Wednesday, 5 March 2014

The Social Side of Learning Technologies

I’m a fan of learning technologies as you’d expect given my vocation, but I’m not a big fan of using them in there most limited way.  For example, if your LMS is there to launch and track e-learning modules and that’s about it that’s fine, you don’t need someone like me to tell you how to do that and if you’re using that for compliance that’s fine too - it’s just not what I call learning.  Yes, your LMS should be able to launch and track learning but that’s like saying the sole purpose of having a WoF (warrant of fitness for the non-Kiwis amongst you - like your MOT in the UK) done on your car is to make so that you can drive it legally.  The WoF is there to make sure you are at the minimum level of ‘compliance’ for safety - but what it should encourage is proper vehicle maintenance and servicing.  In the same way your compliance training is there to give you a minimum legal clearance on standards - what it should encourage is proper activities and learning so that your learners have levels of understanding over and above a simple checkbox.

You may be under the misconception that I’m against compliance training or getting your WoF or health check.  I’m not at all, I believe in measuring and checking as a good process.  What I don’t think is that this is the end of the story.  I know the WoF is a necessary thing and I firmly believe it’s a requirement (despite grumbling like everyone else when mine is due).  The WoF doesn’t address any issues with my car beyond highlighting them and it is not exhaustive to any issues that there could possibly be or things that are going to go wrong next week.  Same is true for most compliance training launch and track activities.  They check at that point the rudimentary understanding, tick it off and say you’re good right now.  It’s not exhaustive and it doesn’t highlight where things may go wrong in the future.

I’m not a massive fan of the 70/20/10 rule of learning (I prefer pervasive learning because actually the breakdown of percentages is always variable), but I do agree to the basic theory that only the smallest piece of our learning comes from the formal training that we’ve often received.  In terms of compliance training it’s probably lower still.  We learn from what we see others do, stories we share and doing the job and making mistakes and learning from them.  To access the larger pieces of the cake we need to take learning beyond the simplest of compliancy pieces and realise that the classical formal course has huge limitations.  What’s great is that most modern LMSs are equipped to help us take learning further.

The earth-shattering features that they possess are often the most under-utilised in organisations; they may not appear new or as sexy (okay, compliance training and sexy may not go well in a sentence together) as that new e-learning package with the whizz-bang graphics that you just shelled out $50,000 for, but they give you access to that all important big slice of learning.  Let’s start with the simplest yet most powerful social tool that your LMS possesses (if it doesn’t then your LMS isn’t really and LMS - it’s probably some form of CMS, great for tracking compliance, not for learning); the humble forum.  If there were a single tool that I could recommend to organisations above all others it would be the forum.  Most of you have experience at some point of commenting on, replying, starting discussions or just reading forums so they’re hardly anything new, but what they are is social and interactive and that’s the area where learning flourishes.  The skill for making good e-learning lies in instructional design of course (apparently news to about 50% of e-learning producers out there) and the forum is an example in this.  If you put up a simple ‘course forum’ on each e-learning course you’ll probably find that it gets very few if any posts and adds little or no value.  That’s not a fault of the forum tool, it’s a fault of the instructional design.  If a teacher in a classroom just asks compliance type closed questions it doesn’t mean that all questions are limited, it just means that they’re not using them to their full extent.  Same with forums.  If you pose the right types of question you’ll get responses.  The idea is that you challenge thinking, you engage people in issues that are relevant to them and you provide an environment where others start to comment not just on what you say and vice versa, but on each others ideas and theories.

A great example of this is to use controversial or difficult scenarios using something like a Q&A forum.  A Q&A forum in Moodle/Totara works so that you can pose questions and people can only see each others replies when they post an answer - the forums then become open.  I was working with a client recently using this technique as a pre-learning experience question and then using this as a springboard to picking up on misconceptions and common trends.  If you want to instigate discussion try posing questions without a clear right and wrong type answer - these tend to initiate the best discussion and get others involved in trying to justify or reason against opinions.  What these type of interactions do is make people really think not just about rules but about the application of them to real-life scenarios; that’s what learning is really about.

