Social Learning Blog

Social Learning Has Its Place…And Informal Learning Does Too.

social learningTwo weeks ago Jane Hart wrote an article titled, Social Learning: to be or not to be?, in which Jane expresses her dislike of the term Social Learning (big S, big L).  Jane claims that “Social Learning has come to refer exclusively to the use of social media in top-down, formal learning.”  She also states that “social learning (small S, small L) happens continuously – freely and openly – in everything we do – in work, learn and study.” Although I usually agree with Jane and am humbled by her otherworldly stature within the learning community, I’m going to pick a bone here.

I’ll begin by saying that an overwhelming number of terms we use within this industry are so vague, ambiguous and all-encompassing that it’s hard to fit anything into a nice, neat category. That being said, I believe Jane’s first misstep occurs when she uses the term Social Learning (big S, big L).  Granted there have been several books written about social learning (small S, small L) and sometimes a writer will go as far as to capitalize the term every now and then, but has anyone really claimed it to be a proper noun?

By definition a proper noun represents a unique entity (such as London, Jupiter, Barack Obama, or Toyota).  A common noun represents a class of entities (for example, city, planet, person or corporation).  Social learning refers to a class of learning, which includes wikis, blogs, screen sharing, podcasting, photo sharing, social bookmarking, collaborative working, social networking, etc. Social learning (small S, small L) does not refer to the use of social media in top-down, formal learning.  It refers to learning that occurs though the peer-to-peer or person-to-person exchange of ideas.  Social media can be an accelerant for social learning, both in formal and informal settings.  But social media does not define social learning. informal learning

Additionally, I don’t believe social learning happens continuously in everything we do.  We’re not always in communication with other people.  We’re not always social.  Jane is describing informal learning, a term most often used by Jay Cross to describe the many forms of learning that take place independently from forced or “pushed” training programs.  Informal learning includes certain social learning tools like wikis, communities of practice, expert directories, etc., but you can learn informally without it being social (for example, books, self-study programs, JIT performance support tools). My point is that social learning and informal learning both have places within our vocabularies and within the learning industry.

Social learning is not a proper noun that refers only to the use of social media in a formal setting.  It refers to learning done in a social context.  Social media has merely allowed social learning to be more effective and efficient, both within the workplace and without.  Moreover, informal learning should not be overcomplicated.  People do most of their learning on a continuous, free and open basis that we can do little to control.  It is our task as designers and developers of training to reach our audience where they learn.  Thus we must pay attention to both learning contexts and leverage them as best we can. 

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Paul Paradis

I'm the director of sales and marketing at Dashe & Thomson.I've worked in sales and marketing with various organizations, including 3M, the Minnesota Timberwolves, Ionix Medical, and the Itasca Project.I live and breathe Minnesota sports and love golfing, boating, skiing, traveling, and attending live music.
  • Harold Jarche

    Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory:

    Bandura (1977) states: “Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.” (p22). Social learning theory explains human behavior in terms of continuous reciprocal interaction between cognitive, behavioral, and environmental influences.

    I’d say that makes social learning pretty well ubiquitous.

    • Paul

      I agree that most human behavior is learned observationally, though modeling. Where is the line between social and informal learning drawn, then? If I’m alone in the woods and I learn something from my surroundings, I would not consider that to be social, but informal. I see social learning as something that takes place between persons, and could extend that more generally to animals or maybe even living things. But does social learning include reading a book written by another person hundreds, maybe thousands of years ago? Yes, I would be learning from that person’s experiences, but is a social connection or relationship made?

  • mark oehlert


    I’m right there with you on a lot of what you say. Geez, we throw terms around to the degree that we’re stuck with resorting to devices like (Big S Big L etc) to try to make our point clear, I think the problem is deeper though…I think we need to stop throwing “learning” about like its something that can be bought sold or packaged.

    To be clear, my position is that you can sell training, performance support, tools, systems, content, but if people could truly sell Learning (big or little l) the world would be a different place. I understand that this puts me at odds with e-learning, m-learning, social learning, etc etc yadda yadda but thats ok too.

    I also understand your point on social learning and social in general…as an anthropologist, I would argue that humans are always social. Social doesn’t mean that we are constantly in contact w people but that we are constantly informed by our contact with people – we are constantly embedded in the context of our own background, our own experiences…in that sense, everything we do is mediated by the “social” layer in our lives.

    • Paul

      This is without a doubt a very interesting idea to discuss. I replied to Harold’s initial comment, but much of what I said to Harold I think falls in line with your comment, too. What do you think?

  • Jane Hart

    Hi David, I think you read more into my capitalization that I intended, I only used the capitals to differentiate between social learning (as a general term) and social learning (as it has become to be used when referring to the use of social media for learning). But I can see how easy it was to misunderstand the point I was trying to make, so I am sorry that I gave the wrong impression.

    I certainly also agree that not all informal learning is social, but I do believe like my ITA colleagues that it is informal and social learning where the real learning takes place, as I try to show in my piece here

    However, I think the important point I want to make about your article is that informal, social learning can’t be designed, created and managed like formal social learning can – it can only encouraged and supported – as I tried to explain in my recent blog post:

    • Paul

      I’m not sure who David is, but I’m assuming the comment is directed to me. I agree with your points above, I think you nailed it. Informal social learning can’t be designed, created and managed like formal social learning can, but it can be encouraged and supported=> YES!

  • Mike Kang

    Hi Paul,

    I enjoyed reading your article and I agree with your points. It’s true that social learning isn’t new and I agree that social learning tools only help to facilitate social learning. I see Social Learning as a marketing term since it’s more like a product feature of an LMS. The rise in social networks and technology help make it sound new and shiny but learning socially is as old as mankind so it’s nothing new.

    Thanks for the good read.


    • Paul

      Thanks for the comment, Mike. I like your description of Social Learning as a marketing term.

  • Jane Hart

    Sorry, Paul! Not sure why/how David got in there! But just to reiterate the point I was trying to make in my ORIGINAL posting; social learning is NOT just something that happens in a formal context, In fact because more and more individuals are using social media (whether they realise it or not to support their informal social learning) it is actually becoming an even more powerful tool in this respect than its for use within formal courses. And there is lots of evidence that people are already working around L&D and IT – because they now have the tools to address their own learning and performance needs much more immediately.This is where we need to focus our discussion – how organisations can support this “consumerization of learning”.

  • Paul Matthews

    I agree with Mark about how we seem to be using the term learning more and more in situations where it does not really apply. Learning is not something we can do to another person, or deliver to them. In my mind, learning is an internal thing that goes on within the individual, or not, in response to something. Now, that something is probably what is happening around them, or it is the thoughts triggered by what is happening around them. Clearly, we can adjust the environment around someone to make it easier for them to learn from it, but we are not delivering learning, even if the environment we create around them is a training room. We are simply delivering an environment which may be finely crafted to encourage learning, but we are not delivering learning.
    It is almost as if political correctness has snuck into the industry and it is no longer OK to use the term training. One must use the term learning instead!