Reflections on #lrnchat: Social Learning

Image use courtesy of lrnchat and Kevin Thorn (@LearnNuggets)

Each week that I am able to participate in #lrnchat discussion I post a summary of the discussion to my blog. I do this both for my personal development as well as sharing with the Learning and Development Profession at large. This summary is based on my own interpretations of the chat; others who participated may have differing opinions or interpretations of the discussion. I welcome those that do to add your ideas to the comments.

The topic of this week’s #lrnchat session was “Social Learning”.

I always find looking at the questions that are used to loosely guide the chat as a nice way to see the overall theme of the chat. Here are the discussion questions that were presented to the group:

Q1. How do you define social learning?
Q2. How do people learn socially?
Q3. How is social learning different than social media?
Q4. How can you use social more to improve your own learning?
Q5. How can (and should) social be leveraged in supporting learning?

Social Learning seems to have taken over the lexicon of the workplace learning and performance field, with everyone seeming trying to add social learning into their organizational strategy, as if social learning wasn’t part of the organization in the first place.

That’s why I was happy that Social Learning was this week’s #lrnchat topic. It enabled us to delve deeper into the buzzword and explore what social learning is, and why it is currently so popular.

First, what exactly IS social learning? As evidenced by the variety of responses during the chat, there is no one single definition for the phrase. There are, however, common thoughts that appeared in many of them that fit my definition of Social Learning.

  • It is learning that happens through the sharing that takes place between individuals.
  • It promotes shared understanding within a community.
  • It requires participation.
  • It is usually spontaneous and unstructured, often happening without us being consciously aware of ‘learning’

Other definitions included specific technologies, most often social media applications. While it’s true those applications can be used to extend the reach of social learning, they are not required and really have no place being part of any definition of social learning. I’ll explore that deeper a little later in this post.

Once the definitions were shared, the discussion shifted to exploring the question “how do people learn socially.”. If there was a single word that jumped out during the responses to this question it was “together”: sharing together, learning together, working together, discussing together, and many other options. It shows that there is a fairly common understanding that social learning requires sharing with others.

However, it was in this part of the discussions that some of the confusion and differences related to social learning began to emerge. As other components of learning socially emerged – such as listening and observing – a sub thread re-emerged: observation as social learning.

The snapshot of the thought was that observing others, whether in person or virtually, such as lurking in a twitter chat, was also an example of learning socially.

I would strongly disagree.

Social learning requires participation. If you’re not participating, you’re not learning socially. You may be learning, but it’s not social learning. I’ve debated this a few times with people, so let me explain why I feel this way.

The scenario usually presented to show observation as social learning is a group of people having a discussion, or collaboratively working on a project. One person isn’t participating, but is attentively listening and observing, taking it all in. The conclusion is that all those present for the discussion, including the ‘fly-on-the-wall’ were learning via the social interaction.

That’s all true; it’s just incomplete.

In that scenario there was plenty of social learning taking place. Discussions and collaborative work are fertile ground for social learning. However, while the fly-on-the-wall did learn from the social interaction, it wasn’t social learning.

Most would agree that watching a video of a lecture by yourself isn’t social learning. If you think about it, would the fly-on-the-wall’s experience really be any different had they observed a recording of the interaction instead of seeing it live? Likely not.

Participation enhances learning. It creates more meaningful connections and immersion in the learning experience than mere observation can do on it’s own. Lurking or observing can produce learning, but isn’t nearly as powerful as participating, and it’s definitely not social learning.

That led the discussion towards the differences between social learning and social media. A lot of people look at social media as the place where social learning takes place. That can be true, and is often the case in the age of social media. However, somewhere along the line a mistake was made. As people starting hearing about social learning the last few years, most of the examples used to explain the concept used social media tools to demonstrate social learning. As such, an assumption was made: social learning requires social media.

Again… Not true.

Social learning has been around since early man began grunting and drawing pictures to share experiences with each other. It’s something that humans naturally do when gathered, especially in communities where like values and needs are present. You know… like a workplace.

So why does it seem like Social Learning is a new term? It’s definitely one of hottest buzzwords in our industry right now, and I’m always skeptical of buzzwords. Buzzwords lead to a great deal of poor decisions, such as “it seems like everyone is talking about social learning; we should start using social learning in our organization”. We act on the buzz without understanding what it’s truly about.

