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ATD Blog

Social Learning in a Virtual World: Three Cs

Thursday, September 29, 2022

While the shift to virtual learning has been successful for many companies, social learning in a virtual environment remains challenging for some. Organizations can increase social connectivity among learners regardless of their digital learning strategy. When incorporating social learning into your current framework, consider the three Cs: cohorts, communication, and collaboration.

1. Cohorts

One of the challenges of remote learning that many organizations face is employee engagement, but the answers could lie in cohort settings. A cohort-based learning environment fosters a sense of community among learners, which increases engagement. Whether new hires going through an onboarding program, a group of colleagues engaging in continuous learning programs, or participants in an external course outside of an organization, learners in cohorts benefit in any setting.

Social Learning at Its Finest
Cohorts organically provide opportunities for learners to collaborate, learn from one another, get feedback, exchange ideas, and work in a team setting. These experiences increase retention and engagement, making learning more effective.

In a training environment, learners get to practice role-based skills that contribute to their success on the job. Doing this in a cohort setting allows learners to make mistakes and learn from each other. This is critical for learning transfer.

An additional benefit of cohort-based learning occurs when learners share an experience. There is an innate feeling of support that comes with shared experiences. In a cohort, members can support and motivate one another throughout the learning process.

Increased Accountability
Grouping learners together also provides opportunities for enhanced accountability. A noteworthy example comes from the large telecommunication firm Deutsche Telekom. In one of the organization’s leadership development programs, LevelUP!, participants form partnerships to increase ownership of their learning. Obtaining certification for a module requires learning partners to review and approve one another’s work. The organization’s creative use of cohort-based learning has increased accountability and engagement for its leaders.

Cohorts are also important for their networking potential. In this setting, participants are often surrounded by professionals who work in different roles or across industries. Frequently, experience levels vary, which can lead to mentorship opportunities. Taking part in a cohort-based program provides ample opportunities to build relationships and connect with others.


2. Communication

When planning a virtual learning program, develop a communication strategy for learners that is ongoing and dynamic. Promote learning initiatives, encourage networking, and facilitate group discussions using tools such as Slack, Google Text, or Facebook.

Facilitate Bidirectional Communication
In a virtual learning environment, communication should be a two-way street. Provide opportunities for participants to apply what they have learned by facilitating discussions. This can increase the exchange of novel ideas and points of view. For less formal discussions, platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are effective, especially if a facilitator can moderate them.

Generate Excitement and Prepare Participants
Use a communication forum to promote upcoming live sessions, events, guest speakers, contests, and more. Participants can submit their questions ahead of time for guest speakers or discussions. Use your communication platform to moderate a post-event discussion after a live event or even after participants have completed an asynchronous exercise.

Learn on the Fly
Slack, SharePoint, or your company intranet can be great tools for sharing quick, informal content. Send your learners quick-hitting videos, job aids, expert tips, or links to additional resources.

3. Collaboration

Creating a collaborative learning environment in a virtual landscape allows learners to work together towards a common goal, much like they would in a traditional professional setting. This approach lets participants exercise problem-solving, communication, teamwork, and active listening skills. Below are some ideas for incorporating collaboration into your virtual learning curriculum.


Problem-Solving in a Real-World Setting
One of the key benefits of collaborative learning is that participants can practice critical skills such as problem-solving and evaluating business needs in a team setting, similar to how they would do in a professional environment. Analyzing case studies and role playing with realistic scenarios drive engagement in a collaborative setting.

Project-Based Learning
Strategies like project-based learning are a great way to promote collaboration in a virtual environment. This approach encourages participants to work together to accomplish real-world, complex tasks while relying on social connections to make the project successful.

Participants learn from each other throughout the process by observing and building on one another’s skills and knowledge. The success of this approach can be enhanced by integrating coaches into the process who can provide immediate feedback and reinforce skills.

Consider Structure
When planning for collaborative exercises, use the appropriate technology to ensure learners are in small groups, typically no more than five. While on-camera collaboration is best, learners can also use platforms such as Slack or Microsoft Teams to brainstorm, provide feedback, and share ideas in real time.

In some instances, it may be helpful to assign roles to different group members. For example, designate a speaker, a project manager, and a researcher to help keep the group engaged and on track.

Building opportunities for social learning in a digital environment takes commitment and planning. By leveraging the three Cs, you can ensure your program’s success!

About the Author

Megan Dillon is a manager of instructional design. She has experience developing and overseeing successful onboarding, continuous education, and leadership development programs across various industries. Megan believes L&D have the potential to empower individuals to perform at optimal levels. She is passionate about developing strategic learning programs that inspire, motivate, and create change across entire organizations.

Megan grew up in Charlotte, NC, and graduated from Queens University of Charlotte. She resides in Charlotte, NC, with her husband and two busy little boys.

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Creating a cohort among new hires has shown some serious benefit for us. They came in together and have grown used to working together as a group. The struggle I see often has been to find a way to create a cohort among some of the folks who might have been in the organization for awhile. There isn't that natural, organic, opportunity to bring them together like we do when onboarding a group of new hires. What has worked to create that a cohort at that level for you?
Using cohort-based learning in continuous education initiatives has proven to be successful for me. For example, grouping current employees by their job titles and then training them with peers on ongoing education initiatives has been effective. Alternatively, current employees can be grouped together based on training topics. This works well for leadership training initiatives. A practical example would be gathering high-potential employees and providing them with leadership training.
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