Saturday, February 20, 2010

Ad-hoc Social Learning Environment - How a Blog Drives Learning

I recently conducted  a one-month leadership development program at Harbinger Group. The program, dubbed BaseCamp 2010, addressed 40 participants drawn from the senior and mid-level ranks of the company. The goal of the program was to expose participants to selected ideas in innovation, strategy, leadership and vision: all of them set in the context of high tech industry. The participants were in different timezones and could not all meet in one place or at one time.

We decided to set up an ad-hoc social learning environment mostly using freely available tools. We decided to outline our curriculum in a skeletal form using a blog, and then set social interactions in the curriculum context. The program, conducted over five weeks, was  a great success.

In this post, I summarize what we learned about the ad-hoc social learning environments. Although these observations are based on the leadership development program, they may be applicable to other training types.

1. Blog is the watering hole
A learning blog is so much a happening place! The blog has a personal touch, it is easy to follow, its updates are delivered to participant's RSS reader instantaneously. We used Blogger, the Google blogging tool.

The instructor's blog posts were very short - often less than one hundred words. Blog posts provided a guiding theme and then pointed to a web  resource such as a YouTube video, or a podcast or a news story article or a case study. Learners were expected to consume the content and then respond to the questions raised in the blog post.
  • For example, a blog post would show a crisis situation, followed by a media interview of the person who was in charge of handling the crisis. That would be the starting point for  a discussion on leadership.
  • As another example, a New York Times story on a new innovative idea would serve as a springboard for a discussion.
  • Or simply a blog would bring up two conflicting viewpoints on an issue and ask the participants to debate on both sides. 
  • In yet another case, a blog post would provide a framework for various leadership traits, and participants would be asked to reflect and decide how they view themselves.

2. Comments are where the action is
Blog comments, though arguably the most primitive form of interaction, were of great value to the course. Participants had a lot to learn from each other. The blog post set a common context and comments were based on that context. Over time the quality of comments improved, and participants became more responsive to each others' comments.

The opinion was divided on whether comments should be public (open to everyone to read) or moderated (not open until the deadline). In our case we preferred the earlier option, because to us, it was more important that people learn from each other rather than compete for grade.

3. Social interaction pods are best for debate
We used TeemingPod for conducting debates amongst participants on a 40-page business case study. Everyone was online, at their own convenience, adding their points of view to TeemingPod.

The debates were organized in groups of 6 to 8 learners, and each group discussed several aspects of the case. The discussions were asynchronous and mediated. As their instructor, I could challenge certain points of view. When I thought the discussion was going off on a tangent, I could bring the main issue out front and center.It was great fun being part of six different groups debating a case study at the same time - something I could never hope to do in a classroom.

4. Interactivity adds fun
We used Raptivity games to add fun to learning. One interaction, for example, was a fun exercise where you paired related concepts. By the time you had finished the game, it served to re-kindle major takeaways from then entire course. Then, you were supposed to write an essay describing what you learnt. Participants enjoyed that.

5. Twitter creates immediacy 
We used a Twitter gadget inside the blog, and that is where we posted deadlines, status updates, how far we were from completing grading and so forth. We also announced class average scores through the Twitter gadget. Soon the whole class started following the Twitter ID, so we removed the gadget and ran our Tweets separately.

6. Asynchronous interaction works great
There may be some value to bringing everyone online at the same time and conducing a class using a web meeting platform. In our case, we discovered that we did not need this. The whole of BaseCamp 2010 was delivered in asynchronous mode, and that did not stop us from interacting in meaningful ways.

7. LMS is fine for the boring stuff

We did use the LMS only to grade lessons and assignments. We also had the mobile quiz results tracked thru the LMS - Moodle, in our case. All the record-keeping and statistics happened there.

Judging from the participant feedback at the end of the program, as well as their work output in strategic planning sessions soon after the program concluded, the program was a great success. We saved major costs and saw growth in employee engagement. 

Have you explored social learning enviroments? Are you considering that idea? What are your thoughts? Any suggestions? Concerns?


  1. I loved the way you used Tweeter. I think it's a cool way for the teacher to be "in touch" with the students in such a vibrant learning environment!

  2. While I liked the idea of such learning environment, I am not very sure if keeping the blog comments open is a good idea? Won't participants get ideas from each others responses? I think the participants who are not very open about their opinions will shy away in such environment. And in training programs where there is no 'correct'/ 'incorrect' response, opinions should not be displayed so openly.

  3. This looks refreshingly different - I presume the various channels that you used were tightly integrated ? For instance were the games relevant to the topics just laid out in the blog ? I can sort of see how this could be set out in a course like structure where some things sequentially follow each other & others don't have to.

    However - I do think that keeping the comments open could work both ways. Are the people responding to the blog post & what they think of it or are they debating a point of view already expressed. If this is the only assignment then what's to prevent people "paraphrasing" what's already out there.

    To each his own I guess - but interesting all the same. BTW - I was curious enough to go & look up the products that you mention & both Raptivity & TeemingPod seem neat.

  4. About leaving the blog comments open: it works great when you have questions whose answers differ from one participant to another. Examples: (1) What is your name? (I'm kidding) (2) Write an elevator pitch for the product you are responsible for (3) Recall your most recent business decisions and classify them as strategic vs tactical. In short, questions that invite reflection will work great when blog comments are open. We had several of those.

    Sometimes, though, we did see the 'paraphrasing' or 'group think' start to happen, and the instructor was prompt to raise additional questions, or objections to earlier answers.

    In any case I will concede that we were successful with open blog comments because the idea was less to compete and more to learn.

  5. The channels were seamlessly integrated. TeemingPod was embedded in blog posts, right in the middle of two paragraphs. So was Raptivity. Twitter was a gadget, alongside the blog. LMS lessons were individually linked to blog posts. Mobile quiz scores were tracked directly in the LMS server. Grades were graphed and the graph was embedded as a gadget in the blog. It all worked together.

  6. I wish I get to attend one of such programs. I appreciate the way you conducted debates within the group - without any chaos. What I liked the most is the fact that you as instructor could guide the participants without being intrusive. I am sure the group also must have enjoyed the (silent) debates!

  7. Just one aspect of this that LMS's do win out on is those shy students who have a fear of failure. Just like in a busy classroom you have a proportion who will always speak up, that translates to the online environment. So an LMS, with properly done self-paced learning, does have a place within the broader context as the more private nature of the system will appeal to a proportion. I think it's a case that social based learning will appeal to certain types of people, and more private learning will appeal to others, so it's really a case of making sure you blend a good combination of the two, rather than one beating out the other entirely. Sounds like you got a good blend on this project.