6 Social Learning Techniques for Online Educators
Social learning can motivate learners and keep them engaged. Here’s how to help.
Humans are social creatures. Even the most introverted among us benefit from learning relationships, whether with our instructors, our peers, our mentors, or our mentees.
In online education, where learners tend to feel more isolated, this kind of social learning especially important. However, there are several social learning techniques you can use in your course to help learners create meaningful connections that will motivate them to keep moving forward with their course material. Here’s where to start.
1. Encourage participation in your forum.
The most obvious and natural way to build social learning is through participation in your forum. Hopefully you have a forum and are encouraging your learners to use it, but if you don’t, consider this your wake-up call.
Forums have been part of the Internet from the beginning—a proto-social media that have recently been making a comeback as more and more users move away from larger social media sites in order to find niche groups with shared interests. This means that most learners who have spent any time online will already know how to participate at a base level, and will probably expect to do so anyway. You just need to offer them the opportunity.
2. Create smaller discussion groups for more intimate conversations.
Speaking of niches, even within smaller communities it’s common for groups to want to split into sub groups. Once groups start having more than a few dozen active members, it becomes harder for everyone to know everyone else in the group. The louder voices begin to dominate, and the quieter personalities stay silent.
To address this situation, if you have a certain group project for your learners, or if you would like your learners to discuss a topic in depth, have them cluster into groups with just a handful of members. This will help everyone participate more equally while also building better social connections.
3. Set up a system for mentors and mentees.
Most learners don’t sign up for a course expecting to teach, but it’s actually a very powerful tool. When you ask a learner to teach another learner, it forces them to reconsider what they know and organize it in a way that makes sense for the other person. It’s also a major confidence boost for many learners, as it helps them realize how much material they’ve mastered.
This system can be helpful for new learners as well. Not only do they get a good idea for what’s expected of them once they’ve mastered the material, but they get to learn from someone who has recently been through the same process themself. Because of this, the mentor/mentee relationship can be a very powerful one.
4. Have students write and share blog posts.
Another way learners can teach material and demonstrate mastery is through blogging. Like a mentoring relationship, blogging requires learners to organize their material clearly. It also allows them to express their own ideas and opinions on a subject, and request feedback from their peers.
If you make blogging a regular part of your program, be sure to encourage learners to respond to the post with their own thoughts. This will encourage your learners so that they don’t feel like they’re blogging into the void.
5. Create opportunities for (friendly) competition.
Gamification is a subject we’ve returned to many times, but it deserves another mention here for the way it can create healthy competition among learners. Leaderboards, for instance, are a simple form of competition, but so are awards and prizes.
For instance, you could have your learners submit work anonymously, and then vote on whose they liked most. When learners have to put their work in front of others, it helps them think about it differently. The result is usually that they try harder to create something that will impress.
6. Design a tandem learning tool.
Tandem learning is a special case of social learning, but I wanted to mention it here anyway. If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s when two people who have complimentary skill sets cooperate to learn from each other. The most common instance of this is in language learning, where someone who knows, say, English but wants to learn Japanese might pair with a Japanese speaker who wants to learn English.
However, the tradeoff need not be so direct. It could be that you’ve build a crafting community, where learners with all different backgrounds come to learn and share their skills. Perhaps one person knows how to knit, and another person knows how to sew. Or maybe one person is good at writing prose, and another person is good at writing poetry.
Tandem learning is completely compatible with more traditional learning, it just requires the right tools to facilitate it. You may offer structure courses with video and set projects while also building a community of learners who are willing to share skills with each other if they choose.
Remember to model social learning techniques yourself.
Some students may jump in and move forward with these techniques right away, but most of them will require encouragement from you to engage their course mates. While it may take more of your time, the result will be a stronger community of committed learners.
Even better, by modeling the behavior yourself, you will set the tone for the rest of the group. The example you set will empower other learners to behave the same way. So be ready to take the lead by blogging yourself, responding to posts in your forum, and encouraging learners who take the initiative to respond themselves.