Speculating about social learning

In a controversial and thought-provoking conversation, the international expert in online learning, Bob Little, discusses, among other things: some of the keys to developing successful social learning projects and the factors that can de-rail these initiatives; recommendations to achieve higher levels of efficiency in the learning process; the main trends for e-learning in 2014, and potential future changes in the e-learning industry.

Interview to Bob Little, Senior Partner - Bob Little Press & PR


(@americalearning) Bob Little has been writing and commentating on technology based training, including e-learning, since 1990. His work has been published across four continents, in the USA, South America, Europe and Australia, making him unique as a commentator on the worldwide e-learning scene.


His e-book, ‘Perspectives on Learning Technologies’ (e-book; ASIN: B00A9K1VVS) is available from The Endless Bookcase and from Amazon. It contains over 200 pages of observations on issues in learning technologies, principally for learning & development professionals.


What are the keys to developing successful social learning projects?

Social learning – primarily facilitated online via social media - has been talked about for a couple of years now. It’s going to continue to be an important discussion topic for e-learning in 2014. However, whether much actual progress will be made in this field still remains to be seen. Social learning, a bit like the concept of ‘personalised learning’, could just be a buzz word and fun to speculate about but, in reality, not something that actually happens.

For one thing, there seems to be little consensus about what ‘social learning’ means. There’s confusion, too, over whether social learning should be viewed from the perspective of the individual or of a wider, social group. This uncertainty about what social learning is makes it extremely difficult to identify, let alone quantify, social learning outcomes – in terms of what kind of learning has taken place, to what extent, between whom, when, and how. At present, people seem happy to talk about ‘informal learning via social media’ – a broad–based, imprecise and impossible to quantify concept.

Unless there are ‘tighter’ definitions of all this – and these definitions are accepted by everyone – it’s going to be impossible to identify the keys to developing successful social learning projects.

To help this process progress, I’d suggest that, to be considered social learning, a process must:

  • Demonstrate that a change in understanding has taken place in the individuals involved;
  • Demonstrate that this change goes beyond the individual and becomes embedded within wider social units or communities of practice; and
  • Occur through social interactions and processes between participants within a social network.


What are the factors that can de-rail a social learning project?

On the macro level, there’s the inability – or at least unwillingness – of educationalists and other learning specialists to grapple with the issues I’ve already outlined and achieve a consensus.

On a micro (individual) level, any distraction whatsoever – internal or external, technological or personal - can de-rail a person’s resolve to learn something via social media. However, you could argue that, since the learning is informal, perhaps even ad hoc and unplanned, there are no time constraints on the learner to learn the learning. So any social learning project could be claimed to successful if the learner learns anything whatsoever, via social media, before the onset of death. From a learning professional’s point of view, this view is extremely unhelpful.


How can you achieve higher levels of efficiency in the learning process?

This begs the question of higher levels of efficiency for whom: the learning materials producer or the learner?

There’s no doubt that the use of technology can help the learning materials producer become more productive. It’s now possible to produce more learning materials – especially those intended for delivery online – quicker than ever before.

Efficiency is one (highly commendable) thing but effectiveness is quite another. For example, in the days of ‘e-learning 1.0’, many university lecturers transferred their lecture notes to the internet as lengthy Word documents. This meant that more people than ever before could read their notes and glean some of their wisdom. However, few potential learners learned much from this because the documents were boring. They contained no interactivity – to intrigue the learner and encourage her/him to engage with the content and learn more.

When it comes to the learning process, the effectiveness of the learning materials is more important than efficiency involved in producing them. This means that learning materials producers need to imbue their work with the ‘Wow!’ factor. Again, technology can help to make this process efficient but no amount of authoring tools, for example, can compensate for a lack of understanding of the principles and practice of instructional design.


How can technology improve learning processes in organizations?

The case for using online learning technologies to augment traditional, instructor-led learning has been well made – and demonstrated – over the last 20 years or so. The relatively recent advent of new delivery technologies – best characterised by the term ‘mobile learning’ – and the modern trend away from formal to informal learning, especially via performance support, is continuing to have an important and positive effect on organizations’ productivity levels and competitive advantage.

Technology – and especially new technological advances – will continue to make more information available than ever before to more people, as and when they want it, wherever they are.

That availability, however, will only be useful if people access the information appropriately. That means that people need to be equipped with the appropriate technology to receive this information; the knowledge of where to get that information, and – vitally – the motivation to access and then use the information.

Technology is an important enabler in the learning process. However, it’s only people who learn and, thereby, prove the effectiveness of both the delivery technology and the learning content.


What can bring augmented reality to e-learning?

I’m not too sure about ‘augmented reality’ – and I’m not too sure it’s something to be encouraged. Life presents us with enough difficulties in coping with reality. Augmenting that reality sounds a bit scary to me!


What will be the main trends for e-learning in 2014?

