Getting engaged to social learning. Issues of engagement in the online world.

To create a successful online learning environment, you need to address issues of technology, content and engagement.

Technology itself will not solve the issue. Content, in itself, will not do it. It’s the magic of engagement that draws it all together, and engagement is not something that’s going to happen by itself. It needs to be engineered into the project, the same as anything else.

The old adage of ‘content is king’ is certainly true, but social media take us beyond pure content. A social learning environment, be it formal or informal, will contain both original learning content and user generated material, with forums and communal areas where the two can meet. Without user engagement, it’s simply another information website.

Content can play a significant role in generating engagement through innovative design that is intended to draw the user into activities. For example, we often use an underlying methodology for learning design that sees us first setting a context and demonstrating skills and behaviours, but then looks for the learner to diagnose social situations (shown in video) in order to demonstrate their understanding and ability to identify these things in the real world.

We can then get the learner to replicate those skills and behaviours, showing their ability to take the learning out of the abstract and into the concrete reality of their work lives.

Social media can be used to enhance this experience, but only if people will engage with the forums and spaces and, as i’ve said, this engagement cannot be taken for granted.

There are a whole range of barriers to engagement, some obvious, some less so. Once the formal ‘learning’, from the modules, is completed, it’s like the long pause at the end of a lecture, just after the speaker says ‘any questions’?

In fact, it’s worse than that. If you ask a daft question in a lecture, it’s just a small group of people who hear it, but if you ask it online, everyone can hear it, and it’s captured forever. Of course, just as with a lecture, once one question gets asked, you can get a cascade of engagement, but still from just a small percentage of the overall audience.

In practical terms, we need to use moderators and facilitators (or ‘sherpas’ as a colleague called them the other day), to help initiate and structure the discussion. Sure, it’s fine to leave discussions within forum environments to be free ranging, but if it’s part of a structured learning experience, it’s also important to draw the threads together at some point. Interestingly, forums use the approach of ‘closing’ arguments quite commonly, even in totally unstructured learning environments, recognising the importance of time limiting the debate.

Alongside issues of ‘putting your hand up‘ and speaking out, there are other factors that impact on engagement. Cultural influences can be significant, as can their related postures on the questioning of authority and things like gender bias and equality.

In the UK, we have a very liberal attitude to authority, with a well entrenched attitude to questioning it, but we can’t export this attitude around the world. We are at ease with a learning environment where we are expected to question and challenge, but this is not the case with all cultures and educational systems, and it’s a factor that we’ve had to address in a number of learning programmes that are delivered globally.

Another example of differences in cultures came to me strongly in a piece of learning we did in Eastern Europe, targeted at 1,500 managers in an organisation. Within the video examples, we wanted to have a mix of male and female. ‘But there are no women managers‘ i was told. Seriously? Yes, in a population of 1,500, there was not a single woman and, we were told, the audience would just laugh if we put one (let alone 51%) in. How to address these types of challenges (and this is just one of many stories i could share) are real issues within social learning environments.

If our aim is to generate engagement, we have to be producing materials that are realistic, reflective of reality and provocative.

Engagement, then, is not something that we can take for granted. It’s highly context sensitive and driven, ultimately, by a strong sense of enlightened self interest. There has to be ‘something in it for me’ if i am going to engage. People use Facebook, Amazon or LinkedIn because each of those spaces gives them something that they value. If we are to be successful in our efforts to create online learning spaces with high levels of engagement, we need to factor this into our efforts as well.

Engaging users in a world that is highly competitive for time and attention is a challenge that should not be underestimated.

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About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
This entry was posted in Culture, Engagement, Formal Learning Spaces, Informal Learning Spaces, Learning Methodology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Getting engaged to social learning. Issues of engagement in the online world.

  1. Reblogged this on Unearthing Ideas Consultancy and commented:
    QUOTE | Engaging users in a world that is highly competitive for time and attention is a challenge that should not be underestimated.

    …and we say “here here”. Thank you for this post Julian.

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