Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Social Learning

At first when I saw Grockit and heard they got $8M in funding from some pretty good VCs including Benchmark Capital, I was wondering what was going on. It didn't seem like this was something that could justify that kind of investment level.

Their example at a presentation at TechCrunch was "preparing for your GMAT." It wasn't until they got into Q&A that the light bulb finally went on ...

The spark was the example of a teacher/course/set of students/partner that provided their content into the system so that the students could study through a social learning experience. Two thoughts. Wow, that's a great idea. Man am I stupid not to have figured that out from the description.

(Actually, I've got to say that this was an incredibly bad presentation. Industrial model learning -> social learning. Then a demo that just shows trivial examples. Wow, it was really bad. How the heck did they get $8M from VCs with presentation skills like that - actually it wasn't presentation skills it was bad content.)

The good news is that I think there is opportunity here. When the light bulb finally went on for me, I thought back to when I was teaching. The absolute best learning opportunity was twice a semester right before midterms and finals. I would hand out a study guide filled with questions including past exams. I held an optional study session outside of office hours and class time. It was almost always fully attended. The session was two hours, and I would answer any questions they had. Of course, there's no way for me to go through all of the questions that I had handed out in two hours and show solutions, so what the students did was go through the questions ahead of time to figure out which ones they knew and what they had trouble with or weren't sure. They were extremely motivated and prepared. Almost an ideal class. In two hours, I could go through the content in ways that just wasn't possible at any other time. And, they learned tremendously from each other.

The promise of GrockIt is supporting similar kinds of interactions online. It's a bit like Cramster and CampusBug, but focused more on real-time studying.

Certainly this kind of approach, leveraging the interest of other students, mentors, coaches, experts, etc. into the learning is something that I believe has big time value.

A long time ago I posted about Authoring in eLearning 2.0 / Add-ins & Mash-ups where I suggested that there would be easy ways to add social dimensions to our courses. Examples I suggested were polls or seeing other responses to open-ended questions or discussions, etc. I still think there's value in having these kinds of widgets available to us to include in our authoring. I don't think that Grockit can be the be-all and end-all of learning models. For example, I recently talked about italki - Social Network for Language Learning and Social Learning Objects - Flash Cards that each use different models. Still, it's obvious that lots of people see social learning and new models of content creation as big opportunities.

Part of the difference here between how a GrockIt looks at the world and how the typical learning professional looks at the world is size / scope of audience. When you have a potentially massive audience then you can make assumptions about finding enough people who are interested in real-time interaction. When I think about the relatively smaller audiences that we often have in corporate learning situations, then assuming that you will find five people online at the same time who are willing to interact, that doesn't feel like a safe assumption - unless you suggest when these study sessions will happen. Oh, hey, we could maybe do that. Allow people to schedule themselves into blocks of times when they know that other people will be fighting through the course as well. Naturally, the more social learners who enjoy studying when other people are studying will find this more appealing.

There's also a difference here in terms of who authors the content. Most of the social learning start-ups look for users to author a lot of the content. In the corporate world, that still mostly falls to the training / learning organization. I'm not sure I get where the content will come from, except by capturing things like mentoring notes, best practice answers, etc. Normally when we talk about eLearning 2.0 in a corporate context, it's not this kind of model, it's much more bottom up learning without someone formulating content ahead of time. My guess is that there's something in-between. Some structure provided but much of the content comes from learners using other resources and figuring things out on their own with guidance from experts, mentors, etc. Wow, that sounds a lot like how we learn many different things in our daily lives.

But certainly, I'm left with the question - what will social learning solutions look like in the corporate learning world?

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