I believe that the key trends in corporate learning technologies in 2104 will be:

  • Mobile learning
  • Gamification
  • Just-in-time learning
  • Social learning
  • Tin-Can

There are interactivity issues associated with most if not all of these trends – and at least four of these trends are moving ‘learning’ away from learning to become performance support. So, I would argue, we’re witnessing the beginning of the end for e-learning as a leading edge corporate technology. It’s merging into the ‘traditional’ end of learning, alongside classroom-delivered learning. Many of the industry’s early pioneers and champions would be shocked and horrified at this news. Of course, such a move does nothing to lessen (if anything it increases) the need for interactivity between the users (who were once called learners) and the information providers (once called learning material designers and developers).



What are some of the changes you would like to see in the e-learning industry?

I’d like to see:

  • A realisation and acceptance that e-learning is part of the technology sector rather than the education sector. The technology sector has a consistently higher profile than education – and, with more interest being shown in it, it attracts more people (and also attracts more talented people to work in it). Learning is now just one of the many things that technology can provide for us as and when we want, where we want and so on. The education sector has had its chance to embrace e-learning and make it its own but it hasn’t done so over the last 25 years and more. It’s been too conservative and wedded to instructor-led training. Now it’s time to let e-learning take its place among technology and let the technologists provide learning materials in the same way they provide entertainment, sport and so on, on demand.
  • E-learning providers stopping talking to ‘HR’ and related people in organizations because these people have consistently failed to champion technology delivered learning (possibly because they have so little real power and influence in their organisations). E-learning providers should be talking to technology providers and doing deals with them to provide e-learning (or, more probably, performance support materials) to users.


How can students become producers of content? Do you think the appearance of learning solutions based on social networks can help increase this trend?

Possibly - by why should students become producers of content? There is value in peer-to-peer learning – via mutual discovery - but only when combined with leading from some ‘authority’ (disseminated either in person or vicariously, perhaps via some form of technology, by an experienced, knowledgeable teacher/ guru). The outcome may be to confirm or refine ‘accepted wisdom’ - but there needs to be some accepted wisdom in the first place.

The idea of students being teachers too is not new. It’s certainly attractive to students. In Act II of Sullivan’s comic opera, ‘Princess Ida’, premiered in 1884, which concerns a princess who founds a women's university, the students sing, ‘And thus to empyrean height of every kind of lore, in search of wisdom’s pure delight ambitiously we soar. In trying to achieve success, no envy racks our heart, for all we know and all we guess (my italics), we mutually impart.’

It’s a strategy that doesn’t work in opera and, untutored, it’s a recipe for promoting ignorance in reality.


What are your thoughts on personalized learning? What are the implications of it, if any, for content creators?

Developing truly personalised learning involves highly complex programming. First, the program has to determine the learning preferences of each learner/ user. These – as Honey and Mumford say – are likely to change over time (even over the time taken to complete one particular piece of e-learning). So the program must continually monitor the learner’s responses, in addition to providing the learning materials (in order to ensure that it is presenting these learning materials in the most appropriate way). Taking account of a variety of user learning preferences means that the same learning content must be available to be delivered in a variety of ways. This, alone, makes producing a truly personalised e-learning program extremely complex and cumbersome.

Then, the program must also take into account the various delivery devices that the user might select. This may not just be a question of personal (user) preference but also of circumstance – for example where the learner is at any one time; what delivery devices are available to him/her at any one time; what bandwidth is available and so on.

In addition, there must be some provision for interactivity (to help the learner cement and apply the learning) and feedback (again, this must be personal and adaptive/ interactive in some way).

Some of the world’s most complex learning content management systems’ producers have spent a lot of time and money working on developing (and, importantly, being able to monitor) personalised learning. It hasn’t been achieved yet – but ‘never say never’, as the saying goes!

The implication for content creators is, on the most basic of levels, don’t worry about personalised learning: it’s not happened yet and is very unlikely to happen in your lifetime. If it does, make sure you’re an early adapter rather than a pioneer because the pioneers won’t make any money at it (because of the large amounts of money they’ll have had to invest in the first place). For this reason, truly personalised learning is unlikely to happen – because no one wants to lose large quantities of money developing it. Besides, there’s no guarantee that there will ever be a market for it – not least because people tend to prefer quick (relatively cheap) learning fixes (some performance support) rather than a comprehensive (and expensive) piece of ‘catch all’ learning.


Do you see BYOD catching up in 2014?

Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) is a phrase that has become widely adopted to refer to employees who bring their own computing devices – such as smartphones, laptops and PDAs – to the workplace for use and connectivity on the corporate network.

Today, employees expect to use personal smartphones and mobile devices at work. So this could be a concern for corporate IT teams, who want to ensure that corporate network security isn’t compromised by employees using their own devices at work.

While there are issues of data security and corporate competitive advantage yet to be resolved, BYOD is unlikely to be a major growing trend in 2014. Maybe in 2015… or 2016?


Do you think mobile learning will take a leap to lead the learning industry?

No. Instructor-led learning will still be the leading form of dissemination of learning – as it has been for thousands of years.


Talking about emerging technologies, will e-learning embrace the cloud technology in the coming times?

Yes – or, at least, if it doesn’t, it should.