Social Learning At Conferences: Moving From Passive Attendee To Active Participant

Deb & Tony's elbows.

Have you ever received the elbow nudge during a workshop or conference?

If you’re like me, you’ve even given a few to colleagues and friends.

The Ubiquitous Elbow Nudge

The elbow nudge occurs when a peer decides to emphasize something a presenter said. Suddenly you feel an elbow in your rib cage as your contemporary wants to draw your attention to the information being presented. It’s usually a friendly gesture although when a spouse or supervisor does it, it feels very awkward.

The elbow nudge is one way passive listeners engage in non-verbal communication during education programs. It’s the equivalent of saying, “Wow, did you hear that? The speaker is talking directly to us.”

I think it’s the precursor to social learning and peer discussion.

Defining Social Learning

“Social learning is participating with others to make sense of new ideas,” says author and business social strategist Marcia Conner.

I like that definition! Social learning is participating with others to make sense of new ideas.

Social learning is not new. It’s been around since the dawn of humanity. It’s very natural for us to talk with others about things.

What is new is the array of social technologies that allow us to participate with others is real time conversations across the globe. Social media, technology used to engage three or more people, can foster and leverage social learning. Social media has an inherent expectation for engagement and a back and forth exchange between three or more people. (Participating with others to make sense of new ideas!)

Ultimately, social learning emphasizes active participation and open discourse.

The Social Learning Hallway Buzz

Where does most of the learning occur at a conference?

Not in the education sessions! Most learning occurs in the hallways as attendees begin to make sense of the information they’ve heard with each other.

Inside the four walls of conference meeting rooms, attendees receive information. They passively listen to lectures and panels. With the exception of the occasional elbow nudge, little social learning occurs during most traditional conference education.

Outside of those rooms, attendees start to socially construct their own understanding of the information. They discuss concepts and issues as they try to integrate it and internalize it into their own personal framework. It’s where true conference social learning happens.

Nurturing Social Learning At Conferences

Conference organizers need to find new ways to nurture and foster social learning at their events.

We need to encourage the hallway conversations to crop up during all aspects of the conference. We must ask our speakers to shift from planning one-way lectures and panels to more facilitated small group and peer discussions.

We need to help our registrants transition from passive attendees to active participants. We have to find the balance of the “what,” the content, and the “how,” the learning process. We need to promote more social learning during traditional conference education.

In order to do this, we must stop seeing our meetings as containers for distributing information and start seeing them as a process to facilitate learning.

We must come to grips with the fact that “information” is a commodity and that “education” is something that has significant value.

The more our attendees become participants in social learning during our event, the more likely they will want to return next year. Let’s face it, social learning is better than the elbow nudge.

What are some tactical things you’ve experienced at conferences or workshops that fostered social learning? How can you encourage the integration of social technology tools, social media and social learning for your conference?

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1 comment
  1. thom singer says:

    Amen to the power of “Hallway Conversations”. Much time is invested in creating learning objectives for the sessions, but then the breaks are just tossed out there with some cookies. The organizers need to understand the learning objectives of their whole “Conference Attendee Experience” 😉

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