Defining and Designing Social Learning

BY Celisa Steele

If all learning is social, then it seems clear that those of us in the business of lifelong learning, professional development, and continuing education need to understand social learning – and understand what is involved in designing social learning – if we’re to succeed in our business. If, as Jeff and I wrote in the Tagoras report Social Learning Trends in the Association Space, social learning is in the DNA of membership organizations that exist to connect people with common aims and interests, then we need to not just understand social learning but we need to know how it deliver it. Deliver it well.

But how do we do that?

Let’s start by defining our key term, social learning, and then look at how we can foster and facilitate it through effectively designing social learning.

Defining Social Learning

If we take social learning to mean simply that we gain knowledge and ideas by interacting with others, it’s hard to find an example of learning that’s not social.

Four Dimensions of Social Learning

Click the image to enlarge it.

But just because all learning is social doesn’t mean all learning is the same kind of social. I see four dimensions to social learning:

  1. Immediacy
  2. Structure
  3. Scale
  4. Transparency

Exploring the Four Dimensions of Social Learning

Along the first dimension, immediacy, the continuum for social learning runs from direct and instant involvement of learners (think of face-to-face conversations) to delayed and indirect exchanges. The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach on my bedside table was published almost 25 years ago—and yet those poets are still teaching me today.

The second dimension, structure, is more or less apparent in social learning—social learning can be more or less formal. (Note, as this dimension makes clear, that social learning is not necessarily informal learning; it may be, but the two are not coterminous.) On the less structured end, social learning might have us match a mentor to a mentee, and that’s the extent of our design of social learning. Or we can take a more structured approach to social learning—we provide mentors and mentees with a set of activities and questions to work through according to a set timeline.

The third dimension is scale. Social learning can be small-scale or massive. At one extreme, social learning need only involve two people—think of author and reader, mentor and mentee, two colleagues at the legendary water cooler. At the other, it can involve thousands, even millions of learners. When Stephen Downes and George Siemens offered arguably the first MOOC in 2008—an online course called Connectivism and Connective Knowledge—over 2,200 learners signed on. Coursera’s Learning How to Learn MOOC has had over a million enrollments so far—and the course is still running and welcoming more learners.

Transparency, the fourth dimension, is about how aware the learners are about the social aspect of the learning. This relates to the first two dimensions—immediacy and structure—in that the more immediate and the more structured the social learning, the more likely learners are to see how the learning is social, but I include it as a separate dimension because, even in the case of immediate and structured social learning, the designers get to decide whether to forefront what they’re doing in a particular learning experience to support social learning or whether to be be opaque and bake the social learning in without calling attention to it (maybe like those brownies that have spinach in them, but only the chef knows?)

For example, hot seats at workshops can be a great social learning tool (and we made use of them at the Leading Learning Symposium last year and plan to do more this year). If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, a learner volunteers to be in the hot seat—an actual stool or chair where other learners can see and hear her. She briefly shares a problem or an opportunity she wants help with, and then the room of other learners offers her, in rapid-fire fashion, ideas for how to address the problem or seize the opportunity. The person in the hot seat listens, but shouldn’t respond during the rapid-fire suggestions. At the end, the facilitator offers her two cents, and then the hot sitter may choose to respond, but briefly—often a “thanks” is enough.

A hot seat can be more or less transparent—the facilitator can talk about how the other learners are learning by listening and generating ideas, getting practice in brainstorming and critical thinking, even if the problem or opportunity raised by the person in the hot seat doesn’t directly apply to them. Or the facilitator can skip that and just focus on providing the rules. She can be more or less transparent in her use of the hot seat as a social learning tool.

No Value Judgments

In offering these four dimensions, I see a way to look at social learning, in its many incarnations. But let me be clear that no particular point along any of the four dimensions is inherently better than any other. It’s not necessarily better for social learning to happen on a large scale or be more immediate. It’s not, de facto, better for social learning to be less structured or more transparent.

Designing Social Learning

There are two common—and antipodal—tendencies when it comes to designing social learning. One is to underthink it, and focus on social learning tools rather than social learning philosophy. This approach provides the mechanisms, the tools, for social learning, and assumes social learning will happen naturally.

While I made the point that there are no value judgments, I do want to point out that the structure dimension runs from more structure to less structure—and there’s a big difference between no structure and even just a bit of structure.

If we assume that, because all learning is social, all we have to do is provide a way for two or more learners to connect—put them in the same room or add them to the same online community and, voilà, social learning—we won’t be very effective at designing social learning with this “underthinking” approach.

The other tendency is to overthink social learning and underestimate our abilities and experience with it. But odds are you have a great deal with experience with social learning. Odds are your organization is doing social learning now. At your face-to-face conferences and workshops, your facilitators are (hopefully) incorporating peer learning. They’re having learners work in pairs or groups to solve a problem. They’re encouraging questions and using those to adjust where they focus their time. They’re not (hopefully) just saying, “Talk to each other.” They’re scaffolding and structuring the discussion, the social learning.

I offer four simple steps to help you in designing of social learning: describe, assess, learn, and improve.

  1. Describe your products in terms of social learning.
    How are you using social learning in each of your products? Inventory your use of social learning in each product in terms of the four dimensions: immediacy, structure, scale, and transparency. Do you see patterns? If all your social learning is very loosely structured or done on a large scale, that may suggest an opportunity to experiment at other points on those dimensions. Do you see no patterns? That may suggest the need for your organization to be more holistically aware of social learning. Are there products you can’t adequately inventory for social learning because you don’t know enough about them (maybe face-to-face concurrent conference sessions)?
  2. Assess the effectiveness of your products in terms of social learning.
    For each product, what is the learning you’re trying to achieve? An awareness of the context can help you assess whether the current mix of immediacy, structure, scale, and transparency is appropriate. For example, in the context of set curricula or exam prep, the social learning may be more highly structured to allow it to speak to the curricula or exam content. In the context of learning focused at the higher end of Bloom’s taxonomy (synthesis and evaluation), the social learning may be smaller in scale and more immediate to really get learners engaged. Again, there are no value judgments, no across-the-board right or wrong approaches—you have to think through what each product is trying to do. How would you rate the effectiveness of your educational products’ use of social learning?
  3. Learn more about social learning.
    What social learning are you experiencing beyond what your organization offers? Sample other social learning, both social learning that is similar to what your organization is doing (or trying to do) and social learning that is different from what you’re after.  If you’re being a thoughtful social learner, you’ll pick up ideas and tools that may apply to what your organization offers—or will offer in the future.
  4. Improve how you’re using social learning.
    Based on what you know from the other three steps, where can you improve what you’re currently doing with social learning? Where can you play with the mix of the four social learning dimensions to get a better match with the goals for the education product? Where can you more consciously design social learning? Don’t be afraid to experiment—as long as you’re prepared to learn from what works (and what doesn’t) and adjust accordingly.

Membership organizations exist to connect people with common aims and interests. In that context, social learning isn’t a goal, but a given.

What’s not a given is that it’ll be a success. Which is where some design and hard work come in.


P.S. – Be sure to get our free report on Social Learning Trends in the Association Space

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