A major challenge of adapting face-to-face training to online format is it requires a paradigm shift for many long time successful teachers, trainers, and students most comfortable with face-to-face instruction.  Although a lengthy process, people are becoming more acquainted with expanded social capability of web 2.0 technology as they share more and more information online.  Consider how social networking sites such as Facebook, Google Circles, Twitter, Wikis, online forums, and blogs provide collaborative environments that help span time and distance.  Social processes will also provide a means to improve learning using new technologies for teaching and learning.  Many trainers and professors need to update and adapt teaching methods to employ these new technology tools.  The effort will require more than uploading course syllabi and exercises to the web.  To do so will require an updated definition and understanding of “social process” needed in the World Wide Web 2.0 world.

By recognizing and employing social processes, can instructors, students, and leaders engage at a more authentic and intimate level and possibly find themselves enjoying the learning process more?  Research suggests yes, but we need much learning on how to learn using web technology.  This study addresses the challenge that many practitioners encounter as they attempt to adapt face-to-face training methods to incorporate eLearning methods: the challenge to recognize, create, and maintain social processes in workforce learning groups.  The audiences who will potentially find the study of interest include adult learners, human resource and training managers, web-based course developers, and training providers considering web delivery of their courses.



The Research Problem

There is a need to deliver effective improvement interventions in the workplace using the benefits eLearning can provide; however, the lack of face-to-face contact creates new challenges for connecting (student to student, student to teacher, student to manager, and student to content).  Knowles, Holton, and Swanson (2006) express that adult learners bring rich experience that can provide a resource for themselves and for others, and have a need to share their experience within group activities. How can trainers take advantage of this resource in an online format?  Furthermore, many emerging workforce students are comfortable with employing technology, and need collectively to apply knowledge to solve complex problems.  How can trainers engage the emerging workforce in learning using online training?

Unfortunately, online training may have a bad reputation.  Early attempts at converting face-to-face training to eLearning methods neglected to address the need for social processes.  In doing so, participants may have overlooked the positive effects and potential that connectedness and shared experience learning group members can deliver.  According to Leonard (2002) “While new educational software, technologies, and networks may be available, the learning theories and methods required to take complete advantage of the tools are often neglected.”

ELearning technology and people knowing how to use it effectively have greatly improved since the 1990s, however, many successful trainers, students, and managers comfortable with face-to-face delivery methods have yet to catch up with Web 2.0 technology tools for teaching and learning.  For technically challenged trainers and learners, just using new internet applications becomes a hurdle, a paradigm shift, for which they must overcome.  Trainers and students may feel overloaded with more technology changes than they can handle, or may deny there is even a need to adapt their training and learning methods to the new technologies available.  Furthermore, many teaching strategies effective in driving learning to higher levels in face-to-face training environments may be unknown to trainers making it hard to adapt to an Internet environment.  It is a new experience for teachers and students to learn how to interact; online with content, student to student, and student to leaders (teachers, facilitators, subject matter experts, and managers).  Web 2.0 teaching technology brings new opportunities to improve learning outcomes; however, we have so much to learn in how we teach and learn online.

Take a few moments to think about if perhaps you have heard these thoughts expressed by a teacher, trainer, or student: “My class will NEVER be taught online!  Online classes DON’T WORK!” Or, “Online training is a cheap alternative that will never be as good as onsite training.”  Or, “I don’t like online classes, I am a not tech savvy, I like working with real people.”  The professor, trainer, and student present a valid argument.  What they are trying to say is they found a lack of social processes in their online instruction.  These social processes may include awareness of self and others, social interaction, social presence, immediacy, intimacy, emotional investment, or connectedness  This blend of “social processes” involving the interactions between people is critical to the human learning process; however, there is neither a name for this collection of social terms, nor a clear definition.


