SOCIAL LEARNING CREATES CONFUSION!
It should be a headline shouldn’t it?
If it were, I could picture the scene at a breakfast table as the reader, takes a sip of coffee from their cup, looks up from their smart device, tablet or newspaper and asks their partner…
“Darling, what’s social learning?”
What’s the bet that the response would be a shoulder shrug followed with, “how on earth would I know?”
Yesterday I wrote a post on LinkedIn titled, “How Do You Explain Social Learning to Learning and Development” and I realised I forgot to explain social learning!
I failed the first rule of article writing didn’t I?
So I may have had a whole heap of readers of the blog posts asking the same question (without the darling in front of it) and getting a whole heap of shoulder shrugs for answers!
I assumed that everyone knew what I meant by social learning and it was a grave error of judgement. However, it made me reflect on my response and write this blog post.
So thank you to those who left the comments asking for more information.
Why Did It Happen?
You see, I recustomise blog posts for LinkedIn because the blog posts you read here on my Activate Learning Solutions blog are more personal reflections, stories and where I work out loud. This blog is my “online space” where I give myself the permission to have a bit of a ramble and a rant and also share what I’m working on. It would be inappropriate if I simply copied the same post into LinkedIn because the general ‘feel’ of posts there are more educational and informative and suited for a diverse professional audience. I also know that my writing gets distributed to a wider audience on LinkedIn and people are more inclined to comment on LinkedIn than my blog (which I believe has a specific reader group – I think mainly learning and development people – but I could be wrong as I’ve not really done any analysis with this)…
So Where Are You Going With This?
You see, some years ago, my introduction to social learning came from an academic event I attended back in 2012.
On a whim, I decided to attend a conference run by academics. (I do this. I like to go to conferences, events, meetups that have nothing to do with my field to check out what others are doing and learning about. They’re a source of constant new ideas – except for the time I accidentally sneaked into an event and it turned out to be on Russian dance but that’s a story for another day).
Being from the corporate world with absolutely no connection or relationship to universities, education, academia, I thought that I would attend this academic conference to see how the other half do. See how another group outside of corporate Learning and Development talk about learning.
In all honesty, I was getting a bit bored of my work in the office. If I was going to be asked to design yet another boring training course, someone eyes were going to be poked out. If the Russian dance troupe was going to be about, even THAT was going to be a lot more interesting than the work I was doing in corporate land.
Well anyway, off I went to this conference and I was surrounded by people who had PhDs coming out of their ears.
I felt like a fish out of water – the only corporate fish there in a sea of academics – but I would say that this conference was the most defining period of my life that challenged the way I thought about what we were doing (or more to the point – NOT DOING) in corporate learning.
The ideas they presented were about how to enable their students to learn through their personal learning environments. It was the first time I had heard of the term ‘social learning’ and ‘personal learning networks’.
The skies opened up and a light shone from the heavens and filled my head with joy.
From that day on, I think I started to become one real pain in the backside for my boss when I started to question everything we did back at work.
Are You Going to Actually Define What Social Learning?
Okay, I’m getting to that.
So social learning means different things to people and this is where I failed to define it in my LinkedIn article. Usually the way I explain social learning comes down to the definition I took from Tony Bingham’s and Marcia Conner’s book The New Social Learning: Connect, Collaborate, Work which is:
Joining with others to make sense of and create new ideas
However, to many people this is a nebulous definition. After all, “what does it LOOK like? they ask me.
That’s the beauty of it. Social learning is about people connecting with each other (in any way whether in person, through social media or technology – the manner is irrelevant) so that can connect ideas, information and insights.
More than likely, they’re ALREADY DOING IT BUT AREN’T ACTIVELY THINKING ABOUT IT.
So this is a catch-22 situation for me as someone who helps people and organisations about how to enable their workforce to collaborate
It’s a paradox.
If we’re already doing it, then why do we need help with it? (Read: or why would we pay you to show us what we’re already doing?)
This is where I think the words ‘social’ and ‘learning’ are creating no end of pain for me.
To some people ‘social’ denotes social media, social tools and technologies.
Meanwhile the word “learning” denotes “training” and “classrooms” or “boring online click-next courses”.
No wonder people are confused.
So How Do You Un-Confuse Them?
Add to the mix, different people from different industries who have their own interpretations.
Here’s some that I have come across in my work:
Business People: I have been to many local business networking events and the term ‘social learning’ is meaningless. After all, learning is learning. You do it with other people. This is what they do as a matter of course.
For a business owner, they need to see an outcome at the end of it that will support their business and profit.
Instead of social learning, I used the definition:
“collaborative networking to identify new business opportunities and partnering“.
It was a massive wake up call last year when I was told in no uncertain terms by a business person who was not in my line of industry or had any connection to corporate learning and development to (his words):
“Lose the word ‘learning’. It’s too soft. It’s a killer for people in business. No one wants to think of themselves as a learner.”
Wow. Okay, I had to skulk back to the drawing board on my definitions of social learning.
My high faluting la di da ideas of people being happy to be constantly and continually in a state of curiosity, wonder, questioning and learning was obviously not shared by others in business who may have seen it as a sign of weakness or vulnerability. To them, what’s the ‘end game?’
Just thinking about it, he did look like Gordon Gecko too.
Corporate Learning and Development Teams: The way I explain social learning to this audience is that social learning is about:
“People connecting, collaborating and learning from each other with each other and through each other daily through their work which may or may not be supported and assisted by social tools and technology”.
In my experience, this audience is not influenced by strict definitions of social learning theories as as their focus is more on the applications of this to build workforce capability.
(I doubt many may have heard of Bandura’s Social Learning Theory, Lave’s Situated Learning and Wengers work on communities of practice or George Siemen’s and Stephen Downe’s Connectivism theory but I would say that some of them have been practising elements of all of these especially if they are undertaking any university part-time studies).
So the question that was asked in the LinkedIn post as to what theory am I referring to when I talk about ‘social learning’. In actual fact, for workplace contexts, I’m really talking about a blend of them. When we talk about working and collaborating with teams, it can be about Lave’s and Wenger. If we’re talking about how people learn with each other supported by technology, it’s connectivism. If we’re talking about the role modelling of social behaviours, it’s Bandura.
I’m not akin to pitching one theory against the next because I’m more interested in the performance that is achieved in the business as a result of bringing people together.
I hope that has clarified the confusion and as always, more than happy to know what you think on this same subject. Has social learning created confusion for you or your clients too?