What is social learning?

social learningSocial learning is the shiny new toy of the e-learning world. But what exactly is social learning and why has it become so popular? Interestingly the first of these questions is hard to answer since it’s effectively an emergent label – in other words lots of people are using it to mean slightly different things. More of what those things are in a moment.

Why has it become so popular? Because it somehow injects some of the buzz around social media into boring old online learning. Think learning on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and you get the idea why it seems like the obvious next place for e-learning to go. Forget the dreaded corporate LMS – welcome to the world where learning online will be social and fun!

But before we get carried away let’s establish exactly what social learning means. Well there appear to be two main views on this. One is that it is simply any learning that is somehow facilitated by or uses tools from the world of social media. So microblogs, screencasts or wikis are social media tools that can be used in a variety of ways to help people learn. In addition to providing tools to create learning content these tools or platforms can also be used to share learning with others. Think watching a video about time management on YouTube and tweeting about it to your co-learners. Lurking deeper in this viewpoint is the idea that learners will be encouraged to create learning content themselves – what is known on the web as User Generated Content (UGC).

The second seems to suggest that social learning is the fashionable new term for ‘informal learning’ and ‘knowledge management’ (KM) – in other words learning from each other rather than from a teacher or trainer. By informal learning I mean all those myriad ways in which we learn in the workplace outside of the formal training course (either F2F or e-learning). According to the 70/20/10 rule, 70% of all learning in organisations happens outside of formal learning interventions. Jay Cross’ excellent book is a good overview of what sort of things happen in this largely hidden domain. Most people will also have heard about knowledge management. Ten years ago it reached its apogee and though the concept is sound – people sharing what they know within an organisation – in practice it never really delivered. Why? Because people don’t really have the time or often the motivation to share, and even if they do share it isn’t always in a form that is digestible by others.

Of course one could argue that the most ‘social’ form of learning occurs in a face-to-face workshop.  The term social learning however is being used primarily in the context of online learning  though one could happily make the case for blending online and offline ‘social’ elements. Maybe social learning will sweeten the pill for those traditionalist L&D people who still see e-learning as the route to mindless boredom.

So is social learning just a phase or is it here to stay? Well some respected voices in the online learning world have become almost evangelical in their pursuit of the social learning agenda (see some key viewpoints below). In addition most e-learning companies are jumping on the social learning bandwagon, if only to appear innovative. This is especially true of platform vendors who are all busy ‘transforming’ their LMS’ into social learning platforms. For content developers the social learning camp represents a bit of a challenge. Will organisations continue to spend upwards of £10k an hour on e-courses when they can simply tap into all that free informal stuff that’s already washing around in the business?

I recognise the attraction of social learning. And its true that there is tremendous potential in encouraging and facilitating learning from each other. However having worked in the knowledge management space for over 10 years I’m sceptical that social learning will bring about the revolution that it promises. Does social learning give us a unique opportunity to re-invent KM? I think it might do, but we must learn the lessons from KM – which as can be expected – were more about people that about processes or technologies. In the next article I will look at social learning and how it compares with KM, and draw some conclusions about the lessons we learnt.

For those who are unfamiliar with KM I am also planning on a guide to KM for the unitiated.

The social learning evangelists:

Related stuff:

  • http://marciaconner.com Marcia Conner

    Social learning may be buzzing about education organizations but it’s surely not new or a toy. And revolutionary? I wholeheartedly agree with you that’s unlikely. After all, it’s the primary way people have been learning since the dawn of humankind. What is new (and has the potential to change business, if not learning, forever) is the addition of social media tools that allow people to connect across the miles and around the clock in convenient and lighthearted ways. We could never have said that about KM.

    Here’s a quick post on how I define the terms: http://j.mp/SLdefined
    Here’s a link to a free sample (Forward, Introduction & Chapter one) of The New Social Learning: http://j.mp/TNSLsample

    Look forward to the chat. Thanks for initiating it.

    - Marcia

    • johncurran

      Marcia – Great to see your comment. Sorry about the massive delay in responding but I have been having problems with Disqus. I agree that the tools are much better than when I was doing KM but there are still some real hurdles to overcome to really get people sharing what they know. I recently wrote a new post specifically looking at KM and social learning; http://www.designedforlearning.co.uk/social-learning-and-knowledge-management-part-1/. I have two more to follow so would be great if you could make a contribution. Your book was what inspired me initially to consider social learning as KM re-invented so I will re-visit it again.

  • http://www.julianstodd.wordpress.com/ Julian Stodd

    Nice balanced article, thanks. I tend towards the more excitable end of the spectrum when it comes to social learning, seeing it as a layer that can be used to surround and enhance the more formal elements of learning, but i know what you mean, the hype can exceed reality if we’re not careful.

    • johncurran

      Julian – I know how you feel. I like the freshness of social learning but I’m afraid that if we are not realistic it will quickly lose its shine. One real issue at the moment is big tech vendors re-badging their LMS’ and talent management systems as social learning platforms which patently they are not.

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  • Andrew Gerkens

    Thanks John, technology may be a driver of the current focus, but it is simply a tool for enabling and supporting social learning. I prefer to think of social learning as exploiting the natural connections that exist between people to help them get their work done; solve problems, adapt and improve, and do so efficiently. Clark Quinn talks about our natural tendency to turn to someone for help and help is learning!
    Instead of leaving it to chance, L&D’s role is to guide, support and enable social learning. Classic ’20′ solutions might be coaching, mentoring, buddying or job shadowing, networks/communities, professional associations, and action learning.
    You can see that social media might be used to support any of these in practice, but they are not the driver of the solution. Harold Jarche talks about collaboration and cooperation being at the core of how we work in the networked era. If we can build an environment that supports these behaviours, then I believe we have a platform for social learning and all the benefits we can draw from it. We want informal learning to be intentional, not left to chance! I’d recommend http://www.702010forum.com as a resource to explore further; curated by Charles Jennings.

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