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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,,, 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:

ASTD’s Learning Circuits currently has two articles: and

A bunch of blog posts on social learning on LearnTrends, a learning design social network:

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:

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:

And, to foster our own social engagement, report back to this group with your thoughts, suggestions, and experiences. We will learn from you!


Facebook as an Instructional Technology Tool

Emerging EdTech has two articles that provide good supplemental information to Ms. Kalk's article:


Usability and Simplicity

Great observation that good usability is the single most important criterion in selecting effective learning tools. There are a number of things to think about regarding usability. These factors are not necessarily limited to social learning, but apply to E-Learning in general.
First, know your audience. When developing online training, it's important to know how comfortable your audience is with computer-mediated interactions. In 2001, Marc Prensky defined students as either digital natives or digital immigrants. Digital natives are students who, "have spent their lives surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age." Prensky defines digital immigrants as, "Those of us who were not born into the digital world but have, at some later point in our lives, become fascinated by and adopted many or most aspects of the new technology ..."
Digital natives and some digital immigrants are comfortable with computer-based interactions. They have lots of experience doing things digitally and can use previous experience as a guide to figure out how to do new things. They're also willing to experiment and have an expectation that they will be guided through new processes. They are comfortable accessing online help or going to a source like You Tube and finding a training video.
On the other hand, some digital immigrants are not at all comfortable with current technology.  Admittedly, our digital devices are getting more complex and sophisticated all the time. In 2004, CNN had an online news story, "Newest electronics short on simplicity." The owner of a new cell phone lamented he had to consult a 146-page owner's manual just to learn how to turn on his phone. Baby-boomers can remember the jokes about no one being able to figure out how to program their VCR.
Companies are always trying to add new features to their products. Developers of online training want their courses to have all of the bells and whistles - use the latest and greatest technology. Users often want simplicity, especially the subset of digital immigrants who don't embrace technology. As the 2004 CNN article mentioned, a man (clearly a digital immigrant), used only the simplest features on his digital camera because the rest of the features were too difficult to comprehend. Gerard Kleisterlee, chief executive of Royal Philips Electronice, noted, "Complexity is intrinsic in technology but simplicity is how we should bring it to the consumer."
The point is, you need to know your audience and what they consider useable. You find out what your target audience can do when you conduct usability testing. So what do you do when training multiple generations with a wide range of digital skills? Keep it as simple as possible (as mentioned in Debby's original post).
Keeping it simple raises some questions. What qualifies as simple? For one thing, if you are designing web-based training, use interactions that are ubiquitous on the web. People spend more time doing other things online than they spend in your course. They have expectations about the way online things should work. Buttons should look like something you click. Links should have different treatment from surrounding text (and change when you hover over them). We should remember, there is rarely good reason to reinvent the wheel. When things are simple and work as expected, people will like and use them. That's what we want for our online training.
A terrific resource for usability and simplicity in web design is the book, "Don't make me think! A common sense approach to web usability" by Steve Krug.

Linda Warren


The Medium Is the Message

Very interesting finding that there was a 400% higher rate of online communication by students using Facebook compared to Web CT. It makes me wonder if Marshall McLuhan's expression, "the medium is the message" can be applied here.
An LMS is an academic tool. As Schroeder and Greenbowe note in their 2009 "innovate" article, students logged on to WebCT primarily to check their grades. The students really weren't thinking of the LMS as a communication mechanism. If students primarily used WebCT to check their grades, they were probably thinking of it as an administrative and assignment tool. Similarly, when I was working on a degree in instructional technology, there were classes with assignments to post on the LMS discussion board and to comment on postings of other students. I always looked at that as an assignment, not a communication tool. The assignment was something I did because it was required.
Compare that mindset with the way people think about Facebook. Facebook is a place where people go to communicate with others. Students use Facebook to socialize prior to using it for a class. The characteristics of Facebook as a social communication medium seem to have transfered when students used it to communicate about their course. They really used it to communicate and have conversations with one another, just as they communicate with friends when using Facebook for non-academic purposes.
It appears that the medium (LMS vs Facebook) had a large impact on the way students felt about communicating. It makes sense that when learners are in a comfortable environment and one that they already use regularly; communication flows naturally and along with that comes learning.
The case study by Schroeder and Greenbowe makes a great argument for using a popular social medium such as Facebook to enhance learning.

Linda Warren

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