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Social Learning: An Introduction


By Melissa Venable

The word social is everywhere right now in articles and publications dedicated to education and training. What is social learning? And how does it relate to all of the other uses of social (i.e. social media and social networking) we are reading about these days? With this post my goal is to provide you with an introduction to social learning theory, examples of social learning in online higher education, and resources for further exploration.

Social Learning Theory

Psychologist Albert Bandura is the father of social learning theory. His work in the 1960s and 1970s built on behaviorist and cognitive theories of learning, focusing on the learner's attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation as a result of observing others. In this kind of learning, we learn how to perform tasks by observing someone who models how the task should be performed.

Vygotsky's Social Development Theory also addresses how we learn in the company of others. This theorist's work with children and language development showed that relationship building and social interaction are both critical parts of the process of expanding cognitive development.

Lave's Situated Learning Theory states that "learning as it normally occurs is a function of the activity, context and culture in which it occurs." Moving learning activities into their real-world context, and out of the typical classroom, allows students to become members of "communities of practice." These communities involve social interactions in which new learners, or novices, can learn from more experienced learners, or experts, and eventually move into this more advanced role themselves.

More simply put, Marcia Conner has said, "social learning is participating with others to make sense of new things," which cuts to the chase and helps us think about how the concept might be put into practice in both education and training contexts. How can online students participate with each other to make sense of new things in their courses? 

Social Learning and Online Education

Students working together learn from each other and from their more experienced instructors and other expert mentors. Individual programs, courses, and student groups can encourage interaction of their members as communities of practice in their field of study. This is especially important in online education, where students and instructors are not in the same location. Where do social learning and online learning meet?

Social Learning Activities: Online course development involves the selection of specific instructional strategies to engage students with the content, each other, and the instructor. Activities that require students to interact with each other create an environment in which social learning can take place. Here are just a few of the many options being used in current online courses.

  • Small groups: Collaborative work is often assigned in the form of a small group project where three or more students work together to complete an assignment. All group members are expected to contribute and to assist each other. Students may be assigned to groups where members have different levels of skill or knowledge. Northern Virginia Community College has posted this example of a group writing assignment submitted via Google Docs.
  • Class discussions: The discussion forum is a staple of online learning management systems. This platform can be used to engage students in learning that is social through debate activities, case studies, and other interactions that allow interaction beyond just simple response to a question or presentation of information. The University of Illinois provides an example of an online discussion assignment.
  • Games and simulations: Online courses may already be using technologies that allow for game playing and simulation. Through games, especially those in which students work as teams, social activities can have a positive impact on learning. Games can be as simple as scavenger hunts and puzzles, or as complex as multi-user video games and activities in virtual worlds. Game and virtual world formats also allow for simulated problem-solving exercises and role-playing activities. Take a look at this video from Duke University describing the use of Second Life with their online nursing students.
  • Mentorship experiences: Through planned experiences with more advanced students, internship requirements, program alumni, and student clubs and honor societies, students get the opportunity to work with members of a larger community of practice where experts can help to facilitate and guide learning. Online mentoring is becoming more popular in higher education and in professional development situations. The National Science Teachers Association reports on its mentoring program highlighting benefits and challenges.

Social Learning Tools: Social media and networking tools provide a mechanism for communication that is critical in online learning. When students and instructor don't meet face-to-face, other resources are required to engage in all of the activities listed above. Social media, as defined by Marcia Conner, "is technology used to engage three or more people."

  • Learning Management Systems: Online schools and programs commonly use websites or learning management systems (e.g. Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Moodle) to deliver their individual courses. These systems typically include basic communication tools and forums for student and instructor interaction such as discussion forums, virtual meeting rooms, and email, as well as group workspace with file storage and access. 
  • Social Networking Systems: These tools allow students to create individual profiles and join groups and conversations with others who have similar interests. LinkedIn, Ning, Twitter, and Facebook are just a few examples of social networking tools that are popular in education circles.
  • Collaboration and Sharing Spaces: This category covers a lot of ground. How and where are online students going to work with each other? A wide variety of web-based tools is available to help students communicate and work together online to complete social learning activities. The Centre for Learning and Performance Technologies publishes an annual list of the Top 100 Tools for Learning. Take a look at the list for 2010 and you'll see these tools organized into categories such as document creation/hosting/sharing, blogging, web conferencing, and file and resource sharing.

You can expect the tools to change. Google+ was recently introduced as a new social media and networking tool, and is already gaining attention in higher education. Early reviews cite both challenges and predictions of this tool as a possible replacement for the widely popular Twitter and Facebook. As you move forward with your own use of social media and networks, expect to make the switch to new systems at some point. Focus your attention on the features and functions – the capabilities of each tool to help students engage in social learning activities. 

Social Learning Roles: Students and instructors alike join and participate in social learning activities using a myriad of social media tools. There is a difference in joining and participating. Observing is just the beginning: trying and refining your approach based on how you've seen others do it is a critical part of social learning. The process of joining and participating is part of the overall learning experience. In social learning situations, it is important for experienced members to encourage new members and to model active participation. 

Moving Forward

Online learning environments are staged to incorporate social learning activities through the use of existing social media and networking tools. How can we continue to leverage these tools, the communication and exchange that they make possible, for the purpose of learning?

  • Think about how social learning strategies, and the use of social media tools to deliver them, might be evaluated for effectiveness. With so many options available, it will be important to keep learning objectives in mind.
  • Don't be afraid to try something new. Many lessons are learned through the process of trial and error. Consider sharing your experiences with your fellow students and instructors along the way.
  • Online learning is still fairly new to higher education and undergoing constant change. Stay current on social learning and online environments through ongoing research and the reflections of leaders in the field.

July 14th, 2011 written by (learn more about our authors)

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