Over the past three years, my company has been increasingly asked to create learning experiences on collaborative social learning platforms like NovoEd, Curatr, Blackboard, etc. These platforms combine the accessibility of asynchronous learning with the interactivity of live web-based learning with the facilitated guidance and collaboration opportunities of face-to-face classroom-training. To be clear, we’ve been creating custom training in all of these formats for decades. (Literally decades: my first corporate training position was creating computer-based training (CBT) back in 1987. CBT eventually became WBT (web-based training, or eLearning) when the internet rose to prominence several years later.)

While we’ve been in business since 1992, my staff of designer/developers have been responsible for creating engaging, breakthrough learning journeys on social learning platforms for our clients since 2015. As CEO running the company, I tend not to be able to play around with new technologies and training methods although, as training geek, it kills me to not know as much as I want about any new technology. Therefore, when a particularly large project came in over a few months ago, I quickly jumped at the chance to roll up my sleeves and dive in.

Because: How hard can it be?

I accepted responsibility for the creation of two modules in a 26-week learning experience. Each module was to consist of three submodules; each submodule was supposed to take the average learner about 45-minutes to complete. My modules were in leadership topics where I had some expertise  Inspiring Others and Leading Change  and the audience senior leaders was familiar to me.

How hard could it be? The answer, I came to discover, is, “Surprisingly challenging!”

Designing for a social learning platform-based experience is not simply slapping content and links on the social learning platform as many folks do. This work required my best skills as creative designer, crafty developer, and patient and deliberate content curator. It required the best performance consulting skills to draw a clear line between short bursts of learning to business application and impact. It pushed me to be deliberate and precise in my writing and clear in my direction.

Here are some of the things I learned about designing, developing, and deploying training on a social learning platform:

  1. Know Your Audience
    1. Know your audienceKnow your audience’s motivation for learning. Most leaders want to increase their effectiveness as leaders, to be sure. But in what way? Is it improving team performance? Increasing bench strength? Improving customer focus? Being promoted? Creating a footprint? Leaving a legacy? Understanding the motivation helps shape the messaging and the questions you create to drive learner engagement.
    2. Know your audience’s bias for content. Clearly, senior leaders prefer different content sources than other leaders. Harvard Business Review versus Hotwire. Marshall Goldsmith versus Elon Musk. There’s a different vibe and the vibe is important in engaging the audience.
    3. Learning across devicesKnow your audience’s predilection towards technology. While social learning platforms work hard to make the interface easy for the most technically-challenged, it still IS technology. Ensure that assignments are doable but challenging, potential problems are addressed preemptively (through, for example, short videos that help learners use the platform), and learners are supported appropriately yet non-intrusively. Equally important, know your audience’s technology: will the learner be using a laptop, tablet, or mobile? You may need to change design elements if most of your learners are mobile.
  2. Know Where You’re Taking Learners
    1. curation_toolsCurate carefully. One of my modules was on the topic of leading change. I don’t know of another leadership topic that’s as covered as much as change. And that’s a problem. Finding the right content that provides clarity and provokes new thinking and is targeted towards helping senior leaders inspire and enable change in their business units requires real effort and an unwillingness to compromise. Much of the available content isn’t well done. And the content that IS well done may not be usable (copyrighted, too long, etc.) or appropriate (wrong message, incorrect target audience, etc.) Finding content is easy; finding the right content and the right variety of media — is hard work.
    2. Craft careful questionsBe deliberate and precise in crafting your questions. People tend to answer the question you ask. To ensure you get the responses and thinking that you’re looking for, take time to carefully word questions that evoke that thinking and those responses. Too many social learning platform designers fall back on “What resonated most with you in that video?” That’s lazy design. Whether you want learners to retain knowledge, contrast what they read or viewed to their own experience, or form new perspectives on old ways of thinking, the wording of the question shapes the learner’s thinking and makes all the difference.
    3. Worry about the blend. Social learning platform based experiences offer a lot of options for collaboration, project work, and discussions. Begin with the idea of social learning, not just individual learning. How can you engage a group, create rich discussions, foster safe places for sharing and asking questions, etc.? At the same time, be sensible in the level of group/team projects and forced interactions; it’s easy to design programs that leverage the collaboration opportunities without considering the logistical challenges such as scheduling working sessions across global time zones that participants may face.
    4. Allow for unplanned discoveryConsider both limitless and controlled. Consider how you might create experiences that allow learners to “run with the ball” (and take themselves and their cohort to exciting places you might never have fully imagined for them), yet ensure that they’ll learn the appropriate/requisite knowledge and skills? This is a very different goal than most designers have… and “uncontrolled” is scary to many learning professionals. Yet, sometimes, these are the best learning experiences EVER.
    5. What story will your program tell? Will you thread the modules together for a cohesive experience? Will the modules build off prior content or stand alone? If you have multiple developers, how will you ensure the modules have a common feel and “voice”?
  3. Plan on More
    1. Plan carefullyIt will take twice as long as you think to curate content. While reviewing content is enjoyable (you learn a lot!), staying focused can be a challenge. Additionally, curating content tends to wear down a developer’s resolution; after hours of looking at TEDtalks and reading articles, it becomes increasingly easy to settle for what we’ve reviewed. Content curation is a time-consuming task if one is unwilling to settle.
    2. It takes (at least) two. Having a peer review your lesson provides a fresh perspective and sometimes a new way of framing the questions and lessons. My colleague, Lynne, reviewed my modules and offered suggestions and insights. Her reactions and perspectives helped me focus the content, questions, and activities to ensure that participants got the most from the module. She also pushed me to ensure that my words compelled participants to want to learn more.
    3. Anticipate more decisions. In addition to understanding the audience and curating content, there are decisions to be made around the presentation of the content, discussions, questions, etc. Most social learning platforms allow for customization of the look and feel, the chunking of information, and so forth. Especially if this is your organization’s first experience with the platform, expect to spend some time and energy making a good first impression.

Success!So, how hard can it be? After my hands-on experience creating two modules, I can say that it’s pretty darn hard. Designing and developing effective training for a social-learning platform-based delivery required everything I had as business-based performance consultant, asynchronous “learning independently” instructional designer, synchronous “learning together” training designer, unwavering content curator, and receptive team member.

However, the benefits are tremendous as Charlie Chung from NovoEd points out in his whitepaper. If you want a flexible, engaging, leading-edge leadership program, consider using a social learning platform. It’s hard. But it’s worth it. (And if you’d like support in creating your learning experience, consider using Entelechy to help you get it right because … we know how hard it can be.)