators have built on these foundations, devising a theoretical framework that is usually referred to as social constructivism. You can think of it as “learning by doing – with others.”
Social learning can work on many levels: it fosters a sense of community, it creates a social norm (a pressure group), it extends a support system, it presents other perspectives, it provides a platform for testing out ideas, and, when it works, it creates engagement with the material at a deeper level. It can also make a bad course worse – the group dynamic will reinforce each individual’s feelings of frustration and powerlessness.
It would sure make life easier if we could find scientific experiments of social learning technologies that show unambiguous results. It turns out the evidence is inconclusive – neither a dramatic thumbs’ up nor a ringing indictment (actually, most educational studies are inconclusive – but that’s another post!). Despite mixed results, some themes emerge that can inform strategies for implementing these technologies in training.
Some findings seem pretty obvious: learners and instructors enjoy tools that are easy to use. The biggest complaints are about technologies that are finicky or have poor usability. Duh, right? Isn’t that true of all technology? Well, this is actually more important in learning environments than in, say, leisure activities. If we have a limited amount of brainpower, we don’t want to burden it with the need to learn to use a complicated tool, crowding out the space available to learn what we really want to learn. This idea of the limitations of brainpower is called cognitive loading. As training developers, we don’t want to overload cognitive resources with stuff that is irrelevant to our learning goals. After all, we’re implementing technology to facilitate learning – not to make it harder. So rule number one: good usability is the single most important criterion in selecting learning tools that will be effective. By the way, the only way to determine how easy-to-use your users will find a particular technology, you have to try it out with representatives of your users.
Another finding about what makes social learning technologies successful is to create specific assignments. It’s not enough to make cool tools available and see what happens. If you’re hoping to see some kind of result, you have to design strategies to produce a result. For example, you might require that every trainee must post a comment about some issue. Then, you might require that every trainee must comment on at least three of his or her peers’ comments. Presto – you have a discussion going on. As with all assignments, the best are relevant and directly support trainees in mastering the objectives.
Many learners find it easier to ask for help from peers than from instructors or tutors. It’s easier to admit to a colleague that you have no idea what the instructor is talking about without feeling you will insult the instructor, suffer a terrible grade, or get a repeat of the same presentation that you didn’t understand the first time. Peer-to-peer tutoring is a powerful instructional remedy because it also reinforces learning for the peer tutor. A strategy for facilitating peer-to-peer tutoring is to create teams within a class, either for study purposes or to produce a project or presentation.
Many learning management systems (LMSs) come readymade with discussion board features. Usually, these require logging in to the LMS, clicking on the discussion board, typing or pasting in the text, clicking a submit button, and checking to make sure it gets posted in a list of messages. To respond requires a similar process. To see any of the posts, the user needs to click on each one, usually one at a time. Now think about the process of posting a message in Facebook. You login, you see what your friends have posted, you might respond or generate your own post. Pretty effortless. So it’s perhaps not such a surprise that in a study of students who were given the option of posting comments in either their LMS, WebCT, or a Facebook group (restricted to the class), there were an astonishing 400% more posts in Facebook than WebCT (Schroeder & Greenbowe, 2009). When the researchers examined the content of the posts, they found that messages in WebCT tended to be direct and purely function. An example: “Is Chapter 4 due on Thursday?” Answer: “Yes.” By contrast, in Facebook, an exchange tended to be longer, deeper, more personal, and more engaging. An engaged example might go like this:
Is Chapter 4 due on Thursday?
Yes and then we’ve got Chapter 5 the following Monday – sure seems like a lot to do in a short time.
I notice that these are pretty closed tied together.
Does anyone see the contradictions to the article we read last week?
Will anyone be online tonight in order to meet for a study hour?
The WebCT example is certainly an appropriate exchange but it doesn’t go anywhere and doesn’t generate further discussion. The Facebook example generates discussion. Some responses directly answer the question, some meet the question with other questions, some establish a social connection over shared worries about the work (a classic method of student bonding), others prompt new thinking, and others offer social support. If I’m a learner in this class, I feel that I’m part of a cohort. I have buddies – I’m not isolated or unsupported. But I’m also challenged – challenged to do as well as my friends, challenged to help them when I can, and challenged to not let them down.
Another important finding that emerges has to do with privacy settings. We’ve all heard about the reach of Facebook’s data collection efforts and it’s a cautionary tale for all of us. Course mangers should be very clear, very upfront, about the limitations of any communication technologies used in a course. Most learners feel uncomfortable posting to any discussion that is not restricted to the class community. Since online discussions are equivalent to classroom discussions, trainees have the expectation their comments will not be broadcast beyond those walls. It’s hard to think of a reason to make a discussion public, but if a course does so, make it obvious to all who participate.
Another area of dispute concerns whether instructors should participate in learner discussions – and even if instructors should see these discussions. Almost all schools and companies consider these tools part of the learning infrastructure that they provide their learners. They do not easily give up control. But it’s important to make this clear to learners – who tend to become cozy with their cohort and may forget who is monitoring the comments. Another issue for learners and instructors alike is to remind everyone that training occurs in a professional setting. A training tool that looks like Facebook and works like Facebook, is not, in fact, Facebook. It’s important to emphasize what is appropriate in a professional workspace and what needs to be left at home for a leisure friend-space.
It’s certainly possible to use Facebook for a learning application – again, with those privacy controls turned on. However, a number of tools have emerged that mimic aspects of Facebook and roffer their own features that foster social learning, particularly customizable features. One the first tools, Ning, was enthusiastically adopted by many learning groups. It’s effortless to use and it was free – until a few months ago, when users awoke to the stunning news that Ning would start charging in August. Some groups are moving to tools that promise to remain free, but the reality is that this is a fluid environment and the best plan is to count on change and be prepared for it. Some, and certainly not all, of these alternatives include WackWall, group.ly, grou.ps, and elgg. All have benefits and limitations. As they say, buyer beware: even if there’s no “cost,” there’s always a cost!
If this post has whetted your appetite, there are some great resources out there. Here are a few:
A bunch of blog posts on social learning on LearnTrends, a learning design social network: http://learntrends.ning.com/profiles/blog/list?tag=social.
Another social network presented by Elliot Masie is LearningTown! which doesn’t have a group focused on social learning but has an active Instructional Design group that often looks at these issues: http://www.learningtown.com/.
The Facebook/WebCT study mentioned above comes from what was a very worthwhile online journal, innovate, which has ceased operation. Here's the citation: Schroeder, J., and T. Greenbowe. 2009. The Chemistry of Facebook: Using social networking to create an online community for the organic chemistry laboratory. Innovate 5(4). And here's how to get to innovate: http://innovateonline.info/.
And, to foster our own social engagement, report back to this group with your thoughts, suggestions, and experiences. We will learn from you!