Social Learning: from theory to practice

Formal learning is abstract, defined by time and place, divorced from our everyday reality. It can be academically interesting, it can be fulfilling and all consuming, it can be delivered badly or delivered well, but unless it’s social, it’s incomplete.

Social learning is semi formal, working around a curriculum, within a scaffolding, but more relaxed than the formal. Whilst formal learning may talk about application, social learning happens where the application takes place. Whilst formal learning talks about how to make links to reality, social learning is already in the pub, finding a comfy sofa and getting the drinks in at the bar.

Social Learning: from theory to application

Social Learning: from theory to application

Social learning is not an alternative to formal learning, it’s a layer of interpretation and teaching that surrounds it. You can have one without the other, but you’re winning if you have both.

The way to design a truly blended learning experience, one that combines the best of all worlds, is to understand how people learn: to set the context well, ensure we demonstrate best practice, explore and play with the learning and reflect upon it, assess where appropriate and take steps back into our everyday reality. If we fail in any of these steps, we’re tripping up.

Formal learning spaces are great for demonstration, great for knowledge, good for exploration and assessment, but poorer for reflection and weak at making links back into our everyday reality. Social learning is great at the conversations around context, talking about what’s really important to you rather than what i think is important. It’s great at helping us translate knowledge into meaning through both internal and external reflection and play. Internal reflection is where we stack up what we are seeing against what we know to be true, whilst external reflection is where we tell the story back again, where we find our own language around the ideas that we are discussing.

It’s naive and a false assumption to state that formal learning only deals with theory and social covers practical: formal learning experiences can be superb, but are only ever going to be part of the story, and we know that there is a huge drop off in knowledge and skills between the classroom and the workplace. Social approaches counter this by starting in the real world: there is no space for the drop off! Social learning is about co-creating meaning, much as a band co-creates a sound.

In social learning, it’s not so much the outcomes of the conversations that we are interested in, but rather the conversation itself: the narrative that we build that shows where we agree, where we disagree and how we resolved it. It’s the thought process itself as much as the story that counts.

From an organisational perspective, it’s about loss of control: on every front the old notions of owning messages and controlling behaviours are becoming redundant. Learning in the Social Age is about contracting with learners and being willing to learn ourselves. It’s about finding the meaning, which is one step beyond the knowledge. It’s about taking all the best of what we do already and surrounding it with semi formal, conversational, social and co-created layers. Enhancing the learning experience, not just extending it.

As organisations and individuals find learning going increasingly social, they need to adapt. We need to look at how we scaffold the social learning experience around the formal, to ensure that there is enough structure to support the learning, but enough space for the conversation. We need to ensure that we support the development of social capital within a population, avoiding anyone being disenfranchised through technology or communication skills and we need to narrate learning more strongly to build a better legacy.

Welcome to the Social Age, where learning is everywhere. We have to think how we can be agile to stay relevant, to thrive.

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About Julian Stodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
This entry was posted in Agile, Authority, Blended Learning, Choreography, Community, Context, Demonstration, Footsteps, Formal Spaces, Informal Spaces, Instructional Design, Knowledge, Learning, Learning Culture, Learning Design, Learning Technology, Legacy, Meaning, Narrative, Reflection, Scaffolding, Social Capital, Social Learning, Theory and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Social Learning: from theory to practice

  1. Hi, how would you differentiate informal learning from social learning?

    • julianstodd says:

      Hi Mike, i would usually say the following: learning falls on a spectrum from formal (defined by time and place, to a set curriculum) through to informal (learning as we go, with no form or structure). Social learning i call ‘semi formal’, the social layers that surround the formal. It’s the conversations around the edge where we create meaning from the knowledge, but it’s aligned, however loosely, to a structure (i’m writing about the scaffolding of this later today!).

      So social learning is semi formal, whilst workshops or e-learning tend to be formal, the distinction being whether there is a set structure and where the meaning is created (you could have a formal learning experience using social technologies of course, but only if the organisation tried to control the messaging – whereby most people would leave the conversations because they’re not playing by the rules!).

      It’s a good question, thanks for asking it! Formal or informal describe the nature of the interaction, social describes (for me) a methodology whereby the group creates the meaning, it’s about the conversations and the narratives that we draw out of them. You’ll find quite a lot more writing about these ideas if you put the key terms in the search box – but if you have other ideas, do share them – it’s a work in progress for me.

      Julian

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