The Importance of Social Intelligence in eLearning

Although linked with genetics and instrumental in academic success, intellectual capacity such as that measured as a person’s Intelligence Quotient or IQ is only part of the story, for that individual’s overall success in life.


Beyond the textbooks and analytical problems, a well-rounded person must also spend years learning how to interact with others, and how to negotiate their way through life’s events and experiences. This is the realm of Social Intelligence.


What is Social Intelligence?


First described by Edward Thorndike in the 1920s as a component of his “multiple intelligences” theory, inter-personal or social intelligence concerns an individual’s ability to make connections with the people around them, and to negotiate the relationships and actions that shape daily life.


In an eLearning context, Social Intelligence or SI can assist learners in understanding human behaviour, psychology, and communications.


Karl Albrecht proposed a spectrum of intelligence types (or “dimensions of intelligence”) that eLearning course designers should take into account in constructing experiences – among which Social Intelligence figures. All the dimensions may have an impact on the learner’s journey in some way and include:


  • The Abstract: This includes mathematical ideas, the manipulation of words, and logical reasoning; the ingredients of much of formal and online education.
  • The Social: Teamwork, communication, and everyday interactions with people from other backgrounds and experiences come into play, here.
  • The Practical: This deals with problem-solving and actions based on a learner’s critical faculties, common sense, and use of the physical, digital, or mental tools which are available.
  • The Emotional: Emotional Intelligence (EI) or the Emotional Quotient (EQ) involves the awareness, recognition, and management of a learner’s own emotions, and their methods of dealing with the feelings of others in a given situation.
  • The Aesthetic: This type of intelligence informs an individuals artistic sense, spatial and design logic, and appreciation of form, substance, sound, aroma, etc.
  • The Kinaesthetic: Co-ordination or physical “cleverness”, which governs the way our bodies handle physical tasks on a daily basis, and which at a higher level informs the work of professional athletes, surgeons, test pilots, and so on.


Time for SPACE


For eLearning applications, the “SPACE formula” describes a set of behaviours which may be called upon to contribute in developing a learner’s Social Intelligence and social skills, as follows:


S for Situational awareness


Individuals with good situational awareness are able to “read” an environment and how events in it are playing out – including the effects on the emotions and behaviour of other people involved. They may then be able to take steps to improve the atmosphere in an oppressive setting, or to maintain the mood in a positive one.


In eLearning…


Group collaboration projects (task-based or problem-solving) give learners an opportunity to develop situational awareness skills by experiencing a group dynamic and observing how their own actions affect other people and are perceived by them. Role-playing scenarios may be used in a similar manner.


P for Presence


Presence describes the combined effect that an individual has on others in a group due to their appearance, attitude, personality, body language, and behaviour.


In eLearning…


Getting learners to describe their first impressions of a set of characters with distinctive physical and behavioural traits – then perhaps revealing a “back story” for each, that contrasts with their appearance – is one way of communicating the importance that presence has in forming our opinions of others, and affecting the way we treat them initially.


A for Authenticity

road sign

Authenticity is all about how true a person proves to be to the impression that they give, the attitudes they express, and the expectations they raise with their promises or statements of intent.


In eLearning…


Challenges to a learner’s personal beliefs and ideals, the conventions of their society, and the assumptions they make about themselves and others may be posed through eLearning exercises that in one way or another question these values, and require learners to contrast their ideas and attitudes with their actual behaviour.


C for Clarity


Clarity is a measure of an individual’s capacity to articulate their thoughts, and to effectively communicate their ideas and their overall message in different social contexts. This aspect of Social Intelligence requires an individual to be both a good communicator and a good listener.


In eLearning…


Exercises for exploring clarity should require learners to thoroughly research a topic, then present their knowledge of it concisely and clearly to a group of their peers. This might take the form of a presentation, virtual lecture, or a written (blog, forum discussion post etc.) summary of a given subject.


E for Empathy


As with Emotional Intelligence, the ability to place oneself in another person’s shoes and to share in their reactions and feelings about a given situation is an integral part of Social Intelligence.


In eLearning…


A group-based exercise dedicated to solving a particular problem or performing a task is an ideal format for exploring empathy. Throughout the experience, learners should be encouraged to observe the dynamics of the group, and to be sensitive to the emotions of other group members. They should also be urged to share their opinions with their team-mates, and to identify the common ground they share with others in the group.


Some Best Practices


Teamwork is an ideal setting for learners to develop their communication, collaboration, and inter-personal skills – all of which are key contributors to Social Intelligence. So collaborative exercises and group/team projects are a good place to start.


Simulations and scenarios may be used to test learners in their reactions and attitudes to others, and in exploring the potential consequences of their actions. These exercises promote self-awareness, empathy, and authenticity.


Social interaction is key to any eLearning course exploring SI, so discussion forums, blogs and social media access points are essential to enabling learners to share their thoughts and opinions with others.


Getting learners to summarise or paraphrase the key points of a presentation or media clip to their peers is a great way to promote active listening skills, and to help learners develop their own clarity.


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