Social Learning Technologies: How are they Impacting the Workplace?

The term social learning is heard a lot nowadays in the context of learning technologies, but what does it mean and how is it impacting learning and development in the workplace?

Social learning is a theory, much like any other behavioural theory.  There have been many quite complex definitions of social learning, but I like the Albert Bandura (1977) theory that states that behaviour is learnt from the environment through the process of observational learning. He believes that children think about the relationship between their actions and its consequences and those actions are observed from influencers, e.g. peers, parents and teachers. The relationship between action and consequence requires the process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through experience and thought, something known as cognitive process. As we grow older our experience increases and our thought process becomes more complex, which means we are less vulnerable to negative influencers. When it comes to social online learning, being able to identify the negative influencers is critically important.

Technology has brought opportunities for social learning in a way that a couple of decades ago we couldn’t have even dreamt of.  We often now hear “I Googled it” or “I’ll go online and find out what other people think”. Only this week I was delivering a workshop to further education staff and a question was posed that related to a TV game show from 20 years ago. None of us could remember the name of the game show, but whilst we were deliberating a delegate ‘Googled’ the question, someone in the world had shared their knowledge on game shows and we had an answer. However, the people in the room decided whether or not it was the correct answer, and further discussion and a demonstration of an equivalent online game extended the shared knowledge, so the human social environment definitely complimented the online social environment.

The development in mSocial learningobile devices and social technologies that provide us with ability to read and respond online over the last decade have driven change in many businesses, but never more greatly than today . These technological advancements have brought many opportunities for engaging with customers, innovating practices and bringing efficiencies. They have also driven major changes in learning and development; the Towards Maturity survey reported that 74% of employers are now using some form of e-learning and the BBC’s Academy only delivers 25% of activities in the classroom and is embracing online social environments to broaden learning opportunities.

Employers are benefitting from the use of social media for learning and development in various ways, which includes staff being in a position to make better decisions, problem solve and improve their performance. This comes from connecting employees within their organisation to enable them to:

  • Share company information
  • Reflect on learning
  • Discuss topics
  • Discuss problems
  • Share knowledge
  • Offer and receive peer support
  • Co-create documentation

The social online environment can exponentially increase the rate at which staff information can be shared and questions can be answered. Of course social online learning is not restricted to networks within an organisation and there are a mass of World Wide Web online communities perfect for social learning.

Online collaboration and sharing of information is not just a current trend that is likely to go away. It has got to where it is today through users themselves creating and growing it, and that has to be down to its value to the user. According to Digital Marketing Ramblings who provide digital marketing stats, 1.28 billion people are using Facebook, 330 million use Tagged, 60 million use Slideshare, 300 million use LinkedIn and 250 million use Twitter. The Towards Maturity New Learning Agenda reported that 43% of top learning companies are benefitting from the use of internal social media networks for learning and development and 28% from external social media networks. When staff were asked how they are learning what they need for their job 86% said from working in collaboration with others and 70% said Google or other search engines. It is not surprising then that organisations are seeing the benefit of using online tools for collaboration.

In the Centre for Learning and Performance Technologies (C4LPT) report on the top 100 tools for learning Twitter came out top with YouTube, Google Docs, Dropbox, Google Hangouts and Facebook coming in the top ten. It certainly appears that content creation tools are declining in use and social media tools are increasing in popularity.

Skills commonly required by employers are the four ‘Cs’; critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, creativity and innovation. Confidence in the use of the online social environment can very effectively develop these skills and can bring considerable benefits to any organisation. In May 2013 a ‘WE Learn’ project found that students using smartphones for learning became more independent and inquisitive, and improved their skills in self-directed and collaborative learning. These skills will hugely benefit these students as they work towards the competitive world of work. However, the use of social media in a personal context is different to that of the business context. As was pointed out by the European Commission in 2013 “virtually all young people are familiar with social networking and might be considered as “digital natives”, but they are not “digitally competent” in the sense that they do not know sufficiently how to use the digital world in a business context”. Educators need to take note of this and develop our young people so that they not only meet employers’ digital skills needs, but also equip them with the skills to be lifelong learners through social online learning as well as through more formally structured learning.

The New Learning Agenda report states “Building effective networks, both internal and external, is crucial to developing a connected workplace, which in turn facilitates learning and knowledge sharing”, and technology certainly enables us to do this very effectively. However, we mustn’t lose sight of the value of the face to face environment for social and educational reasons. Face to face training, online structured courses and social learning, whether face to face or online, are all valuable tools in the learning and development process. Quite often the best learning solution is a combination of all of them; the skill is knowing how and when to use them for the best possible outcome.

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