Can’t help being social

Plans for Barcelona KCA news story on today’s BBC Education site caught my eye and adds an interesting dimension to the social side of MOOCs and indeed any online programme.  Coursera, the US based MOOC provider have decided to open a network of learning hubs where online students can meet and discuss their experiences and share reflections.  As well as trying to tackle the well-documented drop out rate, the feeling is that there is an irresistible social side to learning’ that needs to be addressed. My professional background has roots in Knowledge Management and interestingly, back a decade or so ago, there was a significant effort exerted in ensuring physical environments, from offices through to entire cities were designed in such a way to incubate and foster knowledge exchange and nurture innovation through conversation and sharing of experience. I have fond memories of sitting in the audience at Henley Business School KM forum annual conferences were Professor Leif Edvinsson would show us beautiful architecture rendering of Barcelona, the ‘Knowledge City’.  These were big ambitious capital projects with learning and knowledge at their heart, which may appear to be something of a utopian but ultimately too lofty a concept to apply to the learning strategy of a typical time pressured organisation. However there is a huge amount to take from this ambition that could be applied right down to an individual online programme level.  From knowledge city to a sales academy, fostering conversation and sharing experience adds tremendous value to any interaction with a learning asset. Indeed, back in my role at Orange as Head of Knowledge Communities, although enabling technology was a key focus for the team, one of the most important lessons we sought to instil in our new community facilitators and virtual team managers was the importance of social interaction and making time for a face to face event to launch a community or team.  Why? – Because the quality of online interactions, knowledge assets created and productivity of a virtual team increased when social ties were strongest. When our customer, BPP launched their online degree programme back in 2012, although not a MOOC, they were sensitive to some of the issues that were evident from the MOOC experience.  So although their degree content is delivered exclusively online, part of the rollout included learning hubs in key locations to ensure learners had the opportunity to connect in a physical location to form study groups and action learning sets. When we developed the Performance Coaching Academy for Telefonica O2, a launch event was deemed critical in the formation of action learning sets that would provide the peer review of practice, vital in the development of coaching skills (take a look at our case study to find out more about the design as there are some useful tips for design you can apply to any online academy). Isolation has often been a criticism levelled against e-learning, yet in the past decade, much of focus in the sector has been on production values of the multimedia output, with some wonderfully visually engaging content.  Of itself this of course is not problem, as effective graphic design, user interfaces and imagery are key components in delivering popular and credible content.  Yet it is only in the past few years that we have seen these bespoke content houses start to talk about creating learning scaffolds, what makes an effective learning ecosystem and using terms like learning paths that have been long in the WillowDNA lexicon. As we discussed on the LPi webinar, that is not to say that all learners will want to take up the offer of social learning, be it online or at a face-to-face venue.   Indeed they may value the opportunity to engage in a very personalised learning experience.  But to create effective learning, online or otherwise, as an entire city or as a team of people in an organisation, the opportunity to add context, build links between concepts and create new learning together is surely something to be fostered and supported.