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6 Ways to Embed Social Learning Into Virtual Learning Journeys


This blog article was written prior to LEO Learning becoming part of GP Strategies.

As L&D teams around the world face up to the challenge of transitioning from face-to-face to digital learning, we’re focusing on how to do this while maintaining an innovative, engaging and effective learning experience. In this blog post, GP Strategies’ Senior Director of LX Strategy, Andrew Joly, looks at six practical ways to embrace social learning within an extended virtual learning journey.

Why Is Social Learning Important?

People learn socially. They learn by sharing knowledge, sense-making together, supporting each other and collaborating in creative and decision-making processes. The emergence of digital learning lost some of these aspects, as early eLearning tended to offer an isolated experience for the learner.

Yet, just as we’ve started to embrace social learning into our blended learning journeys— by connecting our learners and our organizations—we’re faced with new challenges. In times when you can no longer rely on face-to-face learning, how can you embed the power of social learning into a fully virtual learning journey?

What Face-To-Face Components in a Traditional Learning Blend Need Replacing?

Many elements of a learning blend relied on face-to-face interactions interspersed with self-driven digital learning events such as eLearning. The challenge is how do you replace activities such as face-to-face workshops, an interaction with a manager, applying learning in a work environment, or learning and reflecting with a colleague during a learning journey?

Here are some of’ the key components you should consider when replacing face-to-face activities in a blend:

  1. Webinars
  2. Virtual Classrooms
  3. Virtual Workshops
  4. Cohorts
  5. One-to-One Engagements
  6. Communities of Practice

1. Webinars

Webinars offer effective, large -scale communications, normally hosting around 30 to upward of 100 attendees. Webinars will already be familiar territory for many organizations, as they’re the first port of call for synchronous mass communication. We know many people are running deeply engaging, effective webinars, and learning has been fast in this area.

Typically run by one presenter (or more, for ‘panel webinar’ formats), they offer an effective way to broadcast information, or a narrative, to large groups. Interactive elements can be added to increase engagement with your audience, using features such as surveys, opinion polls, using group chats to reflect on the content and asking live questions.

However, there are challenges when using webinars. It can be hard to gauge how involved your audience is if they don’t participate with questions or in discussions, and it’s likely that some of your audience may multitask during the broadcast. Yet this doesn’t necessarily mean that your message is lost to those ‘lurking’ in the background—people engage in different ways, for different reasons. There’s a theory that states that only one percent of an online audience will typically actively engage.

2. Virtual Classrooms

The digital equivalent of their namesake, virtual classrooms are different from webinars in that their primary focus is to be interactive, collaborative and participative (rather than simply to broadcast out a central message). To maximize engagement, attendees should be limited to a maximum of 12 people and run for no longer than 90 minutes.

The sessions should be designed for participatory learning, and there are a number of digital mechanisms that allow you to focus on providing an engaging and effective experience. These include facilitated group discussion, reflection exercises, collaborative whiteboards and document sharing for co-creation, pre-prepared video inserts, Q&A/interview sessions and creating specific creative breakout rooms.

You can adapt your sessions according to the features and tools available to you in the virtual classroom software you use. Ranking, rating, waving and raising hands, as well as surveys and polling are all commonly available features used in webinars that can be designed into good virtual classrooms.

As with webinars, a confident, passionate facilitator is key. It’s important to build trust and confidence to create a safe place to engage.

3. Virtual Workshops

Workshops build on virtual classrooms but focus on creative, collaborative outcomes.

To replace what may have been a half-day physical workshop, we often segment into three to five individual sessions to maintain learner attention. A typical series of virtual sessions may be structured like this:

Session 1—Insights: Position a problem, then gather insights and research from the whole group

Session 2—Design: Follow this with smaller, facilitated breakout groups who solve the problems and create together

Session 3—Reconvene: To report back, reflect and discuss as a whole group again, with the aim of consolidating individual inputs into a collective solution.

Note that at this reconvene stage, it’s useful for the facilitator (or assistant) to document the outputs and create takeaway solutions your learners can later refer to.

4. Cohorts

Cohorts are the virtual equivalent of groups of learners working together on an extended program. In other words, typically small communities of between 8 and 24 learners who share their experience while they apply their learning. Narrative and storytelling become important in these groups, so building trust is imperative.

Smaller ‘action learning groups’, typically consisting of up to around eight individuals, can be set a task to work on together over time, as before reporting back. Close collaboration on projects drives learner-learner support as well as developing understanding.

5. One-to-One Engagements

These sorts of engagements may have typically involved (in a face-to-face context) a learner reporting back and discussing their learning progress with a line manager, in the course of usual work-related discussion, coaching or mentoring.

When applying this in a purely virtual context, it’s important to purposefully build in social moments—the equivalent of ‘water cooler’ chats, but pre-booked and arranged. This can be particularly relevant when first transitioning to digital, as you can gauge and discuss how the individual is adapting to the virtual format, as well as the content of the learning itself.

6. Communities of Practice

Community of practice is a term generally used for an open, shared, social space—‘owned and managed’ by the learners—where they can share stories, ask questions, seek input, and get feedback and support from peers. This is a crucial step when embedding social learning into the wider context of the individual’s learning journey. However, it takes time and effort to set up in a sustained way. Our work with E3G shows the steps we took to create a strategy to implement a global community of practice for the ‘Green Banking’ sector.

A crucial step to delivering a live, growing, community is the development of a cohesive roadmap and communication strategy that will ensure engagement tasks are ‘scaffolded’ for new learners and participants. Carefully drawing an audience into the environment, step-by-step, perhaps using nudges and success stories, is key to building a successful space that people will return to, time after time. A good strategy will follow many of the key principles set out in our learning campaigns and communication strategies page.

A Final Word on Virtual Learning Experiences

These are just some of the key formats that will allow you to embed social learning in a meaningful way into a purely virtual learning experience. We learn fastest when dropped in at the deep end, and during our currently enforced virtual-working life, we’re adapting quickly to deliver using purely digital formats.

So while we’re all learning, it’s important to look at what others are doing. And there’s no better way to do this than to attend virtual learning events yourself. You’ll soon gain inspiration, and work out what’s effective, what isn’t, and what could work for your organization and your learners.

About the Authors

Ashley Laurence
Andrew Joly
Andrew leads the strategy and consulting faculty in the Learning Experience team, which is at the frontline of delivering creative, innovative and effective learning solutions. He focuses on his personal passion: how technology-enabled learning experiences and communication blends can transform behaviors and performance in the workplace. Andrew has a passion for exploring how new modes and strategies for learning and connection can make a real difference to people, teams, and global organizations.

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