Studies Addressing the Problem

Research supports, and my personal training experience reinforces, the premise that social processes are essential for effective learning regardless of delivery method.  Many noted researchers documented how social processes support effective learning; there are thousands of studies under different names.  One of the oldest and most powerful teaching tactics for fostering critical thinking using social processes started with Socrates.

This case study selected groups of studies that represent some of the most popular social learning processes; they include active training, social presence, connectedness, community of inquiry, emotional learning, cognitive presence, awareness, interaction, and immediacy.  There are others, however, this sample justifies the importance of this study.  “Social stuff” matters regardless of the teaching delivery method.

Clark and Mayer posit that research conducted over 60 years shows it is not the delivery medium, but rather the instructional methods that enable learning.  When well-planned, effective instructional methods are present in training, so is learning, no matter which medium is used to deliver instruction.(2011, p. 14).  I have observed how experienced trainers using face-to-face methods, intuitively understand that students are more likely to engage in learning when they feel connected.  They know in effective training, learning is not a solo sport and students support what they help create.  Furthermore, solving complex problems requires collective knowledge of a learning group and training investments need to be linked to business results.  Without connectedness and the shared experience of learning-group members, training investments may be wasted.  The result: poor reactions to training, limited learning, and little changed behavior that leads to positive business results. (Kirkpatrick, 1998)

For example, in Active Training, Silberman (2006, p. 2) gives the average retention rates from various instructional modes.


Silberman clearly indicates these round numbers are not evidence of solid research, but they do suggest a progression to illustrate a point.  Using training methods that lack social processes will result in poorer learning outcomes.  The progression indicates most adults will forget what they hear during lecture, reading, audiovisual presentation, and demonstration, and this is if they can listen attentively.  Imagine now you are a trainer competing for attention due to work interruptions and distractions from cell phones, laptops, tablets, and mp3 players.  Instructional modes such as discussion, practice by doing, and teaching others, require a high degree of “social stuff” that improves retention rates, but also drives learning to higher levels described in Blooms Taxonomy(2005, pp. 60–63).

Many educational researchers focus on social presence and feel the challenge of any learning program, regardless of the medium in which it is delivered is to provide “social presence” that supports learning processes.  Clark and Mayer posit (2011, p. 25), “To be effective, instructional strategies must support these processes.  That is, they must foster the psychological events necessary for learning.”  The lack of social presence creates inadequate communication between participants in online learning that leads to students’ frustration, dissatisfaction, less participation and higher dropout rates in online courses. (Reio Jr & Crim, 2006, pp. 46–1)  Absence of “social presence” between managers, instructors, and students, creates a void, a negative influence on the entire learning process.  “Students who perceived high social presence in the online discussions also believed they learned more from it than did students perceiving low social presence.”(Swan, Polhemus, Shih, & Rogers, 2001)

Although educational researchers have focused on social presence, the literature identifies several social processes that affect learning.  Rettie(2003) argues that although ‘social presence’ and ‘awareness’ have received most focus in previous research, ‘connectedness’ is, in fact, a more fundamental concept. Aragon (2003) views social presence as one variable among many that contributes to building a sense of community among learners at a distance. Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2010a) express two concerns, one, that most of the previous research is directed at social presence, excluding cognitive and teacher presence; and two, the research on social presence was a one dimensional construct associated with an emotional sense of belonging.  A connection to the teaching and learning elements of a community of inquiry was missing.

Brackett and Rivers (2013) advocate Social and Emotional Learning.  They see a growing recognition around the world that schools must meet the social and emotional developmental needs of students for effective teaching and learning to take place and for students to reach their full potential.  Brackett and Rivers quote Nobel Laureate Heckman’s argument, “that investing in emotion skills is a cost effective approach to increasing the quality and productivity of the workforce through fostering workers’ motivation, perseverance, and self-control.”

Kanuka and Garrison (2004) advocate Cognitive Presence in Online Learning to facilitate higher levels of learning when using asynchronous text-based Internet communication technology. However, Osher, Sidana and Kelly(2008) relay that “Learning is not just a cognitive process.  Research shows that powerful social and emotional factors affect learning.  These social and emotional factors influence students’ abilities to attend to learning, their ability to direct their learning, and their engagement in learning activities.”

