Social Learning – what we have been doing all along

Social learning theory integrates behavioral and cognitive theories of learning in order to provide a comprehensive model that could account for the wide range of learning experiences that occur in the real world.

Some feel that Social Learning lacks structure – or at least the structure that they are used to – a teacher, in a class, a fairly rigid form of curriculum …

There is nothing wrong with structure, in fact it’s a great thing and we all need some form of structure in our life, although structure overload can impose barriers that are both frustrating and limiting.

A great many structured learning systems and models tend to almost disregard the ‘learner in the loop’ effect in learning, putting the emphasis, sometimes unintentionally, on isolation rather than on involvement and accountability.

Elearning is a good example of this, although a lot of Elearning is touted as some form of social learning as a new concept – something I have been writing about since 2009 on my blog, learning 3.0 – although the evidence for the social element, is at best, somewhat flimsy.

Social learning is not a new concept, Social Learning – what we have been doing all along, although it, apparently, can cut some ice as a selling point for an LMS (Learning Management System) or a CLMS (just add ‘Content’ on the front of the former).

As I have argued before, in L3.0, in my opinion, virtually [sic] all learning is social learning, and has been that from the beginning of time, although we have tried to engineer the nature of learning into structured systems that go heavily against the grain.

Social learning is when learners learn together and from each other, leveraging any tools that enhance that learning – in the Web 2.0 world, that can mean just about anything on the Internet, including social media and all the advantages and disadvantages that this may offer. It can provide fabulous opportunities and implications for learning, but, and this is a big but, the roles of learning professionals will and have to change fundamentally.

The benefits of social learning, although the term may not have been formally used, has been argued for decades by the likes of Lev Vygotsky, Albert Bandura, Carl Rogers et al. The question still remains as to why the take up has been so slow and often shunned by learning professionals. There are those that have a firm belief in the social learning model, but it is still seen, in many circles, as a novel phenomenum.

It’s not about the tools !

The tools that share the appelation, « social », such as social media – Twitter, Facebook, Slideshare, LinkedIn, Yammer, Daily Motion etc., etc., are all great tools, but they are not social learning, however, they can be a part of it, as books, role plays, problem solving, forums, discussions etc., can too.

Humans are social animals by nature, basically there are 10 points that need to be addressed in order for social learning to work effectively in the majority of learning settings :

  1. OBJECTIVES – objectives need to be clearly set regarding what is to be learnt and agreed upon by the learners – better still if they are instrumental in setting the goals of learning. There is no point setting objectives without the buy-in of the major stakeholder, the learner, although many learning models do just that. Put simply, have a goal – as when we set out to get nowhere, we usually get there.
  1. GROUP – being part of a group is a key element in social learning – Social, doesn’t mean informal, in fact social learning can be very formal. In order for it to work there needs to be a deep feeling of belonging to a group or team and participating in the group as much as possible – learning is not a spectator sport.
  1. VOICE – all members of the group need to feel that they have something to say, it may be to add something to the discussion, to ask questions or to support other members of the group, but it has to be in a setting where dialogue is free from judgement.
  1. COMPETITION – Sometimes called gamification in virtual learning settings, a healthy culture of competition, either individually or for groups is a good motivator.
  1. FEEL GOOD FACTOR – Nothing is more demotivating than feeling that you are banging your head against a brick wall, and this is so true in any learning situation. Feeling achievement and progress in learning is essential, which, in turn, leads to an increase in self-confidence and self esteem.
  1. SUPPORT – Learners need to feel supported, not carried, both by a facilitator and by the members of the group. Without support learners can lose track of the big picture, feel isolated and feel that they are not advancing towards their goals, aims and objectives.
  1. AUTONOMY – Not to be confused with independence, but more on inter-dependence, working together in collaborative mode. Autonomy simply means that learners are empowered, responsible and accountable for their learning – more about the how, where and when they learn, but also the way in which they learn. Learners who have a active stake in their learning, usually ensure that they succeed.
  1. VOCABULARY – The choice of vocabulary used, clearly reflects the way you view learning and your role within it. Using vocabulary such as ; « Class, lessons, teacher, student, classroom etc. » will also have a clear impact on the way your learners learn, the way you work and how learners view the power dynamics in learning. This may seem petty, but think about it. “Nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” ~ Oscar Wilde
  1. ACCIDENTAL LEARNING – Informal learning should be encouraged as much as possible, as a lot of what we learn on the fringes of what we set out to learn is hugely important. Sometimes we disregard what was learnt in a learning episode. As Seneca put it, « Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. »
  1. REFLECTION – Reflective learning is one of the main ingredients that go into Lifelong Learning and learning how to learn – one of the core skills in learning. Reflective learning is a way of helping learners step back from their learning experience, helping them develop critical thinking skills and improve on future performance by analysing experiences in learning. We learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it, than we do from learning the answer itself (Lloyd Alexander).

Social learning should be fun, as when we enjoy what we are doing there is a good chance that we will learn [something], however, social learning is not just for fun.

Collaboration and interconnectivity in learning exponentially increases the rate at which learning occurs – the old adage, ‘two (or more) heads are better than one’ has never rang truer.

In the age where companies are banning the use of Internet, YouTube, facebook and Twitter et al., we could perhaps question this, in terms of social learning, or at least as far as informal learning goes.

There will always be time-wasters who spend hours on the Internet doing non-job related stuff, but should we worry about how much collaboration and learning is passing under the corporate nose, through these social blanket bans ?

Social learning has been here for ages, literally, and is set to become more a part of the learning landscape in the future – Social Learning – what we have been doing all along.

“Everyone and everything around you is your teacher.”~Ken Keyes


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