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Ideas Development

Connecting with eLearning

How do human social needs fit into the realm of online learning?

Contrary to how it may sometimes feel, we humans need one another. We all certainly have our days when someone gets unruly with their cart at the grocery store, sending us into a weekend of solitude at home because the general public is just too much to handle. That’s just me? Insert your own scenario that leads you to quiet homebound hibernation, and you’ll understand what I mean.

At the same time, there are days when I spend my entire workday alone at my computer, working on an independent task that doesn’t involve much social interaction. It’s on those days that I go home and I need to interact with another person as much as I need to eat dinner.

In a society where I can order light bulbs online, make a restaurant reservation in an app, or hire a dog-walker without ever meeting face-to-face, it’s easy to have more of those isolating days where you don’t actually interact with anyone. But does it matter? Do we actually need that interaction? And how do these human social needs fit into the realm of online learning?

Social Science

As it turns out, yes, social connections and isolation do matter quite a bit. There’s a reason why other people are important to us, and science has some interesting ideas behind that reason.

Let’s start with one of the most familiar ideas. Abraham Maslow included social needs in his 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation.” We usually see Maslow’s hierarchy of needs displayed as a pyramid, on which social needs lie higher than physiological or security needs. This isn’t to say social needs are more important than the other two, but his point was that one cannot satisfy critical social needs without first meeting physiological and security needs. As a result, one cannot meet the needs related to ego or self-actualization without meeting social needs.

While Maslow’s theories have received a lot of attention and criticism over the years, there has been no shortage of scientists studying the effects of social connectedness and our well-being.

In a 1988 report in Science, James House, Karl Landis, and Debra Umberson reviewed a number of studies looking at a population’s social integration relative to their health. The report, appropriately titled, “Social Relationships and Health,” noted that, “Social relationships, or the relative lack thereof, constitute a major risk factor for health— rivaling the effect of well established health risk factors such as cigarette smoking, blood pressure, blood lipids, obesity and physical activity.”

In his 2013 book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, psychologist Matthew Lieberman goes in-depth to argue that perhaps our connections with one another are even more important than food and water, and that is how humans evolved to become the species we are today:

 Primates have developed an unparalleled ability to understand the actions and thoughts of those around them, enhancing their ability to stay connected and interact strategically. In the toddler years, forms of social thinking develop that outstrip those seen in the adults of any other species. This capacity allows humans to create groups that can implement nearly any idea and to anticipate the needs and wants of those around us, keeping our groups moving smoothly. 

While an online training course might seem like just another part of the convenient, digital world taking over, this quote from Liebermann’s book struck me. If you want to see a “group that can implement nearly any idea and anticipate the needs and wants of those around us,” you need not look any further than the Chicago office of NogginLabs.

It’s true, one of the great things about eLearning is that it’s convenient. Like many other online services, it allows the users to complete a task when it’s convenient, rather than forcing them to block out time in a calendar to attend an in-person training. That being said, it’s often a task you do alone instead of with an instructor or cohort of your peers.

So how do we humans fit into online learning? In this NogginLabs recipe that calls for writing, designing, and programming, where does that little dash of humanity come in, and how might eLearning enhance our social experience?

The Recipe

Well, to answer that, let’s start at the beginning of the NogginLabs project cycle. When clients get in touch with our sales team, they’re not asking us to solve a problem with machines. Clients contact us because they want to see a behavior change in their employees, who, so far, have all been humans.

Whether it be a product knowledge course or customer service simulations, there are usually a few goals. First, we’re trying to meet the specific need of the client. Sometimes they want to give their employees compliance training, while others want to create a sales simulation or product knowledge course. Whatever the course may be, it requires us to listen carefully to what the client wants, and come up with a system that appeals to their employee.

Second, we want to build something that the learner finds engaging. If we weren’t training people, engagement wouldn’t be a factor. That’s the problem with a lot of bad eLearning: it ignores the fact that a person has to use it. Anyone can gather information and throw it on a screen, but if it’s information you’re being forced to consume, throwing it on a screen isn’t going to cut it.

Third, we’re almost always trying to help these employees improve their interactions with other people. Whether they’re inter-departmental communications or the method of selling jeans on a retail floor, we all need other people to do our jobs. There are infinite potential choices one could make that impact those on-the-job relationships. It’s our job to understand those relationships and unlock how to improve them.

That’s where our instructional design team comes in. This is a group that I would love to see compete in some sort of chess tournament, because they possess incredible logic and reasoning skills mixed with a fantastic understanding of how humans tick. They listen carefully to the clients requests, picking up as many details as possible about what the client’s employees will find exciting, while also being sure to meet the learning expectations set out by the client. They figure out the best way to take the information the client wants to share and turn it into something their employees will really absorb.

Then come the content producers. This crew, often in collaboration with the instructional designers, works with the client to discover the details of what employees need to know. So what exactly happens if there’s a transport mishap and product goes missing? What should an employee do if a customer is irate? What are some of the coolest things about this product that an employee can share with a customer?

Once we have these answers, we put ourselves in the shoes of the learner. If we personally were to face theses situations, what information would we need to handle them? Which pieces of human-to-human or human-to-machine interaction do we need to include? Sometimes our own experiences can turn into an eLearning scenario and it’s our human experience that give those scenarios their figurative color.

If you want to know who gives the scenarios their literal color, you have to look to the production team. While the instructional designers and content producers gather and create information, the designers and programmers are busy building a home for the information.

Our designers are always considering the UI and UX (user interface and user experience) of a course. There’s no way to do that without thinking about people. While the internet spiders of Google have their own way of searching for things online, humans have different and specific needs when it comes to navigating an online course and those needs can change depending on the demographics of the audience. If a button is placed in a weird spot, or even made the wrong color, it can change a user’s experience with and understanding of the information.

Meanwhile, the programmers are building the course. Even though this is the heart of the digital aspect of our courses, they would be equally unable to do their jobs without considering the users. As a result, they’ve become experts in understanding what would be annoying for a user, or spotting ways that user error could lead to a course breaking. They program to account for all of the mis-clicks and button mashing a user might experience, to ensure that no matter how hard they may try to break it, their learning experience will run smoothly.

On top of all of our job responsibilities, the people at NogginLabs are, well, people. We’re people who love our kids, significant others dogs, cats, and hedgehogs. We’re people who create plays, stories, video games, and films. We paint, draw, sew, bake, and could probably form a band if we wanted to. We share our triumphs, losses, excitement, and challenges with one another, always knowing there’s a Noggin around, ready to provide support as-needed.

In Social, Lieberman writes, “The greatest ideas almost always require teamwork to bring them to fruition; social reasoning is what allows us to build and maintain the social relationships and infrastructure needed for teams to thrive.”

At NogginLabs, we’re taking millions of years of neurological evolution and turning great ideas into an online course that will ultimately help humans connect, serve, and understand one another, in spite of the disconnected world we’re living in.

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