Web 2.0, the idea of the Web as participation, really isn’t new. Whether you want to talk about programming languages, politics, or your favorite television show, it’s been possible to find like-minded individuals discussing your topic on the Web for as long as it’s been possible to get videos in DVD format. As these online discussion environments have evolved into what we now think of as social media, they’ve developed a range of features we could only wish for in computer-mediated learning fifteen years ago.

Even so, many of us in the business world aren’t completely comfortable designing online learning in a Web 2.0 world. After years of developing self-contained online training where “interactivity” meant rollovers, drag-and-drop, or hot spots, the prospect of a training environment where the users create the content creates a little anxiety for management and content developers alike. What if the learners choose not to participate in the social media environment? What if they do participate, but inappropriately? These situations would waste the expense of providing the environment.

Just as real-world meetings and classrooms require ground rules and good classroom management or facilitation skills, the Web 2.0 learning environment calls for a little guidance and facilitation on the part of the learning designer. As you work to develop the social media portion of your training, there are three questions that can help you stay on course as you work to establish a collaborative learning environment.

Can learners participate in the learning environment at their own level of expertise?

For those of us who spend a substantial amount of time integrating technology with learning, it can be hard to imagine how foreign and confusing some social media interfaces can look to new users. Especially to new users who don’t see how to navigate to the functions they expect to perform at work, like word processing or spreadsheets.

On the other side of the coin, some learners have spent a lot of time in social media, but are new to the subject matter and uncomfortable making their lack of expertise obvious to the rest of the group.

Learners need a challenge if they are to stay interested, but if you can’t make them comfortable enough to participate, they won’t spend time in your learning environment. For both groups of learners, it can be helpful to create some structure. Giving the group some suggestions on where to focus their attention helps set their expectations of the environment and make it a more comfortable place to learn.

Will each learner have a lot of opportunities to participate?

As we all know, nothing improves comfort and skill with a learning objective as much as getting a lot of exposure to it. With so many social-media activities taking place asynchronously, it’s tempting to believe that social media makes it easier for everyone to get opportunities to participate.

And while time constraints don’t usually keep learners from participating in social media, asynchronous communication can create its own set of barriers to collaborative learning. Generally speaking, the more time that passes between a learner’s contribution and a response from another participant, the less the learner becomes interested in participating in the environment. Collaborative learning doesn’t happen without the focus and involvement of the group. The delay in feedback in an asynchronous environment can, unfortunately, lead to a lack of focus.

It’s the learning designer’s job to get the conversation started, to provide interesting activities for the group when conversation flags, and to make sure the interactions between participants stay productive. The learning designer facilitates the social learning experience in much the same way as a meeting facilitator guides a face-to-face meeting, and can even use some of the same techniques.

Could the differences between the participants be a source of reciprocal growth?

Sometimes mentoring opportunities come in quick, short bursts instead of being sustained over time. Computer-mediated communication is ideal for these short bursts.

When one learner asks a question that another can answer, both of them benefit. The person who asks gets the needed information, but the person who answers has to clarify his or her thinking well enough to explain the concept to someone else. Both grow from the experience, and that growth is the direct result of the differences in their understanding of the subject. In fact, the entire group can benefit, since they’ll all see the answer to the question, and have the opportunity to comment on the exchange.

Often, the differences in the skill sets of your various learners create the greatest opportunities for them to help one another improve.

Next month’s column: Letting learners participate at their own level of expertise.