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How to Make Social Learning More Organic

Social Media Learning: A Tale of Two Classes

If you have taught or taken a course that uses an online learning management system (LMS), you know that the social components of elearning software, when insufficiently integrated, can be a bit of a virtual ghost town. Other than the times students use the chat feature to ask their peers about deadlines or swap last minute notes, the vast potential for social learning goes largely untapped.

Even when social components are built into the structure of a course, the results can be underwhelming. A few years ago, I got an assignment in an English course to post a personal reflection to our class message board. We had a rigid word count requirement and a minimum number of replies we had to post on other students’ reflections. The goal was to connect with peers over shared experiences. Instead the assignment felt tedious and contrived. The instructor, who was otherwise engaging in the classroom, was unable to use his natural gifts for teaching via a social media platform.

Contrast this with another experience I had that same semester with the exact same social medium. Our instructor encouraged us, with no parameters other than relevance, to post topical articles, videos and thought experiments to the class message board. The social media component quickly became a catalyst for connection, discovery and debate. A frequent contributor to the board aptly observed that it had become his favorite component of the course, and that everything posted there was “required reading” for his own enjoyment.

Formal and Informal Learning:

So what was the fundamental difference between these two experiences? It seems to me that the level of success was directly related to the level of formality. The first experience was controlled and mandatory, while the second was unrestrained and voluntary.

The difference is perhaps similar to the difference between reading for a class and reading for pleasure. Maybe we would have all enjoyed reading Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in high school if it had been recommended by a friend rather than assigned by a teacher.

Audrey Polce compared formal learning with riding a bus and informal learning with riding a bike. When riding the formal learning bus, the driver (instructor) chooses all of the stops. You are along for the ride, but you don’t have much say in what you get to explore. However, when riding the informal learning bike, you have full discretion on your destinations and the route that you will use to get there.

Whichever metaphor you choose, evidence is showing that social learning is simply more effective when it happens in natural social contexts.

Informal Learning Outside the Classroom

Of course, informal social learning has implications far beyond the social media components of a university of classroom experience. Chances are you can come up with some examples right now from your own professional or personal experience.

Think about your first few weeks at a new job. Much of the required learning curve is informal. You don’t learn the dress code from reading the policies and procedures manual—you learn it from seeing how your neighbors are dressing. You don’t learn about office culture by interviewing your supervisor—you learn the ropes by keeping your head down for a little while and feeling things out before you do anything drastic.


Strategies for Informal, Organic Learning:

In a sense, informal learning already occurs organically and intuitively. However, it can certainly be difficult to translate organic learning behaviors into the context of social media. Here are three tactics for making informal social media integration successful:

  1. Get the Facilitator or Instructor Engaged

If there is a facilitator or instructor for a course, he or she is a critical influence for setting the tone, parameters and overall feel of a social media platform. If the facilitator uses social media in a relevant, engaging and meaningful way, learners are likely to follow the example. In addition, Chen and Bryer’s previously linked study concluded instructors who are holistic and open about their online social presence are more likely to be viewed with credibility by their students.

  1. Let Learners Seek Out Their Own Interests

Much has been said about strategies for motivating learners, and it is generally agreed that learning sustained by intrinsic motivation is more powerful over the long term. Social media is effective because it allows for users with widely varying interests to come together and learn from each other. Allow learners to follow their particular passions by avoiding unnecessarily strict guidelines for how social media should be used.

  1. Keep It Voluntary

No matter how nifty your particular social learning platform or how innovative your ideas for its implementation, you cannot avoid the fact that requirements from an authority figure are going to reduce active, meaningful participation. Encourage, but don’t require, participation, and you will be pleasantly surprised at the turnout of fresh voices and ideas.


Do you see social learning as a key part of your curriculum?