What is social learning?
Social 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.