What really is social learning?

e.learning age magazine, April 2010

Is “social learning” just a buzzword or does it really mean something new for Learning and Development? Jane Hart, an independent Social Learning Consultant, and founder of the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies, provides her thoughts.

The emergence of social media tools in the 2000s has changed the face of the Web. It is now clear from the statistics that a huge number of people are using these tools in their daily lives, e.g. “If Facebook were a country it would be the world’s 4th largest between the United States and Indonesia” and “YouTube is now the #2 largest search engine in the world”.

This year’s Top 100 Tools for Learning 2009 was once again dominated by social media tools; the Top 10 included Slideshare, WordPress, Google Docs, YouTube, Google Reader and Delicious, with Twitter ranking No 1 on the list. But as one commentator put it, is it just a matter of “get social and you’ll learn”?

To answer these questions, I spent some time analysing the top 10 tools lists of learning professionals worldwide and the documented reports of examples of use of social media in workplace learning. It soon became very clear that social media was being used for many different types of “learning” within an organisation. Whereas it has recently become fashionable to differentiate learning as either “formal” or “informal” – terms which have become a little confused, if not abused – I identified 5 categories of (social) learning.

  1. Formal Structured Learning – education and training
    For many people, this is how they define “learning”. This is formal education and training; classes, workshops, etc – either face-to-face or online which are “pushed” to the learner. Although most workplace training is still very much focused on the creation and delivery of content, social media (wikis, blogging, for instance) are sometimes used to “add-on” social activity to an online course, whereas in education, (schools, colleges, universities etc), social activity is much more integrated into the course and classroom, and in some cases a fully collaborative approach to learning is employed so that the learner is a full and active participant in the formal learning process. “Social learning” in this context therefore describes a collaborative, sharing approach to formal learning.However, it is clear that individuals are using social media to “learn” in many other ways which have nothing to do with being trained or taught by anyone, as the following categories show.
  2. Personal Directed Learning – finding things out for or by yourself
    Many individuals organise and manage their own personal “learning”, that is they are by themselves, finding and using both informational and instructional content to address their learning problems, as well as connecting with others to build a professional learning network where they can ask and answer questions and have discussions with others. Social media, and in particular social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn have made this easy to set up.
  3. Group Directed Learning – working with a team or other group of people to solve your problems
    Here groups of individuals learn and work together, e.g. in work teams, on projects, in study groups, or in a coaching/mentoring capacity. This is an extension of Personal Directed Learning, and to accomplish this self-organising groups are making good use of a range of social media/collaboration tools to create their own “shared learning/working environments” or group spaces, where they communicate and collaborate with one another, as well as share information, resources, contacts and experiences in order to improve the performance and productivity of the whole group or team.
  4. Intra-Organisational Learning – learning from everyone in the organisation
    This is when employees are sharing information and resources with others throughout the organisation, to keep each other up to date and up to speed on strategic and other internal initiatives and activities. Although some organisations are beginning to put in place internal social collaboration environments for employees to share news, resources etc with other another, as well as improve communication between employees, others are, once again, self-organising and using external social media tools to do this themselves.
  5. 5 – Accidental & Social Learning – acquiring knowledge without realising it
    This is where individuals “learn” without consciously realising it (aka incidental or random learning, or even “learning at the water cooler”). Although accidental learning can take place in any of the above scenarios as well as in other personal or professional settings, some individuals like to take advantage of possible serendipitous learning that might occur using social media (e.g. in social networks). Although organisations normally don’t concern themselves with this type of “learning”, it is nevertheless important to recognise that it take place.

The implications for Learning & Development

It has been shown for some time that training only accounts for a small percentage of an individual’s “learning” within an organisation (generally estimated around 20%); and yet this is where L&D focuses its attention. However, it can be seen that “social learning” is a much wider concept. Although social media can be used within a training context, it is playing a much bigger role in enabling individuals and groups to co-create content in a variety of formats, make connections with people, share information and experiences and/or collaborate on different activities.. In doing so they are often solving their own learning and performance problems much more effectively and much more quickly than L&D is able to react to a problem – which normally involves designing, creating and delivering a course in some format.

As budgets are cut back, training is usually one of the first areas to suffer, but social learning provides L&D with the opportunity to expand their role in the organisation from training towards supporting and enabling learning in all its forms throughout the organisation. However, this will mean some changes in how L&D operates.

Firstly, it requires a new mindset. It will mean (a) recognising that autonomous, self-directed, self-organising, independent learning is just as important and valuable within an organisation as formal, structured, directed learning; and (b) that it will no longer be about controlling and monitoring everything that employees “learn” but simply enabling them to “learn” in the many different ways described above. L&D will therefore need to focus more on helping employees become, self-directed, independent, autonomous learners and less on creating and managing learning solutions for dependent learners.

This whole concept of moving from control to autonomy is a theme in Dan Pink’s, latest book “Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us”, which looks at motivation and performance in the workplace. Here some of the points that Dan makes …

“Human beings have an innate drive to be autonomous, self-determined and connected to one another … The opposite of autonomy is control. And since they sit at different poles of the behavioral compass, they point us to different destinations. Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement … It means resisting the attempt to control people – and instead doing everything we can to reawaken their deep sense of autonomy … A sense of autonomy has a powerful effect on individual performance and attitude. According to a cluster of recent behavioural studies, autonomous motivation promotes greater conceptual understanding, better grades, enhanced persistence at school and in sporting activities, higher productivity, less burnout and greater levels of psychological well-being.

Secondly, in terms of platforms to support informal and social learning as well as learner autonomy, this will mean providing an open, “enabling” environment where individuals and groups can co-create content, communicate, collaborate and share information with one another – rather than a traditional “command and control” learning management system. Such social, collaboration and community platforms are now available in the marketplace and are already being used in forward-thinking organisations to underpin and support social and collaborative approaches to learning and working.