Forums can also take learners off in a variety of directions and all you need to get this to occur is a little push!  I run a little e-learning programme hear in New Zealand for beginners and like to make one of the first requirements for the programme posting on a forum.  The way I do this is to set it up as a compulsory activity that they must complete to be able to complete the course overall.  You can even make them make multiple posts or start a discussion thread.  Whilst it’s not a high-level use of the tool it does get them comfortable with making a post or discussion which can unlock their access to more sophisticated use.

I’ve also seen forums used effectively as part of the assessment process - lots of LMS forums even allow you to allow some peer ratings!  Use this with care as it can have a different outcome to what you were expecting, but actually you can create some interesting scenarios and get users to vote on the best response. You can achieve a similar outcome by getting learners to comment constructively on each others posts.

There’s other great tools you can use to get the social side of learning ticking along.  Feedback and voting buttons can work well provided you share the analysis of results back with the group - again you can use the tools beyond their baseline use - feedback doesn’t have to be your level 3 feedback or happy sheet - it can be to  pick areas of concern or ‘stuff’ you want covered and then if you share everyone’s views  - it can even be used without any real further work from you or as a starter to then link to a forum to expand upon the ideas that throws up.  If you need to understand the importance or relevance of a wiki tool just search for more or lest anything on the net.  I guarantee somewhere in there they’ll be an entry by Wikipedia.  Wikipedia is the most famous of wiki sites but its hardly a one-off.  A great activity is to get your ‘group’ to respond on one Wiki and build upon the answer to what they believe is correct.  It’s great because it forces the group to think on their answer and build their answer together (along with justifications).  In fact wikis are really useful for more than that - we use one for our Learning Technologies staff and I don’t control the content which is better for me (as I don’t have to do all the work) and the consultants as they get to lead the direction we go in.  Imagine setting a wiki on ‘where to go from here’ type theme in your course or ‘how could this course be better’?  

I’ve mostly talked about the asynchronous tools involved in your learning up to now, but don’t forget the tools for synchronous learning that can also be used to good effect.  The very simple chat and whiteboard type approach (particularly good if you have an ‘expert’ on hand that people can ask questions of) right through to the full blown training webinar.  The best webinars use interaction beyond just trainer and learner and involve some level of interaction.  Using webinars with web-based (or SaaS type) tools means you can real-time do things with your learners regardless of where you are - most webinar tools have things like voting (and hands up) and you can usually share a whiteboard or use a third party software to achieve this type of thing.  I’ve recently been using Web-Ex and Totara LMS together through an API plugin - that can work quite nicely so the learner goes through their course page and seamlessly into the webinar but still with the tools the LMS offers and third-party tools at their disposal.  The reason I’m strongest of all on the asynchronous tools though, is that the interaction takes place largely without much input from the trainer - that’s a good thing for two reasons again; it’s easier on you and it accesses the big slice of cake by learners learning from each other.

My final social side of learning is the Facebook effect.  This is sometimes a step too far for those of us running an LMS and learning.  But I like using an e-portfolio system to truly hand control over to the learners.  In an LMS the system and control remains with the organisation, with portfolios the power passes to the individual - but that’s where the power of social learning is.  I like using Mahara in conjunction with Totara LMS; this means the LMS belongs to the organisation and the portfolio belongs to the learner.  How this works is that the learner can then put together their page or timeline and post what they want to share with who they want to share.  As trainers or administrators we may not be included… and that’s okay.  It can work well for formal submissions but also for things like peer reviews and general sharing.  If you’re worried people may start sharing answers or learning with each other then you’re kind of missing the point; if they’re learning from each other great! They’re learning.  Suggesting learners create a page for their course or programme can work well; you can decide whether they end up submitting or just let them share to increase that background learning.  Either way if you’re doing something that’s igniting learning beyond what you directly ‘teach’ then that’s a good thing and increasing the amount of cake consumed!

In closing even the best and most beautifully designed e-learning module is just a small piece of the pie, if you want to increase the availability of pie then you need to access the social side of learning and embrace those tools the LMS or e-portfolio/social platform.  It’s not a question of ‘who ate all the pies?’ but ‘who wants a bigger piece of pie!'