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The Case For Social Learning: Lessons From Successful Online Businesses

What Can Social Learning Theory Teach Us?
Summary: Learners today expect courses to include social and interactive components. In this article, we’ll talk about what social learning theory can teach us about engaging our audience online and lessons from online businesses successfully leveraging social with their online offerings.

What Can Social Learning Theory Teach Us?

Ah, social learning. Maybe this makes you cringe a bit because you associate this completely with social media. Then again, maybe you get excited about the opportunities to co-create learning experiences alongside the students who need your training the most.

Either way, if you’re a learning development professional or educator, accepting this as the way of the future is critical to your growth and the success of what you develop. Whether you are in Instructional Design, delivery, or workforce and organizational development, there are plenty of opportunities to implement social learning for your company.

What Does Social Learning Mean?

Before talking about the key takeaways of social learning for learning design, it’s helpful to understand what this is and where the theory originated.

The man known for coining social learning theory is Albert Bandura. Albert questioned behaviorist theories of learning during his studies. Where behaviorism, or behavioral psychology, credits learning to direct experience and reinforcement, social learning believes humans learn through observing the words and actions of others.

The experiments Bandura did to prove his theory, called the Bobo Doll experiments, involved recordings of adults modeling aggressive and non-aggressive behaviors with a toy doll. 72 boys and girls either watched the aggressive video, watched a non-aggressive video, or didn’t have to observe an adult at all. The children were aged 3 to 6 and had been pre-tested to determine their level of aggression before. Each child was individually left with the doll and also recorded to see if they acted on what they’d learned through observation. The majority of the children who observed aggression imitated what they’d seen from the adult model with the doll.

This proved Bandura’s observational learning theory that we learn by observing, hearing, and reading, as well as through behaviorist theories of doing. SimplyPsychology provides more details on this experiment here.

How Can We Apply Social Learning Theory To Learning Design?

Below are 3 important lessons that you can take from social learning theory to inform your next project in learning design.

  • Powerful learning happens through storytelling.
    Humans learn through what we see, hear, and read about others. This is especially relevant for eLearning and creating relatable, memorable stories to learn from through audio, video, and written formats.
  • Learning happens through examples of behaviors we experience around us.
    Behavior modeling and leading by example are some of the core ways humans learn. This has a lot of potential for group training environments, professional mentorship, and building socially relevant examples and analogies into eLearning and training materials.
  • Each individual has a desire to belong.
    Social learning shows how much influence the behaviors of others have on us, in large part because we want to fit in. This explains in part why gamification amongst a team, badges and leaderboards, and group problem-solving opportunities go a long way toward helping us feel connected and motivated.

Today’s Learners Expect Courses To Account For Their Social Learning Needs

While social learning doesn’t promise behavior change, it does show that every interaction is a potential learning opportunity. It could be words, writings, and actions of others, or simply the belonging and acknowledgment that a team environment provides. When surveyed, often the majority of a group expects and prefers courses that allow them to connect with others according to this article on the power of discussion.

Surveys like this reinforce how today’s learners have a social expectation and require more hybrid frameworks and interactive learning approaches. In fact, most learners today prefer content that utilizes strategies such as microlearning, gamification, personalization, and social learning. This is especially true of “digital natives,” like millennials. More tips on learning strategies for millennials and future work generations are discussed in this eBook.

Especially given our socially distanced reality, eLearning is the new normal. The days of sitting in a classroom hearing a lecture may come back, but never in the same form. Even before the global pandemic hit, the industry was rapidly evolving with new technologies and the knowledge economy, where course creators can be anyone with a computer. Since we all know the learning industry will continue evolving, finding new formats to engage learners and employees has never been more important.

Lessons From Profitable Online Businesses In Effectively Using Social Learning

One area that can’t be ignored in our search for innovative approaches is the thriving world of online business and individual course creators. There are lessons we can all learn from online businesses already leveraging social learning through collaborative, cohort-based online models.

Instead of blended learning, which references part-virtual and part in-person learning, collaborative online learning embraces our social nature without ever physically meeting. This type of learning meets at the intersection of synchronous and asynchronous learning. It’s a hybrid, online learning approach that mixes benefits from in-person interaction with online technologies.

7 Collaborative Learning Techniques

Here are 7 collaborative learning techniques that profitable, online businesses use. These strategies help facilitate discussion, boost motivation, increase completion rates, and result in skill acquisition by the students.

  1. Courses are beta-tested using student feedback and initial involvement.
    Very few online course creators with profitable and successful businesses create courses without talking to their potential customers first. Even after the initial conversation, creators allow their most raving fans in to test the course and update it using feedback. Most create content and offerings using the words their customers say while expressing pain points. This allows the course to solve the needs of the learner and build an automatic feedback loop for future iterations.
  2. The window to enroll in the course is limited, creating buzz and urgency.
    While the course is always accessible, there’s a select window of time, typically a few times a year, when the course is available for new members to join. During this period new members get the benefit of going through the course material over a set period of time with their cohort.
  3. Students gain access to course material immediately and never lose access.
    After signing up or purchasing a course, students can gain course access immediately. The course is available to begin whenever students have time to learn. It’s also available when students need it to implement the material in real life. This has the tremendous benefit of allowing students to apply their learnings immediately through Just-In-Time learning.
  4. There’s an option to move through the material with a cohort.
    Cohort-based learning finds a happy medium between asynchronous and synchronous learning. It leverages the social element of being in a traditional classroom at a set time, while providing the flexibility of learning on-demand. Students have complete autonomy, while also having the support of a cohort and forums, if they find it helpful.
  5. Forums or access to a social platform is included alongside the material.
    Along with the course content, students get automatic access to a forum, such as Mighty Networks, or a social group, such as a member’s only Facebook. Some courses allow for comments after videos as well. This allows all students the benefit of both the question and answer. It also goes a long way in stoking conversation and helping those uncertain students relate to those slightly more courageous with their questions. Some courses prefer to designate students to be conversation starters to ensure the community stays active during the periods the course is progressing together.
  6. Virtual group coaching is often part of the course package.
    The creator of the course content, or the Subject Matter Expert (SME), is available during select windows for questions on the content. This can be as simple as a Facebook group, where the SME goes live on questions being asked in the group or forums, or a regular online call for all course participants. Typically this is only during the active course time and all videos are either uploaded to the LMS or replays are distributed to all students.
  7. There’s an option to join a small group for extra accountability and virtual work sessions.
    In the age of distraction, social pressure is a great motivator. This could be a group meeting on a communication technology platform regularly or discussing questions in their own forum thread. Once the questions become prominent, there’s a group available for work sessions, also affectionately called power hours.

Key Takeaways To Implement From Online Course Creators 

There’s no doubt we’re all familiar with how companies are shifting their learning and training programs to meet the needs and expectations of today’s learners. This shift is imperative, which is why lessons from successful online businesses are worth noting for our own learning design.

Cohort-based learning and collaborative social environments alongside material are fantastic in providing options for all types of learners. It’s an effective option for meeting the needs of more personality types through your content plan.

These environments provide structure for collaboration, while allowing the teacher or trainer to be virtually hands-on for only a set period of time with students, or groups, who prefer a coaching component. This wouldn’t be possible without leveraging social technologies. It also allows students to have ownership over their experience with the course based on the social options available to them.

So, how can you leverage some of the social learning strategies from profitable, online businesses at your company? What tips and tricks could work with your learning and training development plan?