The confusion between Social media and social learning is further complicated by the fact that social media IS the reason there is such a buzz around social learning today.

Think about it. Social media technology has exploded in the last decade. With that explosion, a critical milestone was reached regarding social learning. For the first time ever, technology exists that moves at the speed of social learning. Previously technology was a barrier; making it difficult to have a similar social interaction virtually that compared to a face-to-face meeting. Social media changed that almost overnight.

Suddenly, technology existed that could scale social learning across the globe almost as easily as you could across a classroom. A huge door of opportunity opened for learning, and our world as learning professionals changed forever.

And just as suddenly, everyone was talking about social learning. The concept was introduced to people that had never heard the term before, who assumed it was a new model. An assumption that social learning is learning via social media was born. The misconceived assumption is spreading dangerously fast and diluting the value of social learning as a focus for learning and performance professionals.

The chat closed with sharing ideas on how we can better use social for learning, both for ourselves and for learning programs we design.

For ourselves I think the choice of action comes down to that single word again: participate. Individuals need to find environments where others are learning about what we want to learn about and engage with others. This could be online, but doesn’t have to be.

One person suggested it could be as simple as getting a group of colleagues out of their cubicles and into a meeting room to have a discussion for an hour. That could be social learning, but it could also be forced. I think individuals are better served to find the existing opportunities that occur naturally and as part of the work, and make sure we participate when those opportunities emerge.

I think that’s also the best approach within organizations as well. Social learning is taking place in your organization already. People learn socially all the time as part of their daily work, and the last thing you want to do is interrupt that natural learning-in-work pattern to initiate a social learning program.

Learning professionals are better served to find where social learning is currently taking place, and to see how they might be able to support it. It could be structuring the environment to better support social interaction, providing performance support tools accessible where the social learning takes place, or any other approach that focuses on removing barriers to sharing and social learning.

Overall this was a very interesting chat, and I’m glad we had the opportunity to address some of the myths and incorrect assumptions that exist between social learning and social media.

For a related post on the social media / social learning confusion, check out my recent post for the Mindflash Blog, How to Save ‘Social Learning’ before we destroy it.

Until next time #lrnchat-ers

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4 Responses to Reflections on #lrnchat: Social Learning

  1. Tom Spiglanin May 6, 2012 at 9:09 pm #

    A thousand “agrees” here. When that early human drew in the dirt with a stick and others watched, I imagine he/she might have been interrupted by another grabbing the stick and contributing to the drawing. THAT makes it social–people together contributing to the knowledge of the group. Lurking is NOT social learning; viewing YouTube video isn’t itself social, even if it results in learning. Commenting on the video and accepting feedback in response is.

    Great post, Dave. Thanks!

  2. Marty May 7, 2012 at 10:24 am #

    Thank you, I enjoyed your post – I have read many interesting opinions but not much useful in the educational field. I think that is because we focus on teaching and not much on learning. I’ve been studying how learning happens via being with young children in early childhood classrooms, after-school programs, etc., over the last 30 years, as well as leading parenting workshops. My view of the nature of human learning is that it happens automatically, and is experimental. That is, every action (or non-action) has a consequence, and we, starting at birth or so, automatically seek two things: to be safe and loved unconditionally (to belong), and to learn how the world works (including what it means to be an adult through observation) by interacting with it and seeing what happens. Thus social learning is most useful when we interact socially, and get feedback – which we always do. Our parenting strategies and our schooling social contexts, in my view, are inadvertent (that could be argued) inhibitors of social learning to a large degree, except as our children experiment on the side and wherever they can get away with it. This out-of-sight of parents and teachers is social learning, too, of course. however, it could happen so much more effectively in a different child-raising and schooling context. 

  3. Connie Malamed May 7, 2012 at 8:47 pm #

    I caught a little bit of the chat (for little breaks) while I was feverishly working on a deadline. It was nice to see it summarized here. Yes, it’s funny that learning from each other in conversation, the most common everyday occurrence, is often forgotten as a type of social learning. Anyway, thanks for the summary.
    Connie Malamed

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