Many people think social learning is new. You know … you have a question and post it on Twitter and someone posts an answer. Or you have a discussion in one of your grad classes using a discussion forum. There are two issues with this way of thinking. The first one, as Ben Betts explains so humorously at the beginning of the new Guild research report, Social Learning: Answers to Eight Crucial Questions:

The eLearning industry has committed a crime. As brazen as any bank robber, we waltzed in and stole the phrase “social learning” from decades of psychological research. We show no signs of giving it back.

The meteoric rise of both social networking and social media meant that, somewhat inevitably, someone would stick “social” in front of “learning” and brand it as shiny and new.

Except social learning isn’t new. We’ve been learning from others since the beginning of time, as he clarifies in the report. The second problem, as Jane Bozarth explained in the Guild research report Social Media for Learning, is that there’s a difference between social media, the tools we use to support social learning, and social learning, how we learn from the people we work, play, and live with.

What are the benefits of social learning?

One of the most fascinating parts of the newest report is Betts’s section on the benefits of social learning, and I wanted to share a part of that section in this article. In the report, Betts discusses the benefits of three broad areas of social learning—learning from others, learning in the presence of others, and learning in groups. I’ll spend most of this article analyzing his discussion of the benefits of learning from others.

Betts describes how social psychologist Albert Bandura observed that external influences play a major role in the behaviors we choose to personally adopt. Bandura is the person whom we can credit with the actual phrase “social learning.” He observed that we often watch someone doing something, and then try it out for ourselves and do it pretty well. Think about it. We learn from watching others all the time, from watching other trainers’ techniques to watching dance moves. Little children do it all the time (and sometimes they mimic things we really don’t want them to do!).

Why does social learning work better than classroom instruction?

Betts explains why this works:

Learning from another person has … been shown to be vastly more effective than learning in a larger classroom group. Benjamin Bloom conducted his famous “2 sigma” study that showed that students learn much more effectively in a one-to-one environment than in the classroom. One-to-one tutoring in Bloom’s experiments was so effective that it transformed a “C” student into an “A” student—a movement of 2 standard deviations (or 2 sigma in statistical terms). This is a profound finding—we’re all capable of being “A” students when we learn from a tutor.

Almost a century earlier, Lev Vygotsky, a famous Russian educational psychologist, was studying the one-to-one relationships between apprentices and their masters when he coined the phrase “zone of proximal development” (ZPD) as an explanation of how this tutoring could be effective. Vygotsky suggested that the more experienced “master” provides help for the apprentice to grasp concepts just beyond their current level of understanding—the “zone.” This concept involves a social relationship between two people where the master can adapt the tutoring to the student’s needs. We might think of this idea as “scaffolding”—providing the support for a learner to build up his or her own knowledge, one level at a time.

The ability to help someone learn through one-to-one relationships does not need to come from a teacher, tutor, or expert. It only needs to be someone with more knowledge and skill. As a result, it has profound implications in academics and the workplace.

Consider for a moment the repercussions, for example, of helping people in your workplace get up to speed on a new system implementation. You could hold classes for people across the country. This is expensive, of course. But even more problematic, it’s likely that the classes would be held prior to the implementation, and then people would forget much of what they learned by the time the implementation occurred. Or you could try another scenario, which better fits the way people learn, as discussed in the Guild research report Smart Companies Support Informal Learning. You could keep a number of volunteers across the organization well trained, then provide asynchronous training and performance support tools for the new system and allow these local volunteers to support people at their site.

Why (and how) to use online social media for learning

Betts similarly describes the benefits of learning in the presence of others. For example, people benefit when they can measure their own abilities against others’. (One important thing Ben brought up is that people often think they are more skilled than they are until they are able to measure their skills against others. Interesting!) Similarly, a benefit of learning in groups is the ability to gain insights from the wider group by sharing everyone’s skills and knowledge as needed. He describes case studies where social learning encouraged individuals to take more initiative for their own learning.

One of the best parts of the report, I think, is where Betts helps readers think through some of the downsides of social learning, such as worry about losing control, and how to overcome them. The case studies highlight the benefits accrued to a number of organizations around the globe, and his implementation and measurement tools show how to leverage these benefits for your organization.

October’s research report: HTML5

Judy Unrein’s research report on HTML5 will be available later this month, and you won’t want to miss it! It will help you make sense of the hype over new authoring methods and tools, especially for mobile learning. If you aren’t currently a paid Guild member, consider joining so you can use these reports to improve your practice and make important decisions. If you have any questions or comments about the Guild research reports, don’t hesitate to contact me at