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The trouble with ‘Social Learning’

Mayvin Director James Traeger explores e-learning and online social networking and wonders if these approaches could ever actually replace human face to face connection.  

So, we are told that traditional learning formats for organisations are becoming outdated, that e-learning is taking over and even that traditional ‘courses are dead’ (contrary of course to the vast amount of activity in the training & development market, which is still overwhelmingly course-based).

Furthermore, we are told that companies need to learn new learning ways; tech-literature vehicles by which to deliver learning. The presence of Facebook and Google means that no-one needs to know anything anymore. They just need to know how to access and discern where to get the knowledge. One day, we may even have a chip we can insert in our heads, and we become walking search engines. All well and good. I’d jump on that bus if I could run quickly enough. But I do have some questions about it.

Trust between the learner and the environment of learning

Of course, it could be that I am just a luddite and that I can’t be bothered (or can never) get up to speed. But the webinars, online seminars, articles and the consultants that write the blogs about social learning as the new paradise do sometimes leave me a bit cold. You see, in my bones there lies a belief. Like all beliefs, it could probably do with being shaken up. But I can’t deny that it is there. It is that what has always been required, in my own experience as a learner and a teacher, for deep learning to occur, is ongoing, deep and trusting contact between the learner and their human environment of learning.

A learning community

The best courses (yes I admit it) I’ve even been on or facilitated have always been the best because of the level of contact created as a learning community, not just between teacher and learner, but often (more often?) between learner and fellow learner. Whatever it has been, from learning Hebrew on Kibbutz between picking cotton in Israel when I was 19, to being taught to ride a motorbike by some fat bloke in leathers called Smithy, to deep practice in facilitation or emotional intelligence taught beneath heartbreakingly beautiful sunsets by humble, solid teachers with incalculable presence.

What strikes me now about all of these is that the stimulus to absorb was in the sensual detail of connection between me and that environment, usually in the human aspects of that environment (i.e. other people). It is this sensuality that is missing from me if we try to replicate these communities solely in an online environment.

Modes of learning

Now I recognise that the point of the tech-literate gurus is not that e-learning replaces courses per se. Their argument is more complex than that. They are asserting that formal, inflexible course-driven learning does not have the evolutionary adaptability of the social networking environment, for example. Therefore, organisations that centrally organise learning are usually behind the curve of their own people. Content heavy courses are usually way behind the required pace of what the leader-learner has to cope with. This much I totally accept. The modes of learning have to become more learner-centred, flexible and adaptive.

But how do we get alongside, and, to be crass, sell the package that organisations want to buy, or know how to buy, in their dinosaur-brained reality, that helps them and their people really cope with the unpredictability and fluidity of modern life?

What I observe is that they sometimes scarily see this as about reduction of the learning environment to the online world. Thinking that to stay up with the Facebook generation means delivering all content online, in webinars or cleverly (or not so) designed websites, doing away with human contact altogether, apart from the briefest brush in the form of a learning lunch or course-bite/byte.  This is a deeply worrying trend.

Online training

Recently I was consulting to a global information services company who wanted to develop the skills of their leaders. They were building global learning teams who would embark on corporate improvement projects as part of their development programme. Each team had a ‘mentor’: someone senior from within the business to help and support these teams. My job would have been to foster the development of these mentors as action learning set facilitators.

So far so good. Except that instead of training that is proper, engaged, experiential (dare I say course-based), I was asked to design a one-hour bite-sized session on action learning and then deliver the rest of their training package ‘online’. I said it couldn’t be done and, unsurprisingly, I didn’t get the work. This in itself didn’t bother me much. What did bother me is how, for a fleeting moment, I thought it was my failure. My lack of hip, up-to-the-minute social learning literacy that meant I wasn’t cool enough to get with the online, virtual plan. ‘Hang on’, I said, giving myself a stiff talking to, ‘I have been doing this a long time. The skills of action learning facilitation are hard-earned. They are about self-awareness, skilful feedback and engagement.

The real job of social learning

This is how in fact you do the real job of social learning. It is about moving from the facilitator/teacher as the one who has the (content-based) answer to creating a genuine social space for conversational, practical learning, across an engaged and intimate group. This is what social learning really means. It does not mean learning about, say, being a manager who can inspire just from a web page. It is about sharing stories, fostering human connections, making eye contact, developing presence. This gives leaders the things that organisations really crave: clarity, engagement and resilience.’

Now, this isn’t to say that e-learning and online social networking can’t act as powerful reinforcements of these capacities. Supporting communities that can’t always meet face to face, across globally dispersed businesses and organisations. But they can’t replace human connection. Yes, learning needs to go beyond content, to become more social, but not beyond human connection.


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