Using social learning to design a world-class online course

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Within the higher education space, rising tuition fees and limited scholarships or funding opportunities have led more students to take up online learning.

This leads to a number of outcomes, among them:

  1. Online degrees are increasing in number, and
  2. Many universities now offer massive open online courses (MOOCs) as a way to promote their university to prospective students around the world.

With the rise of the EdTech industry, it is clear that higher education providers around the world are harnessing the power of the Internet with the goal of delivering high quality online learning experiences for students.

However, usually overlooked in pursuing this goal is the “social” part of the traditional brick-and-mortar university experience: the people you meet.

Introducing: Social Learning

Hello Wall

In online instructional design, social learning is a teaching method where the learning process is driven by the community, as well as a series of strategically designed activities. This method takes inspiration from familiar social media platforms as well as the works of Piaget, Vygotsky, Dewey and other developmental researchers.

What’s required is an online environment which encourages students to interact, engage, and connect with one another towards achieving the knowledge and skill outcomes which are envisioned by the course creator.

An emphasis on social learning enhances the educational experience, as the learner is able to like, comment and share their learning on a global scale. These interactions open up the door to a wide range of perspectives, including those with real students from the various institutions of higher education that prospective students may be considering.

Done effectively, this method has the potential to bridge the “social” gap for online students and institutions alike.

Implementation: The Role of Learning Designers

While there is a growing movement worldwide towards more interactive online learning experiences, academics who adopt constructive learning methods in their lectures often fall back on passive teaching when translated online.

One reason this happens is that the educator is often a subject matter expert but may be less familiar with online learning technologies, or how to create meaningful learning experiences online.

That’s where Learning Designers come in.


Our role is to collaborate with educators and subject matter experts (including university lecturers and professional trainers) to collaboratively translate and optimise what they do in a face-to-face environment for an online structure that is most engaging and effective for students.

The process involves a great amount of creativity. It requires the subject matter experts and learning designers to:

  • jointly outline the learning outcomes,
  • get a real sense of who the students are, and
  • create active learning experiences which connect concepts to the learners’ world.

Learning design has become more fundamental in recent times as subject matter experts shift from traditional teacher-centred approaches to being facilitators of learning.

In this role, the facilitator is not a moderator acting as an authority on what can or cannot be said in discussions, or merely answering questions. Rather, they are there to enhance the experience of a community of learners.

This means that the role of the facilitator can even be taken on by other learners or students within the program, resulting in a multiplier effect as each learner participates. By extension, the standard and quality of students’ discourse is also improved.

Results: How Do Learners Benefit?

The good news for students is that best practices in social learning align well with what is expected in today’s tech-centric, globalised and multicultural workplaces.

There is growing evidence that suggests students construct their best knowledge mainly through experiencing something, then reflecting on that experience—referred to as deep learning or ‘construction’.

Learners construct their ideal learning experiences by getting actively involved in their own teaching. Being “actively involved” includes: discussing ideas, working in groups, asking questions, doing experiments, creating, building, designing, and ultimately, connecting new information with their existing view of the world.

Based on the above, it’s not surprising that higher education institutions are gravitating towards social learning methods which depart from the teacher-centric, video-plus-quiz model. The real question is: can they do it?

Would you like to learn more about OpenLearning or find a plan that is suitable for your institution? E-mail us at and we will be happy to help!

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