8.2 Potential problems with social learning

Social learning has been widely adopted by learning designers who are seeking to create engaging online courses. However, whilst encouraging learners to engage in social learning activity is often found to be a positive learning environment and experience for individuals, there can also be drawbacks, particularly for open courses.

Open courses are usually designed to run without a facilitator who will be moderating forums and they are also usually designed without a set start and finish date, making engagement with others on a discussion difficult as it cannot carried out at a specific time. Also, open courses will not usually have a defined cohort of learners. Defined cohorts are much easier to facilitate and manage than learners who are engaged on an open course. For social learning to be a success, there is a requirement for a critical mass of learners to be engaged with the course during a similar timeframe so that they can interact with each other. OpenLearn courses are not usually designed with social learning activities for this reason, although they will be found in FutureLearn MOOCs, which do have specific start and finish dates and are therefore less problematic to manage.

As we have found, discussion forums can be used for learners to exchange ideas and findings based around the subject that they are studying. Some people enjoy contributing to such discussions and others do not. If a requirement of your course is that a learner must engage in a discussion activity, maybe as part of a formative or summative assessment, they may feel pressured and uncomfortable by this. If a learner enjoys the activities that they are being asked to carry out, there is far more chance of them completing the activity and the course.

Experience gained at The Open University has shown that when learners are forced to engage in social activity within a course that drop-out rates significantly increase. Learners do not always see what is to be gained from contributing to a social learning activity and may choose to ignore it. An open course that was designed with an activity where learners were asked to create a video diary and share it with other learners was not well received and resulted in many of the learners prematurely leaving the course.

In order to avoid the inclusion of social learning elements becoming a weakness in a course, the designer should first consider how important it is to include an element of social learning and, if used, the reason for including it and how it will aid the learner needs to be clearly indicated.

8.1 Social learning in education

8.3 Resourcing social learning