Thursday, August 6, 2015

Social Learning Ought to be Story-Sharing: "Friends You Haven't Met Yet" - Tip #54

"People are social beings, and our brains are wired to connect with each other," Matthew D. Lieberman writes in his book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. (2013). However, when it comes to traditional practices related to training and learning programs, we tend to slam on the brakes regarding social interaction. We focus on content delivery and do not encourage learners to interact with others through online and virtual tools.
The Common Complaints

Designers and trainers who participate in my workshops, both online and in face-to-face settings, have these common complaints regarding social learning - which makes use of social media as part of the learning experience:

"What if learners don't want to interact?"
"What if they are so busy, they have no time for a discussion?"
"What if top management frowns on social conversations as undermining work and frivolous?"
"Learners are afraid to be wrong, offend or reveal themselves to others." 
What seems to be the root of these complaints? Why is there a sense that difficulties will arise using social interaction as part of our training and learning programs?

"Friends You Haven't Met Yet"

A recent experience during a visit to USC Center for Creative Technologies helped me tie a bow on this issue. The realization came after a closer review of a huge project called "Friends You Haven't Met."

First, some background: I visited with Andrew Gordon, Ph.D., a leader of the USC/ICT specializing in story and narrative research and artificial intelligence initiatives. He was one of 45 doctoral students under Roger Schank at Northwestern University. We spoke about ICT's  Story Web Blog Project. Through the algorithms his team developed with funding from the U.S. Army, they compiled 33 million web blogs that use personal stories. The trainers from the Army selected stories that were useful in their leadership programs. While we were in conversation, Dr. Gordon mentioned the work of Chris Wienberg, a doctoral student.

Chris Wienberg, with others, produced a documentary, "Friends You Haven't Met Yet." The documentary interviews some of the bloggers who were discovered in their research on the Story Blogs.

After meeting with Dr. Gordon and viewing the documentary, I concluded that social learning ought to be story sharing. 
Personal Stories Versus Knowledge Stories

Some blogs are much more popular than others because the bloggers share stories about their crises,successes, trials and discoveries. Initially, they are about sharing their daily lives with close family members. Eventually, bloggers discover even those who are just witnesses or even strangers begin to visit and interact with them.
The very nature of sharing personal stories is cathartic not only for bloggers, but for readers as well. Without even knowing each other, both establish a bond based on a shared story. This is because stories are universal and appeal to the heart. Thus, they resonate with people from all walks of life.

In training and learning, we tend to be nuts and bolts, fact-based, right-and-wrong orientated, rather than sharing authentic and genuine stories from people's experiences as a way to enrich learning.

But how can we use social interaction online to turn it into story sharing that supports social learning?
To turn conversations and sharing into usable stories, it works best to ask:
"What did you go through?"
"How did you do it?"
"What would you do again or avoid in the future?"
These questions encourage experience and story sharing. Note, they are the opposite of asking, "What do you think?", "What is your opinion?" or "What is the right answer?"

They Will Find You

"I'm surprised that someone I don't know would visit and read my blog," one blogger remarked. Bloggers wonder why so many people read their blogs even if they are not their friends. There is no expectancy that someone, aside from close family friends, would even read their postings. They are surprised that strangers start contacting them and replying to their posts.

In many social learning environments, learners tend to expect immediate and multiple group responses. Failing to get a good response sends a signal that the learner is less engaged or is not contributing a good idea. They (supposedly?) end up disinterested, feel discouraged and quit. However, this view is flawed.

We need to encourage our learners to think like someone attending a cocktail party. They get to meet a number of people, until they find a person with whom they share mutual interests. Then, conversation ensues. Unbeknown to learners, the people in a social learning situation are not total strangers. They happen to be engaged and are having a lively and interesting conversation with another person. 

With this model in mind, we offer two recommendations:
  • Longer time span. Create a social learning environment that lasts longer. If we implement the social learning aspect to accompany a class and it starts on Monday and ends on Friday, there will be no opportunities to build connections, establish rapport and nurture relationships. Learners will be less inclined to make the investment in time and emotional relationships. Develop a spaced-out interaction, maybe a few weeks.
  • Meaningful conversations. Remind learners, the goal is not to have a relationship with the whole class but to look for meaningful sharing of ideas and stories with a few people within the group - those with similar interests. Social learning is a not a scattergun approach to learning; "it is intimate and selective."
I Do, Therefore I Learn and Gain Respect

Viewing the story sharing documentary reminded me that social interaction and sharing are indeed a social and psychological contract between the person sharing a story and the followers or recipients.

Social learning is shallow when it merely focuses on the trainer's need to frame the conversations to suit the content. This is quickly apparent to learners. To engage them, turn the tables and ask learners to talk abouttheir interest areas.

But how do you align their discussions with your content? How do ensure they don't segue into topics outside of the immediate lesson?

Consider the following ideas:

Strong positions. Ask learners to put a stake on the group and pursue a topic that they are passionate about. Encourage them to gain depth by researching and presenting dissenting views, challenging assumptions and taking a strong position or changing positions as they make discoveries. 

Many learners contribute ideas by posting "me too" and superficial "hi and hello" comments. They fail to engage others because they don't show seriousness and strong intent. They don't make it a passionate pursuit. Encourage learners to ask penetrating questions and provide insights. 

Credibility and reputation are important. Advise learners that having good conversations with others or having many strangers visit and benefit from their postings reflects on their credibility and reputation. Instead of their being like a fruit fly buzzing from one conversation to another, an in-depth conversation on one issue builds respect and gains admiration from others. 

Allow real-life pursuits. To help learners align their discussion pursuits with your content focus, allow them to relate a story, an experience or a real-life application regarding your content. Learners' postings may veer away from your core topic, but they have done so to pursue an interest. Encourage them. Use your content as a trigger to help them recall real-life situations. Avoid limiting their discoveries by stubbornly adhering only to your academic objectives.


Social learning ought to be story sharing. Learners learn by participating in small, focused and meaningful conversations. It is only through deeper pursuits of personal interests and sharing their discoveries with the group that learners develop credibility, reputation and respect. It is this degree of application that makes social learning a story-sharing medium. It is by story sharing that learners really absorb the lessons. It is by this approach they "Find Friends They Haven't Met Yet."

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic. Sound off in the comments section!

USC Center for Creative Technologies 

Matthew D. Lieberman, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect (2013) 

Ray Jimenez, PhD
Vignettes Learning
"Helping Learners Learn Their Way"

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