Zachary(2012, p. 6) stresses awareness – effective learning relationships and the ability to recognize and understand our own emotions (self-awareness) and the emotion of others in the learning group (social awareness) and then to use these abilities to guide behavior (self management) and manage our relationships (relationship management).  Garrison, Anderson and Archer (1999) advocate that effective learning occurs within a community and the interaction of three core elements: social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence. Blum(2005) relays, students are more likely to succeed when they feel connected.

Woods and Baker(2004) present concepts of interaction and immediacy discussing theoretical frameworks, implications, and relationship with one another. They indicate high levels of interaction, particularly those that promote social engagement, can have positive effects on the learning experience.  In immediacy theory, distance is a function of dialogue, structure, and learner autonomy, rather than a function of geographic separation.

Research supports the premise that social processes are essential for effective learning regardless of delivery method, so what is missing.  Next, we will look at deficiencies in past studies.

Deficiencies in Past Literature

Education and communication researchers have completed thousands of studies over the past 60 years, each describing different terms, and perspectives on the need for social processes in teaching and learning.  However, the research lacks three components this research will explore:

  1. Research literature lacks a clearly defined term for the collection of social processes that include awareness of others, social interaction, social presence, cognitive presence, immediacy, intimacy, emotional investment, and connectedness.
  2. The published literature underrepresents the voices of the adult workforce learning participants (adult learners, workforce development trainers, and business leaders) with individual and organizational learning needs.
  3. Research literature fails to address what a new paradigm for online and blended education will be like for workforce learning groups.  What shifts will trainers, managers, and students, most comfortable with face-to-face methods, need to make in order to adjust to web 2.0 technology.

Most researchers reference social presence; however, this term is not inclusive and researchers have yet to agree upon its definition.  The research needs a clear definition of social process that goes beyond social presence as a form of individual emotional support, and puts it in the context of today’s learning technology and the needs of today’s adult workforce learning groups.  Social learning is not just about the “degree of salience between two communicators” (Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976).  Social stuff needs to include group cohesion, expand from personal to purposeful relationships, apply knowledge leading to greater understanding and important worthwhile results, and show teaching/leadership presence that supports learning.

The published literature underrepresents the voices of adult workforce learners, workforce development trainers, and business leaders.  Although abundant literature exists on social processes in teaching, and is growing as technology changes, the literature focusses on the teaching and learning methods of primary, high school, college, and graduate students.  Previous literature provides little detail on social processes used in online learning for workforce learning groups who need to link training to changed behaviors and resulting positive business results.  One of the most important social presence concepts, the presence of the business leader who sponsors training, is missing.

What might a new paradigm of online and blended training be like?  To understand what features a blended training system should have we must first understand the changing needs of the emerging workforce learner and workforce learning groups.


Significance of this Study

Humans are social beings and we need social processes to provide “the means by which culture and social organization change or are preserved.”(“the definition of social process,” n.d.)  Leaders need effective training and education to influence the organization’s culture and in turn the long-term effectiveness of the organization.  Organizations need to apply collective knowledge to solve complex problems.  Adult learners need autonomy and to share their experience within group learning activities and by doing so they provide a resource for themselves and for others.  To help meet these needs, trainers and learning groups will go beyond early Web 1.0 adaptation approaches and develop teaching and learning methods that can take advantage of the possibilities the Web 2.0 and eLearning promises.

Poor retention rates and poor learning outcomes will not mysteriously improve just by making training available online.  If a combination of social processes (awareness of others, social interaction, social presence, cognitive presence, immediacy, intimacy, emotional investment, and connectedness) is critical to the learning process, what term do educational researchers use for this collection of “social stuff”?  What is the definition? How do you measure social stuff?  What are the units?  If social stuff is important, how do we recognize it and name it.  This mélange of social terms has no one clearly defined word or phrase to identify it in the literature.  This creates a deficiency.

