An introduction to Scaffolded Social Learning

I’m sharing this: it’s a short ‘Introduction to Social Learning’, intended as a foundation for people new to the subject. It’s a first iteration: see what you think and let me know if you have ideas!


What is Social Learning?

Formal learning is what we do in classrooms, in eLearning modules, in workbooks. Formal learning is any type of learning that is written and delivered by the Organisation and sent out to people to complete. Formal learning is what many organisations rely on to get people to learn ‘stuff‘.

Social Learning is about the conversations that surround this: it’s about the wisdom of the community and the wealth of experience that this is founded upon. Social Learning is about helping each other, building learning networks, solving problems together and sharing stories. This is sometimes called ‘tacit‘ or ‘tribal‘ knowledge, and it’s the things you already know, alongside what everyone you know knows.

When we talk about creating Social Learning within an organisation, we mean creating a learning journey that incorporates both of these elements: the formal and the social.

What is Social Learning?

Why do we need Social Learning? Because the world has changed and we need to be more agile as both individuals and organisations. Formal learning can leave us lethargic, unable to innovate and adapt: Social Learning, by contrast, links into the tacit knowledge of the organisation and constantly evolves. Formal learning is about getting people to know the organisational story. Social Learning is not about defining one story that is written and serves us forever: it’s about iteration and evolution, keeping the story current and relevant. It’s a new way of approaching organisational learning.


What does this look like?

Social Learning happens anyway: it’s whenever someone turns around and asks ‘How do i do this?‘. But we can encourage and support it: we can design learning to be ‘social’, and we can create the conditions where Social Learning can thrive. It won’t happen without design, but ultimately it’s about letting go of some control.

What is Social Learning?

A Scaffolded Social Learning experience is one where we create a series of spaces and assets that the community uses in a structured way. So there is still a structure, a curriculum, but there is also space to co-create.


What is Co-Creation?

Co-Creation is the magic at the heart of Social Learning: it’s the process of consuming formal elements, what the organisation tells us or that we read and watch elsewhere, and talking it over, working out what it means, and writing that into a new story, together.

Facets of Co-Creation

Co-Creation is something we do in communities: it’s a core skill of the Social Age

For example: we could write a course called ‘The type of leadership we need‘, which tells people what great leadership is and how they can develop the skills to be one. Or, in a Scaffolded Social Learning approach, we may ask them. We ask them to write, to co-create the story, of the type of leadership that they think we need in this organisation at this time.

We can still provide some formal assets [the orange boxes], some of ‘what we want them to learn‘, but alongside that we structure conversations [the blue bubbles] around what they already know and what they think. We still have a voice in the conversation, but so does the community.

We have the best of the formal knowledge, and the best of the tacit, tribal knowledge, bought to bear, to answer the question, ‘What type of leadership do we need?


Designing Scaffolded Social Learning

We design Scaffolded Social Learning by creating the structure, the Scaffolding itself. There’s a whole methodology behind how we do this: starting by mapping out the learning journey and finishing by choosing which mode of learning to use at each stage. eLearning, workshops, webinars, podcasts, books, videos, conversations and debates. We can use them all within a Scaffolded Social Learning approach, but crucially it’s how we structure them that creates the Scaffolding, and it’s the scaffolding that creates the spaces to learn.

Scaffolded Social Learning - the overarching narrative

A scaffolded Social Learning solution will include both bubbles and boxes, a combination of formal and social spaces


What does Scaffolded Social Learning look and feel like?

Most of what we do will be in Community spaces: online communities where we come together to learn. We feed the formal assets into these spaces, we provide a Scaffolding for the co-creative activities, and we help people write the story.

Once we start the programme, we will be asked to do different things. From a design perspective, these are the ‘co-creative‘ design elements.

For example, we may ask people to ‘curate’ content, to go out into the real world and find examples or new information. Then we may ask them to ‘interpret‘ it, to be relevant to other people in the community. Or we may ask them to collaborate, to bring together a range of these curated resources and interpret them together, to write the story of ‘what it means‘ to us, now, in this organisation.

We may ask them to change ‘perspective‘, to move the location of how they are looking at a story, or to ‘diagnose‘ what is wrong in a situation.

10 aspects of Scaffolded Social

Here are ten co-creative behaviours to get you started thinking about it.


What about Technology?

Technology is important, but it’s not the whole story. You won’t get Social Learning to work just by buying a system. It’s all about the design and facilitation. That’s why an organisation that wants to use a Scaffolded Social Learning approach needs to invest in it’s people, not just it’s technology.

Social Technology and the need for ease

Social Technology is all around us, but it needs to work on our terms. The smallest things make a difference to engagement

Some Social Learning will take place on formal systems, the technology that the organisation provides, but often the formality of that technology inhibits engagement. If the space feels formal, people may be less willing to take chances, to make mistakes. So we have to nurture the community.

You can read a bit about how to do this in my other short Guide on ‘Creating Community’, using the CEDA model. You can find that Guide here.


How do we get engagement?

By stepping back and relinquishing some elements of control: if we police and regulate the semi formal, social learning spaces, then they just become formal ones. People may still engage, but only to tell us what they think we want to hear. That’s not what they are for: the social spaces should be where people figure stuff out and share what they learn.


What Scaffolded Social Learning isn’t

It’s not a workshop with a forum deployed on your Social LMS alongside it.
But it would be a Learning Journey where you did some work in your community (within a Scaffolding), attended a workshop and drew together a co-created story based on your experience of both.

It’s not asking people ‘can you think of a great leader and what made them great?’
But it might be a space where you have a structured conversation about leaders you respect, what made them great, how you can emulate the best things that they do and how we share a story of how you do that, whilst you do that, over time. Then you help someone else discover their best way to lead, based on what you did and what others in your community bring.

