Connected Learning: the new, socially-interactive approach to online training

Connected world
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Nic Pillow
CEO
Rhizome Live Ltd
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Online elearning has been hugely successful in allowing training to be delivered cost-effectively to very large audiences. However, training that’s purely online often results in a reduced experience and quality of learning compared to interactive classroom training.

By contrast, we have found that a new online approach - Connected Learning - can provide even greater interaction, engagement, and training success than does the smallest of classes.

A new educational technique

Connected Learning was pioneered by Jonathan Worth in Phonar - an award-winning university photography course. From an inauspicious start with 9 students in the back-room of a cinema, within 3 years:

Learn by talking

The guiding principle is that people often learn best by talking to each other. In classroom training it’s the group discussions - or even the coffee breaks - that bring at least as much value as any presentation.

Similarly with Connected Learning: the focus is not on presenting content, but on fostering discussions between participants. Significant time is devoted to getting everyone talking to anyone and everyone else.

What engages a participant is not just contributing whenever they want but in getting replies to what they have contributed. Whether a response challenges or builds on their comment, it prompts them to think much more deeply about it. They also realise that their contribution has influenced the conversation.

Interaction that scales

In conventional training, the level of interaction is inevitably limited because a trainer can only answer one question at a time. But with Connected Learning we found that the larger the audience, the richer the experience for any individual: there are more discussions for them to join, and a broader range of differing perspectives.

Text-based discussion

It’s clearly not feasible to have multiple participants speaking aloud at the same time. Discussions therefore need to be in written text, as in group messaging or social media. We have found it best to use a dedicated discussion tool integrated with a messaging platform that’s already well used by the audience; but a stand-alone system or ad-hoc tools are also perfectly viable.

Principles for training with Connected Learning

Real-time discussion is essential

The intense engagement of Connected Learning relies on participants receiving replies almost immediately to what they have said while they are still thinking about it. Not 2 hours or 2 days later. Participants cannot therefore do the training in their own time; they may be given a choice of times but sessions need to be scheduled to get a large number of people involved all at the same time.

Trust participants to create the content

Trainers need to adopt a different mentality. They briefly present context and key points, but they must then stimulate their audience to provide further detail, corroborating examples, and solutions as appropriate - all in the discussions.

But join in the conversation

At the same time, trainers cannot abandon their participants. They are important contributors to the conversation, who can steer discussions when points are overlooked or misunderstood. Ideally they also compile real-time highlights to guide participants to the best ideas.

And insist on participation

Whilst some people will readily contribute from the outset, others will initially be more reticent until they get used to it. In a first session, get everyone to contribute and get everyone to reply to someone else. If possible, track levels of contribution and dialogue and define a minimum level of participation to complete the training.

Don’t just add an online forum to existing training!

All social learning is helpful, but providing an ability to comment alongside a ‘content broadcast’ won’t get all - if any - participants engaged in real-time dialogue. The conversation has to be the focus, not an optional extra.

But do allow the conversation to continue after the formal session

While real-time dialogue fuels the initial conversation, participants’ established interest - coupled with judicious notifications - can extend offline discussion for some time afterwards. By going back to the subject, participants reinforce what they have learnt.

Request rapid write-ups

A further optional way to reinforce the learning is to get every participant to publish a write-up. It needn’t be time-consuming: with the right tools, they can drag and re-order what they consider to be key comments from the conversation directly into a curated list, just adding the odd sentence themselves.

What types of subject-matter does it work for?

If you have to learn a lot of facts, or a detailed procedure, there is no getting away from direct instruction and individual study. Where Connected Learning wins is where a greater depth of understanding is required - an understanding that typically otherwise only comes from experience.

Examples include:

  • The application of knowledge to real-world case-studies
  • Soft skills, such as in management or customer service
  • Problem solving, where there may not be any particular ‘correct answer’. It is particularly valuable here as it teaches participants to work collaboratively on any future challenges they may face in their work
  • Corporate communication - where a company wants to roll out a new strategy, policy, etc. over multiple departments or countries.

Generic training with a personal impact

Connected Learning moves participants away from passively consuming content to helping to create it. That’s good because it engages them much more directly, and it gives them ownership of the outcome. However, it also makes it easier for the trainer.

The trainer’s initial content must provide context and any necessary overall information. But it can be generic: participants will interpret it and make it relevant for themselves. That’s why it works so well for corporate communication. Participants in a given team can themselves identify the practical implications for their work, or for their local culture.

A stimulating social activity

If you’ve ever chatted with friends on social media whilst all separately watching the same football match, or played a team computer game, you’ll know how much more engaging the experience is when shared with others than on you own. So it is for training.

We are naturally social, and we naturally learn from others. With the power of the internet to connect us we can harness that tendency to provide training on a large scale that is engaging, effective - and cost-effective. Connected Learning amplifies the way we learn best.

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By Hannah
27th Jun 2017 09:24

Hi Nic,

I really love this idea and I'm keen to try it out.

Have you got any tips for fostering online discussion? The few times we have had a go at this, we've struggled to keep up the conversation.

We use tools such as the Forum feature on our LMS and Slack. Can you recommend any others?

Thanks!

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to Hannah
27th Jun 2017 13:23

Hi Hannah,

Glad you like it! The best techniques inevitably depend on the participants and material but some general tips:
* Get everyone to contribute AND to reply to someone else right at the start to remove the "first time" barrier
* Provoke a response: ask questions, court controversy, or set a group challenge for everyone to work together on
* Prime a few vocal people you can rely on to keep things going: no one wants to speak (or type!) in a quiet room but a bit of chatter soon encourages more
* Use an environment or tool that promotes conversation...

... which of course is your other question. You want to see all comments but easily follow multiple threads of discussion simultaneously; and the conversation needs to be the main focus rather than an optional extra.

Slack and similar messaging platforms - even a Whatsapp group - are better than most LMS on the last point. But even they suffer at scale and TBH we've ended up creating our own interface that integrates with local systems. I'd be happy to demonstrate it, as well as to talk about how the approach could work in your case if you want?

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By Hannah
to NicPillow
30th Jun 2017 09:53

Thanks, Nic! I'm actually about to start a new role next month so I may wait and see what they have in-house then.

I will certainly get back in touch when I know more about how this might be used!

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28th Jun 2017 23:09

Great article Nic, think connected learning is an interesting concept. I especially like how it has been considered for virtual providers by using applications like Slack.

Tom

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