Social Learning is a term that is rapidly spreading throughout the learning and performance field. It’s also a phrase that is on the verge of being completely perverted by the same community.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m a big believer in the natural learning that occurs through social interactions. I also think it’s wonderful that our profession is starting to focus more on the learning that naturally takes place within the day-to-day activity of the workplace.

It’s just that, quite frankly, we’re screwing it up. We’re so focused on the label and capitalizing on the buzz around social learning that we’re mutating it into something it was never meant to be.

What Exactly Is Social Learning?

In their book The New Social Learning, authors Marcia Conner and Tony Bingham define social learning as:

“[The] result in people becoming more informed, gaining a wider perspective, and being able to make better decisions by engaging with others. It acknowledges that learning happens with and through other people, as a matter of participating in a community, not just by acquiring knowledge.”

That’s one of the best definitions of social learning I’ve seen, and I use it as an example not only because of what it says, but more specifically for what it doesn’t say.

You hear the phrase “social media” come up alarmingly frequently in conversations and presentations about social learning. I use the word alarming because somewhere along the line we jumped the shark. We starting inherently linking the two, as if social learning happened exclusively through social media tools.

That’s simply not the case, and we completely miss the point and value of social learning the more we allow that misconception to take hold.

Why Is There Confusion Between Social Learning and Social Media?

I think several events over the past few years have played a part in the confusion surrounding social media and social learning. Specifically, the explosion of social media services during the last few years have enabled us to connect with people across the globe in ways that were never possible before, and have forever changed the definitions of what a relationship is.

The phrase and topic “social learning” followed shortly thereafter within the learning and performance industry. Case studies started to come out sharing stories of programs that focused on the learning potential that could be harnessed when you focused on connecting learners with each other as opposed to a more formal top-down approach.

In most of these discussions and studies of social learning, social media has been the main tool used to build the connections. In that sense, I can understand that people would make the connection that social media enabled social learning. It’s a logical conclusion. It’s also completely inaccurate.

Social Learning Is NOT New

Thousands of years ago, man discovered fire. Around the same time, one man was unfortunate enough to discover that when you stick your hand in fire, it hurts. He learned the lesson the hard way. Later that day, a few of the other cavemen came along, and one of them leaned in to touch the fire, and the first caveman slapped his hand away, held up his burnt hand, and grunted a few things to try to send the Hey! That’ll hurt message. The “fire burns” message continued to be shared and spread around the community … all without a single Facebook post or tweet.

Social learning has been around for as long as there have been people to interact and share life lessons with.

Social Media as a Social Learning Amplifier

Social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, Yammer, and others do represent a critical milestone for social learning. For the first time in history, technology has advanced to the point that it moves at the speed of social learning. Instead of being a barrier to social learning, technology can now enhance it and take it to greater heights. Social media allows us to effectively scale learning (and learning programs) without having to sacrifice the critical social interactions often lost in self-paced e-learning courses.

Social learning is in many ways the primary way people learn. Social media has in many ways enhanced social learning, but somewhere along the line we allowed social media to define social learning. We need to break the bond between the two and rescue social learning before we dilute and ultimately destroy its value by allowing the phrase to be defined by technology rather than by real, interpersonal social connections and sharing.

More: How a One-Person Training Department Can Still Achieve Big Results.

David Kelly is the director of training at Carver Federal Savings Bank and member of the ASTD National Advisors for Chapters. He is also the author of the blog Misadventures in Learning, where he discusses the future of the learning field and curates the backchannel of learning conferences.

Image used under Creative Commons by Flickr user Jeff McNeill.

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