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  • Writer's pictureNicole Papaioannou Lugara

Why Aren't People Participating?: 7 Common Pitfalls to Avoid When Designing Digital Social Learning

*Queue crickets*

Every instructional designer's biggest fear about designing social learning is that it will fail to actually be social.

And it does happen.

We've all been part of a discussion forum where we asked questions and got no answers.

Or we sat through a virtual workshop where facilitators tried to engage a painfully silent group of participants.

Or we joined an online community where people just went off the rails, saying mean or irrelevant things.

The truth about social learning is that it leaves space for things to go wrong in ways that that a controlled learning environment-- like a video or elearning module-- doesn't.

But social learning, done well, can also facilitate growth, improved performance, and continuous learning in a way that no self-paced or presenter-led experience can.

So let's talk about some of the common pitfalls you want to avoid to ensure your digital social learning experience has the best chance of making a positive impact for your organization.

Pitfall # 1: Adding too many barriers to participation.

Every layer you add between a person and a task makes it more likely they will drop off. So if you want people to participate, you have to make it easy for them to do so.

If a person has to search for an email to find a link to an app/site they never use then has to sign into with a password they'll probably forget, and they only know if someone is responding to them when they log in, they're not going to participate.

They're going to forget about it.

They're going to move on to tasks that don't take them out of the flow of work.

When possible, use tools embedded in work to reduce the separation between work and learning.

For example, for one client, we leveraged their process mapping tool to embed checkpoints for mentees to connect with mentors. For another, we brought their whole disconnected learning ecosystem into a single social learning network to create space for both structured social learning and more organic collaborative learning.

Pitfall # 2: Launching without a learning campaign.

"If you build it, they will come" only works in the movies.

In this attention economy, you have to entice your users to participate. Let them know your social learning experience is coming soon. Let them know how it will help them (what's the "What's In it for Me?").

Surround your experience with a marketing campaign that nudges learners into action. Consider what moves your audience to action.

Pitfall # 3: Ignoring the need for Internal Influencers.

It's likely your facilitators and moderators won't necessarily be Internal Influencers. Internal Influencers are those who others like, admire, and want to learn from. People listen to them and are inclined to follow their lead.

Identifying Internal Influencers within your social group or tagging them to participate in the social experience and/or marketing of that experience can help you get early buy in.

Pitfall # 4: Forgetting the warm up period.

Great collaborative learning experiences are built on foundations of trust and respect. You have to create a safe space for people to talk without feeling shamed or threatened.

And when people come to these experiences matched with a bunch of strangers or people who may influence their worklife, well, it's unlikely they're going to want to dive into truly transformational interactions right from the start.

You have to foster the building of those bonds.

Set expectations. Help people understand how the experience works. Lay down the ground rules for participation.

Give them specific guidelines when you want them to engage in peer review.

Ease in to transformational experiences. Start with questions that don't require revealing deeply personal things or information that might be immediately challenged by others. You might try the think/pair/share framework or have people write then speak, so you don't put anyone on the spot in those early days.

If people are new to social learning experiences, new to work, and/or lacking in privilege (e.g., bottom of the organizational hierarchy), there's a good chance it will take longer to get them collaborating effectively. Plan for that.

Pitfall # 5: Failing to prepare moderators.

A facilitator guide is nice and all, but moderators need training. They need to understand the purpose of the experience and the guidelines for behavior. They need to know what's considered breaking the rules and what appropriate consequences look like.

They also need support. Where can moderators go when they have questions? Let them know these things in advance.

Pitfall # 6: Acting as if the facilitator is the star of the show.

While the facilitator may have all the answers, they cannot become the center of the space. As a facilitator, you have to let people interact.

Practice silence, even when there's an awkward pause. Allow the group to speak.

In online communities, it can be as easy as tagging a community member you think may have experience with the topic.

Pitfall # 7: Prioritizing the organization's needs over people.

Organizational needs and goals should always be considered when designing learning BUT that doesn't mean they are prioritized over the people in the learning experience.

For example, if you over-moderate to ensure the use of "the brand voice" instead of letting people talk as they talk amongst one another, people are going to stop talking.

If you leave space for people to collaborate and innovate through their learning experience (YAY!), and then say "ok, that's great! We're not doing any of that, though," you're going to squash their desire to do these things.

If you use social learning as an opportunity for surveillance, people are going to lose trust in the organization.

If you insist they do things in a way that is only convenient for the company and not for them, they're just not going to interact.


Need better training? Let's chat!

Your Instructional Designer specializes in social learning strategy and design, and we can help you take your team to the next level.

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1 Comment

Roula Alnounou
Roula Alnounou
Jan 21, 2023

Wonderful topic. Been curious to learn about how you approach social learning design. This is brilliant.

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