How to Define Social Learning

BY Jeff Cobb

Define Social Learning - Image of Open Dictionary

The way I define social learning here is quite broad and it is adapted somewhat from an article in Ecology and Society. Here are its three major points:

  1. Social learning occurs through social interactions and processes between actors within a social network
  2. Social learning facilitates change in the individuals involved
  3. Social learning potentially becomes situated within wide units or communities of practice

Stated differently: People learn through interacting with each other; this learning – like all learning – changes them as individuals, but it also has the potential to change the broader groups within which they participate. I find the last part particularly powerful. While I don’t feel all social learning has to generate broader change (I added the qualifier “potentially” in point 3), I think the fact that it can has tremendous strategic implications.

A key implication, I believe, is that organizations need to pull back and look at the full range of educational options they offer and consider the broader learning conversations to which they connect.

Are the seminars, Webinars, and conferences you offer isolated events, or do they tie tightly into a broader vision for how and where you hope to lead your members?

How do the less formal elements of your contact with members – blog posts, posts on social networks, tweets – help to tie together the formal educational elements and contribute to the overall vision?

When you start thinking about your education in this way, you are engaging in social learning, even if this is not terminology that your organization has traditionally used to define social learning (assuming your organization has even attempted to define social learning.

For additional thoughts, see:


P.S. – Whether or not you represent an association, there is a good chance that if you are interested in how to define social learning,  you will also like our free report Social Learning in the Association Space.


  1. Meaty question and response, Jeff. Thank you! In the New Social Learning, and when people ask me how I define social learning, this is the definition I use: “Social learning is participating with others to make sense of new ideas.” It’s simple, straightforward, and gets conversations flowing. More detail in a blog post I wrote last fall, as well as a sample chapter from the book with this definition and much more:

    While understanding social learning isn’t required for people to use it, clear definitions can help people from fearing that it’s something complicated or requiring tools beyond those we humans have always had.

    1. Jeff Cobb says:

      Marcia – Many thanks for commenting + sharing your definition and the blog post link. I’ve sometimes used the old Palmolive commercials with Madge to get across the idea that whether or not we are conscious of it, we are engaged in social learning constantly – i.e., we’re “soaking in it.”

      Love your book + have recommended it to many people.


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