Thoughts on Social Learning

I’ve just watched this TED talk from Dan Pink about motivation in the workplace. It’s compelling and certainly interesting, and very much up for debate.

Organisations like TED have fascinated me since I found out about them. They’re taking content which is superb and highly relevant/informative depending on what you’re looking for, and distributing it for free. To attend a TED event costs a lot of money, and is quite sought after by many business leaders. What it gets me to think about, though, is how does this format enable what many are starting to call social learning? That is, the use of social media devices to spread and share knowledge to help others learn?

Well, let’s consider some other things first. If social learning is using tools and media to spread knowledge, then this has been happening for centuries and more. Ancient Egyptians spread stories through drawings and symbols that anyone with an interest and privilege could learn. When religion came to the fore, sermons and lectures would take place in public spaces. With the advent of the printing press, the written word became the most powerful way information could be spread. Newspapers created a whole new way of being able to select what information was to be presented and who it went to. Schools and education establishments allowed development of thought and understanding of core ‘skills’ such as mathematics and languages. Families have in various ways encouraged certain crafts and certain skills to pass on to the next generation. Innovations in television and video recording have meant information can be broadcast in a plethora of ways, and to a range of audiences. Portable media devices have allowed learning on the go to happen, and greater independence in what is chosen to be studied and how. Personal computers produced a whole market of development in learning to take place from computer science to building applications and programs. And the internet gave rise to an even greater level of access to information never before imagined.

Social learning has been taking place for a long time. It’s not an innovation thanks to new uses of and innovations in social media. The advocates of social learning hark on about how social media is the way forward for L&D to take place. This is true in part, but it’s about as true as claiming not having a social media presence will damage your business and mean you won’t survive in years to come. The local newsagent doesn’t need to be on Facebook in order to survive. Nor does the local Vet, Chemist, School, Bank, Sandwich shop, Post Office and more.

Social media has helped learning take on another direction. It’s important to be mindful of what’s happening in this space, but there’s certainly no rush of businesses hurrying to get social learning right. Equally, there’s no rush of learners suddenly needing information they never had available before. The local library provides just as much information (if not more) as the internet. We’re just lazy beings and prefer to sit in the comforts of our home than take a walk and see what we can learn in the world.

I’m not knocking the social learning advocates, or supposed advances in social learning. We’re really still at the beginning of what this looks like. Vimeo, Yammer, SlideShare, Wikipedia, YouTube, Twitter, blogs, are all fantastic in different ways for sharing information. We just need to remain mindful that out of a world population of 6.9 billion, 2 billion actually have the ability to the internet*. That’s just shy of 30%. 30% is a fair number, but is hardly indicative of everyone who will take part in social learning.

According to Human Development Reports ( 86% of the world’s primary school age population enrol in school, 60% of secondary school age children enrol, and 25% of the tertiary age population enrol**. Those are encouraging numbers, and certainly tell a potentially encouraging story about the education cycle. With more and more countries understanding the potential of what internet based technology can help them achieve, there will be increasing numbers of people who access the wealth of information that is out there.

The sharing of knowledge has always been a common factor in human development. That will remain a constant, and social media has only helped this to happen in a broad fashion. Can learning take place through social channels though? I’m not 100% convinced it can. There is a place for proper learning and education channels to facilitate and support what learning a child goes through. Simply sharing information online and making it available in creative and interesting ways will only act to support what learning you have. In the same way the library has done for centuries.

*data from
** 2010 report on data for education

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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on Social Learning”

  1. Maybe controversially, I think that one reason that social learning in the workplace isn’t jumped on is because it’s hard to measure. Stuff such as “bodies in training courses” is.

    As an example, I’ve spent a lot of time in the last two months creating an internal knowledgebase that everyone in the company has access to and can edit. In some cases I’m documenting things for the first time, at other times I’m taking information that was siloed elsewhere and placed it in a more accessible place.

    I’ve had plenty of great feedback already from colleagues, and a lot of the stuff I’ve put in there *could* have been delivered as a training course, but this is just as effective and even better, just in time.

    This isn’t social learning, I’m not claiming it is. But my point is I can’t measure the true effectiveness of this time consuming endeavour, and I think this is the same as social learning. In a way, encouraging it is a job for L&D, but in doing so you give up some of the control and proof for your existence to senior management.

    I like to see my role as one of helping employees be effective in their role. Social learning is a part of that. Ensuring that individuals share information is another. But if you’re an L&Der who operates in a numbers organisation, is it the best thing to do?

    1. You’re right here Robert about it being hard to measure. The irony is that L&D is hard to measure. Outside of the normal metrics of number of courses, number of attendees, etc, the actual ROI of L&D is very hard to put a tangible measure on.

      I love the point about encouraging it as a job for L&D. I wrote about the same point some while ago about the role of L&D is to facilitate training, and that’s all we can hope to do and achieve.

  2. Social learning is a wonderful tool for gaining education that may not have been available even 10 years ago. Whether that education is formal and degree based or for those looking to broaden their horizons by continually education themselves!

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