Marcia Conner on Defining Social Learning

looking from dictionary

At Knoodle we talk a lot about social learning in the broader context of how people learn in today’s social workplace as well as how Knoodle as a platform can help you build an environment that supports social learning. We also keep tabs on what others are saying about social learning, but oftentimes we hear different definitions that we feel may be misleading or don’t fully capture the bigger picture.

One thought leader in this space that we follow is internationally-recognized expert Marcia Conner, co-author of the book The New Social Learning and someone we had the pleasure to meet and talk shop with. In a recent blog post, she set out to clear up this very topic, including defining what social learning is and is not. In her post, she states what social learning isn’t:

  • Technology – Technology (like social media) is a facilitator, but not the sole channel of this kind of learning.
  • Informal learning – Social learning can be categorized as informal learning, but informal learning isn’t exclusively social.
  • Online search – Searching for something online doesn’t make it a social exercise.
  • e-Learning – e-Learning is just a broad category for using technology to teach something.
  • Constantly social – Social media is a great example of this – when using social media, people are often alone, but the value is in the way interaction happens when ideas are shared.

Bearing this in mind, social learning can be framed a little more easily. Marcia defines it as this:

“Social learning [is] participating with others to make sense of new ideas. Augmented by a new slew of social tools, people can gather information and gain new context from people across the globe and around the clock as easily as they could from those they work beside.

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“Social learning is not just the technology of social media, although it makes use of it. It is not merely the ability to express yourself in a group of opt-in friends. Social learning combines social media tools with a shift in the corporate culture, a shift that encourages ongoing knowledge transfer and connects people in ways that make learning a joy.”

Two phrases that jump out to me are: 1) “…people can gather information and gain new context from people across the globe and around the clock as easily as they could from those they work beside…”, and 2) “…a shift that encourages ongoing knowledge transfer…” This aligns very well with what we believe are four characteristics of social learning:

  1. Knowledge sharing occurs continuously, organically, and at the time of need.
  2. Everyone has the capability to be a teacher as well as a student.
  3. Knowledge sharing needs to cross organizational silos.
  4. Knowledge sharing should also extend outside of your company’s four walls with your ecosystem of partners & customers.

Some recent research from our friends at The Brandon Hall group supports the fact that social learning is not just a fad or a recently popular buzzword…even if it’s sometimes misused. The great thing about learning that occurs in a social workplace is that it doesn’t rely on the strict hierarchies of formal learning because learning in this type of setting is and should be collaborative in nature.

How would you define social learning, and do you have examples of it in practice in your organization?

Image credit: Embrace The Curl

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