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Digital Mums The secret to our social impact

The secret to our social impact

We've just released our 5-year social impact report (read more here) which demonstrate some powerful results, including:

  1. Our vocational training courses in social media marketing
  2. Our Digital Retox

If anyone out there has been intrigued by how we manage to get such great results from online courses, I thought I’d fill you in on some of the secrets to our success.

All our results are down to our innovative learning model. This model was inspired by insights pulled together by the Innovation Unit from the world’s most innovative schools. Innovation Unit started out as a unit within the Department for Education but spun out in 2006 to become one of the world’s most radical not-for-profit consultancy firms for innovating public services. I worked at the Innovation Unit for four years as Head of Communications and then Head of Digital alongside some of the biggest names and brains in education innovation. I used this experience and intel to design the Digital Mums’ learning model REAL Learning.

So what makes REAL Learning so powerful?

1. Learning by doing

Think back to how you learned to drive. You got in a car and started driving whilst absorbing information to help you do so correctly via your driving instructor and via driving handbooks.

Think about how you learn new things at work. You will be working on a task and if you aren’t 100% sure how to do that task you sit down, try and work it out, access internet resources and speak to colleagues to understand and build the knowledge required to complete the task.

The workplace is one of the places where real life learning takes place most effectively, particularly where building skills are concerned. You start with the task and access learning resources when you need them, whether that’s in the form of resources provided at work, watching a tutorial you’ve found on YouTube or asking a colleague for advice.

Interestingly, formal learning environments are often some of the least effective places to learn and particularly to build skills. This is because traditionally, formal learning whether at school, college or through an online or offline course works in completely the opposite way to learning in the workplace. It starts with learning resources, which you access and are expected to understand and remember.

Humans learn much better in the first example, learning by doing. This means learning on an "as needed" basis. In such a learning situation, motivation and engagement in this learning is never a problem, we learn because something has caused us to want to know and to need to know. And comprehension and recall is less of an issue because we are applying our learning as we go along so we tend to understand it and remember it.

But in the second example, this is not the case. There is less motivation and engagement because the student has no authentic reason for their learning and they are far less likely to understand and remember what they have learned because they have not had a chance to apply their learning in an authentic way. Even courses that provide a practical task at the end, have missed the point. Learning is far more effective if the task comes first and the learning resources fit around this task.

So our REAL Learning model turns traditional learning models on their head and gives you a practical challenge or project at the beginning. The lessons are then scaffolded around this practical work so you access everything you need in order to complete the challenge. Students are given a clear purpose at the start and then structure their learning around a challenge, drawing on high-quality learning resources as and when they need them.

This is how humans learn best.


2. Challenges are real

As well as starting with the challenge it’s also crucial to make the challenge as real as possible. But what do I mean by ‘real’?

Firstly, it must model a task that would need to be completed in real life. So an example of real business challenge or output. For example:

On our “Foundation in Social Media Marketing” course students complete a buyer persona for a real business, something they would need to create in the real world if they were a social media expert.

On our “Data-Driven Decision Making” course students complete a project to capture data and generate insights to recommend actions for a real business challenge facing Digital Mums.

On our “Advanced Diploma in Social Media Marketing” course students develop social media campaigns and deliver these across social media platforms for actual businesses/charities.

Secondly, student outputs shouldn’t be something just seen by the tutor/teacher. This is the distinction between practical work that is pretend - where only you and your teacher or tutor will see it versus practical work that is real. For example:

On our “Foundation in Social Media Marketing” course, students are encouraged to share their outputs publicly and to complete challenges on their personal social media platforms.

On our “Data-Driven Decision Making” course students capture live data from their networks, sharing their survey publicly. They also share their project output with the Digital Mum’s CoFounders who take on board their suggestions where appropriate and they also share this on their LinkedIn profiles.

On our “Advanced Diploma in Social Media Marketing” course deliver their campaigns to real businesses/charities and run them on live social media platforms to real customers.

Real work is seen and judged by people in the real world i.e. outside of your formal learning environment. Innovation Unit sees this as a very powerful tool to take learning to the next level, and we agree.

This level of real learning builds serious confidence in a way that ‘pretend’ learning does not. The reason women write to tell us that they’ve regained their career mojo is that they're seeing their learning efforts produce results in the real world.


3. Students don’t just learn from teachers

While the role of ‘teacher’ is crucial in a formal learning environment, the teacher is not the only person the student can learn from. Unfortunately, most formal learning environments completely ignore the power of peer-to-peer learning, despite there being a great deal of evidence to back up its effectiveness.

Education innovators value peer-to-peer learning as much as teacher-student learning and they structure ways for this to happen - including having peer-to-peer sessions and peer critique where students critique each other’s work. Giving peer critique is a brilliant way for a student to deepen their own learning on a subject - looking over something with a critical eye forces you to think about it in a different way, objectively. Receiving peer critique is a brilliant way to get feedback and to improve your own work.

REAL learning sees students working in peer groups where they come together to collaborate on challenges. We also use structured peer critique sessions at key points so students can continually improve their results.

Think about most work environments - peer-to-peer learning happens all the time. How often have you given a piece of work to a colleague asking them to look it over before showing it to your boss? It just makes sense.


For me, as the lead designer of our learning experiences, it’s these three components that most differentiate us from other learning providers and it’s these three components that are most responsible for our social impact results. So big up the REAL Learning and we hope it will deliver powerful results for many years to come.

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