14. Three social contexts for learning

Designing blended solutions
Regardless of the strategy or strategies that you choose, there is another key decision to make in terms of the people who will be involved in the learning process. Essentially there are three choices: the learner alone, the learner with one other person – typically a coach or instructor – and the learner with a group of peers.
Self-study can range from reading a book at one extreme to engaging in a complex computer simulation at the other. It provides us with a great deal of flexibility as learners because we control the pace at which we learn as well as when, where and for how long. Organisations also benefit because of the cost-efficiencies.
Having said that, although self-study can stand alone, it works best in conjunction with other social contexts. We are social animals and it is natural for us to want interaction with other human beings at some stage in our learning. The social component allows us to share our experiences, test out ideas, obtain support and compare perspectives.
Self-study also relies on a fair amount of self-motivation and discipline. Somehow there is always some other activity that seems more urgent than our study programme. Hard experience suggests that prolonged periods of self-study need to be timetabled with regular milestones that must be reached by specific dates.
One-to-one learning places the learner with an instructor, a coach, a mentor or a subject expert, whether that’s on-job, off-job or remotely. One-to-one learning is highly individualised, which makes it fast and potentially highly effective, but success depends heavily on the quality of the individual responsible.
One-to-one learning makes a valuable contribution but is extremely costly when compared with other approaches. As a result, it is usually rationed to those situations where there is no other option or where the benefits justify the expense.
Group learning expands the resources available to us as learners to include our peers. This can provide useful benefits in terms of shared insights and experiences, mutual support and a degree of peer pressure, although this comes at the expense of flexibility and individual attention. Group learning can take place live in a physical or virtual classroom. It can also occur at the learner’s own pace making use of email, discussion forums, wikis, social networks and similar ‘Web 2.0’ technologies.
Each of these three social contexts has major advantages, but also some significant drawbacks. The art is to use each social context in the situations in which its benefits are maximised and its limitations minimised. In practice this often means using them in combination, as ingredients in a blended solution.
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