It isn’t hard to understand why the idea of computer-mediated social learning has such appeal. Learning has been both social and informal for most of human history. As we interact with peers, experts, and novices on a topic, we come to develop a shared understanding of the world. Less-experienced members of the community learn from those who are more experienced, gaining more influence in the group as their skills grow.

If you’ve ever tried to move the social learning dynamic to a computer-mediated discussion, though, you’ve probably noticed first-hand that giving learners a forum where discussion can take place is not enough to create a social learning environment. The dynamic in a computer-mediated learning community can leave learners missing the sense of presence that would give them a reason to participate in the discussion.

Social learning works well in real life because it offers the individual learner so many opportunities for feedback. In real life, group members interact with one another frequently, giving them any number of opportunities to get direct feedback from a peer or mentor, or to simply find points of comparison to peers. Feedback is a byproduct of living and working in a community.

A community of newcomers

Many computer-mediated learning communities face two barriers to developing a sense of presence and a real-world social dynamic.

First, the learning community itself may not have existed prior to its creation as an online community. It’s a community of newcomers. No member of the group has yet established a reputation, whether as an expert or as a novice. Community members may have a deep, moderate, or passing interest in the subject matter, and little sense of the other members.

If there’s no discussion taking place when members first join, learners may or may not attempt to start a conversation. To an expert, a lack of discussion threads may signal a lack of interest on the part of other participants. To a novice, the lack of threads may signal a community that cannot offer help.

The fact that some members of the new community won’t have an intrinsic understanding of how to work in an online medium is an added obstacle. Asking the group to help establish the ground rules of the community is one way to get past it, and to initiate conversation. What kinds of topics belong in the forum? Is it acceptable for a member to “Favorite” (put a star on) his or her own entry? How can we use the features of our tool of choice to recognize good contributions to the community?

Fitting social learning into the rhythm of everyday life

Generally speaking, the more time that passes between a learner’s contribution and a response from another participant, the less the learner is interested in participating in the environment. Like their real-world counterparts, members of computer-mediated learning communities thrive on feedback. Unfortunately, computer-mediated communities can be easily forgotten or ignored by members who have a number of priorities competing for their attention.

The single best predictor of whether a learner will engage in your learning community is whether or not the learner is in the habit of logging in to the social learning platform. Clearly, if they’re not logging in, they won’t be contributing to the discussion in your community.

One way to encourage users to log in is to keep track of activities that take place in the larger community, and to summarize those activities for your learners. You might send out a weekly e-mail to your community, highlighting some of the more interesting blog entries, bookmarked articles, profiles of community members, or files shared within the social learning platform. In any reasonably large organization, it shouldn’t be difficult to find enough interesting material to write a one-page highlight sheet.

My preferred spin on this technique is to create a virtual quiz game about the platform, similar to NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. Give your group a summary of four entries that may or may not have happened in the learning platform within the last week, and let them tell you which of the entries is false. They’ll have to log in to be able to find the answer to the question, and while they’re there, they may decide to contribute to your learning community.

As the moderator of a learning community, you can influence your community to think of social learning as a fun, interesting, and worthwhile activity. It’s the first step to getting good participation and fostering learning in a social media environment.