It’s not adopting the new module that your LMS or HR tech supplier tells you is ‘Social’.
But it may be creating space to prototype a new, lightweight collaboration tool, or a social bookmarking tool, or pretty much anything that the community thinks is useful, even if it wasn’t the IT team that told them to use it.


How can we evaluate it?

Social Learning is best evaluated using a Triangulated approach: measuring it’s success from three different directions. These may include:

  1. Self reported narrative of learning: part of Social Learning is to create a personal narrative over time, what you have learnt, what you are trying out, what worked, what didn’t work, what you see other people doing and the conversations you have with them about it. It’s about #WorkingOutLoud over time. Self reported narratives of learning are highly qualitative, but nonetheless highly valid: if you think you have learnt, and can express how you have changed the ways you work, that’s worth something.
  2. Peer reported measures: as Social Learning happens within communities, it’s valid to explore how your peers measure the value you bring. I’ve been exploring how we can use peer validated badges: measuring how people support, challenge, bring new ideas, share stories, link people together and so forth. These badges are socially awarded, validated by the community itself. Again, peer reported measures are qualitative, but related directly to the quality of learning taking place and the health and coherence of the community.
  3. Formal assessment: whilst our primary interest is Social, we don’t discount formal assessments. We can use simulations or even formal tests to measure effectiveness, but in general, we should be testing application rather than simple retention. This can provide a quantitative measure to our evaluation.

These are just some of a range of ways we can measure: i’m developing some ideas at the moment on ways to measure engagement based on contribution, on support, on helping the community to be effective, but more on that soon…


Chaos and Risk

To achieve a truly agile approach to learning, we have to relinquish an element of control. Because the story in Social Learning is co-created, we have a voice in the conversation, but it’s not the only voice. We have to listen as well as speak.

But there needs to be structure (a Scaffolding) and there still need to be standards and rules. It’s just that they may be less about control and driving conformity, more about facilitating and protecting. Often the rules will be co-created themselves, an agreement between the community and the organisation. For example: what happens to the conversations within the community? It may be that the whole community decides this: can they be shared, or are they private ‘sense making’ spaces. We may insist that the community write a co-created story to share externally, but we may also respect their need for private rehearsal spaces. Just because we can listen in, doesn’t mean it’s right to.

With a Social Learning approach, we do see chaos and risk, but it’s a sense making chaos, it’s a playing around with ideas, prototyping behaviours and rehearsing new skills. It’s a productive and agile type of chaos and we need it to succeed. If you control it too far, you lose the creativity, you lose what makes it Social in the first place. And the mistake is to confuse that control for winning.


Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What is the best Social Learning platform? Any platform will do, it’s not the functionality that counts, so much as a clear understanding of how formal or social the space is, who owns the conversation, and how easy it is to use. Social technology should be effortless.
  2. How do you get engagement? Be engaging: create magnetic content that is built on the terms of the learner, not the organisation. Avoid too much ‘tell’ in favour of more ‘discover’. Use the different co-creative behaviours in your design to create variety and interest. Focus on using an authentic tone of voice.
  3. How do you stop people saying the wrong thing? You can’t stop people saying anything, you can only reflect on how you will intervene. If you stop the conversation in your space, it will simply migrate elsewhere, where you’ll have no opportunity to learn from it. Create spaces for dissent, and spaces for performance. Recognise that we need both.
  4. How much cheaper is it? It may be cheaper, but if it’s well designed, it may not be. But it will be more effective, because Social Learning is inherently applied, in the workplace, and is all about performance.
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About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
This entry was posted in Social Learning and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

52 Responses to An introduction to Scaffolded Social Learning

  1. I enjoy reading posts where the real mechanics of organizations is addressed, so thanks. I think you will increasingly find that the word ‘learning’ is corrupting – that it conceals aggressive, authoritarian intent. To put it another way, your post works better if we remove ‘learning’. What you are describing is just social activity. It happens when you group people together – it happens in classrooms – and certainly in organizations. It can be scaffolded as you describe – but I don’t know anyone today who has a problem being social in some form. It’s the business of social that’s the problem – i.e. it tends to suffer when it is harnessed for business purposes (hence the deserted social media platforms ‘for business purposes only’). We know that learning is happening in social spaces, but to view them from an educational lens is risky – after all they are not primarily about ‘social learning’ – they are about sense-making (storytelling, norms, relationships, self-definition & validation – and generally how we get stuff done). You are making lots of good points about social – but the need to dutifully insert an educational purpose (because we are not yet able to quantify the value of social) seems to be quietly poisoning the approach. In practical terms if you build a curriculum the way you describe, hardly anybody shows up. So you will be back wondering why.

    • sarah says:

      That’s an interesting perspective. When I read your comment, I thought maybe what you call ‘sense-making’ is what I would consider learning, or at least pretty critical aspects of it. Maybe when we think about learning or education, we still default to the more formal conception, an authoritarian vision – while social learning supports exactly that more open and adaptive sense-making perspective on real-life performance within organizations.

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  17. Reblogged this on Gamification, E-Learning and commented:
    “What is Social Learning?

    Formal learning is what we do in classrooms, in eLearning modules, in workbooks. Formal learning is any type of learning that is written and delivered by the Organisation and sent out to people to complete. Formal learning is what many organisations rely on to get people to learn ‘stuff‘.

    Social Learning is about the conversations that surround this: it’s about the wisdom of the community and the wealth of experience that this is founded upon. Social Learning is about helping each other, building learning networks, solving problems together and sharing stories. This is sometimes called ‘tacit‘ or ‘tribal‘ knowledge, and it’s the things you already know, alongside what everyone you know knows.”

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