Social Learning in the Digital Age

On a leisurely Saturday morning, you open Facebook and find that your social activist friend has started a new live video about deforestation in your region. You join the video and start following the comments of her followers:

“They don’t want us to be healthy.”

“They are ruining the future.”

“They must plant more.”

“If only trees gave us WiFi signals; people would preserve them.”

..and it goes on. You, too, become agitated and post comments. Encouraged by this response, your activist friend starts an online group that day and adds everybody who commented. The group members come up with ideas to preserve nature, and without even realizing it, you start learning more about preservation.

This is what social learning is all about.

Social learning theory was developed by psychologists Albert Bandura and Richard Walters, who described it as a cognitive process that takes place in a social context. The interchange of knowledge and perspective creates new knowledge that is personal to the learner. In this way, the learner is not merely a passive recipient of information but an active contributor to his or her learning.

There are four main principles of social learning:

  • Attention: Focus on the task.
  • Retention: Remember the task.
  • Reproduction: Repeat the task.
  • Motivation: Receive a reward upon performing the task correctly.

Social Learning: An Example

After Shirley and her family moved to a small house on the river, she wanted to learn bass fishing. After many futile attempts doing it on her own, she bought a book on bass fishing. One of the first pieces of advice in the book was, “If you want to catch bass, you have to fish where the bass are.”

This statement was a revelation. Shirley ventured out in her kayak with bait and tackle to explore other parts of the river, searching for places that matched the book’s suggestions. Sure enough, she soon began to catch bass — but only a few per trip.

Her next step was to learn from people who knew the local river. She found the right people and summoned the courage to ask. The book, by necessity, had provided generic information about bass and their habitats. The local experts, in contrast, knew specifically where in that river the bass tended to be and how they behaved during different seasons of the year — for example, that the bass swam at different depths depending on the water’s temperature and struck at different food and lure speeds depending on the time of year.

Shirley could learn the basics of bass fishing from the book, but it was only when she interacted with experts that she was able to learn the skill well.

We can call the knowledge she gained from the book formal learning and the knowledge she gained from the locals informal learning.

The Evolution of the Modern Learner

Not long ago, formal learning was considered the only source of learning. Students could gain only as much as teachers and books could give them. Now, times have changed, instructors have changed, learners have changed … and learning has evolved.

Today’s learners find themselves in a landscape that is constantly and dramatically changing in terms of the modalities through which people learn, the reasons they learn and the context in which learning acquires its meaning. People are now lifelong learners. They are problem-solvers, critical thinkers, collaborators, agile thinkers and much more. The question, then, is how to leverage social learning for our rapidly evolving learners.

In their book “Learners in a Changing Learning Landscape,” Jan and Muriel Visser cite sociologist T. L. Taylor’s argument that learners are leaving the classroom and creating a new shared culture, showing us new ways to learn and communicate and make sense of physical and virtual worlds. Shouldn’t your learning management system (LMS) enable collaboration and problem-solving among your learners?

Hosting Social Learning

If employees are learning by playing games and surfing the internet, why not up your LMS game to help? Here are three ways you can enable social learning on using your LMS.

Social Network Collaboration

Online discussion forums are a way for people to discuss issues, share content and ask for recommendations. Similarly, at work, learning can happen from domain leaders and subject matter experts (SMEs) when they share their expertise online. Social media forums are also a platform for learners to discuss and recommend courses to their peers.

Social networks have transformed the way we interact with content. Users want to be able to rank, remark on, share and debate the content they encounter. Providing these options to your learners will enhance their engagement.

Peer Connections

When we gamify our content, we provide badges, points and rewards to learners. Rewards can also happen in the form of connections, experiences and new content. You can encourage social learning through peer connects, live chats with the experts. It doesn’t even have to be online always. You can make your learners form a community and have a weekly focused group discussion offline. If you really have to track their meeting points, you can create a format where the learners can post and mention what they discussed in these offline discussions.

Application

Your social learning program should help learners understand how they can use their new knowledge and skills in a real-world context and then apply them accordingly. Learning doesn’t end when the course ends; it’s only the beginning. Add assignments into the LMS that help learners perform tasks on the job.

Social yet Personal

The key to effective training is a blended solution that merges the strengths of informal and formal learning and keeps learners from disengaging. With social learning, you can personalize training in a way that enables each learner to inquire, innovate and conceptualize information for himself or herself — and for others.

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