I’ve got an odd relationship with the notion of social learning. Whilst I’m often at pains to remind people that social learning is nothing new, I’m acutely aware that the term is today a much broader one than it has been in years gone by. Influenced by a score of theorists dating back centuries, the idea that our individual learning is influenced by both our circumstances and by other people seems to be a naturally easy assumption to make.
But ’social’ is something of a pariah in the corporate learning world, at least increasingly so it would seem. Recently I worked with a partner on a pitch to a global multinational as we sought to enable more collaborative learning in the organisation. Trouble is we didn’t phrase it ‘collaborative’ we called it social. At the eleventh hour the rug was pulled from under us with the announcement that the use of all ’social’ technologies at the company were henceforth barred. FML.
Such broad brush strokes clearly underscored a lack of shared understanding in terms of what we were proposing – this wasn’t some fancy ‘add on’, this was it! Social, when it comes down to it, is not an option.
Reading John Medina’s ‘Brain Rules‘ on vacation (how this book has escaped me so long, I don’t know), I was fascinated how he went in to some detail about how the brain stores and maps our experiences. According to Medina, each of us creates a unique map of our experiences – so much so that a neurosurgeon working on identical twins brains would not be able to make an inference about the patterns in one twins brain given the structure of the other. Even if these two ‘identical’ people had witnessed the same event, the processing of this new information would have been different – the angle of the view, the distractions in peripheral vision, the previous experiences which each twin had – context is everything.
Personally, I class this under the ’social’ umbrella. Because everything we experience has the almost infinite possibility to shape, and be shaped, by other experiences, you can’t escape the influence of people in our learning. It’s not something you can turn on. Equally, it’s not something you can turn off, but you sure as heck can stifle it.
Taking full advantage of ’social’ is one of the cornerstones of my recent research report in to social learning, as expertly edited by Patti Shank and the eLearning Guild. My take on social context is just one of the many interpretations that we can bring to the table when we talk ’social’. For some, social learning is underpinned by the social constructivist movement. For others, it’s about the technology – social networking, social media. In the report I tried to take a balanced view to all of these interpretations, but I could have written twice as much and still not scratched the surface.
For those of you less inclined to the relative merits of academic theorists, there’s a heck of a lot more written on the practical, workplace considerations of the ’social’ word in the report. I’ve attempted to answer 8 key questions that are likely to come up when we start talking social:
- What does ’social’ learning mean?
- What are the benefits of facilitating a more social approach?
- What are the risks of facilitating more social learning?
- How can we make social interactions meaningful for learning?
- How can we get started?
- How can we measure the impact of our work?
- What are the tools of social learning?
- What is the role of the learning professional in a more ’social’ world?
The 8th question potentially impacts us all and I think it’s often a bit overlooked. I see the future learning professional as less of a creator of courses, more a connector of ideas; curators of content, people and technology. In the report I go into some detail as to what this role will entail, but fundamentally I believe it comes down to a cycle of 6 key activities:
- Designing for performance improvement
- Support existing communities
- Creating, sourcing and curating resources
- Leveraging appropriate technologies
- Championing effective social learning
- Measuring and proving impact
Underpinning these activities is a core understanding of how people learn collaboratively; connecting, creating and curating to further their understanding.
The report is available from the Guild to all fee paying members (membership starts at $99 and is very much worth the price) and I’ll be talking at DevLearn about the report alongside Patti and her work on informal learning. Do hunt me out if you want to debate anything further, otherwise, happy reading!