Lowenthal (2010) states, “the theory of social presence is perhaps the most popular construct used to describe and understand how people socially interact in online learning environments. However, despite its intuitive appeal, researchers and practitioners alike often define and conceptualize this popular construct differently.”  Lowenthal(2009) further argues that social presence has many definitions, is not adequately focused on context, and social presence research contains contradicting findings.

Early attempts to convert face-to-face training to eLearning methods neglected to address the need for “social stuff.”  Consider the first trainings made available online.  Many instructors may have uploaded long video lectures, employed simple true-or-false/fill-in-the blank questions, and made paper syllabi available online, with little adaptation from their hard copy materials.  Trainers became teacher centric focusing on their content, and driven to reduce cost.  Web 1.0 technology provided little means for social interactions found in face-to-face (F2F) learning.  Participants in these courses found little interactivity.  It was a one-way communication from the teacher, which provided no opportunity for rich discussion, no application, and no opportunity for students to support fellow students.  Early attempts at eLearning were impersonal, limited in expressing emotions and complex social interaction, lonely, and isolating.  The results produced not only student dissatisfaction and high dropout rates, but also a bad reputation for online learning.

New collaborative and interactive communication tools made available through Web 2.0 technology are revolutionizing training methods, creating new challenges and opportunities in how organizations teach and learn.  In The World is Open- How Web Technology is Revolutionizing Education, Bonk(2009) relays the Web 2.0 provides an online delivery platform that is more social, collaborative, interactive, and responsive.  Advanced web technology gives learners and learning groups the ability to collaborate and share information as never before and many emerging workforce students are comfortable with and prefer employing eLearning technology.  New technologies can now provide training with meaningful and engaging online methods that maximize learning outcomes, driving learning to higher levels of understanding, application, and creativity.  Although online technology has changed immensely, allowing greater social interaction, teaching and learning methods lag behind.


Purpose of this Research

The purpose of this case study was to explore how trainers of workforce-learning groups can improve learning outcomes by recognizing the needs of adult learners, social learning processes, and sound instructional design methods in eLearning.  In addition, the research provides examples of lessons learned in adapting teaching and learning methods to take advantage of the possibilities web 2.0 technologies present.  Context is important.  Although learning can apply to any age group, this research focuses on adult workforce learners composed of trainers, facilitators, students, business leaders, and subject matter experts who bring rich and varied experience, and have a need to share their experience.  Learning needs are individual and communal, with learning outcomes leading to cultural and organizational change.  At this stage of the study, this research will refer to the collection of social processes found in sound instructional design principles as “social stuff” and define it as follows:

“Social Stuff” Defined

A blend ofsocial phenomena- awareness of others and self, social interaction, social presence, cognitive presence, immediacy, intimacy, emotional investment, and connectedness; critical to the human learning process.  “Social stuff” enables learning group participants to connect and socially interact authentically and intimately in order to mutually motivate and inspire each other to achieve shared learning outcomes.  “Social stuff” establishes a connected learning environment where learning group participants interact- learner to leaders, learner to learner, and with integrated content.  Participants have autonomy- the feel of control of reaching goals, and they participate in choosing content and in developing goals.  It nurtures support participants have for each other, the feeling of being connected, and the sense of autonomy for learning that moves participants to take what they learn and connect it to achieving important worthwhile positive results.

Why authentic and Intimate?  Authenticity is the ability to share thoughts accurately giving form and vocabulary to our ideas.  Intimacy is the level to which we share, allowing how far into our psyche we let other people see.  Authenticity is about clarity and definition, whereas intimacy is about depth.  Motivated versus inspiration?  Sometimes we are motivated (pushed) extrinsically by praise and attaining high grades; sometimes inspired (pulled) intrinsically by the need for self-satisfaction, the need for autonomy, the feeling of being in control of completing important worthwhile work.



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