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Learning & Development Blog

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

Two weeks ago Jane Hart wrote an article titled, Social Learning: to be or not to be?, in which she expressed 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 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.

An overwhelming number of terms 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.

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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