Lately in the industry there’s been a lot of tangling of terms, most of them including the word “social”: social media, social learning, social technologies, social platforms, social socials... We’ve attempted to address this at length in the new eLearning Guild Report, Social Media for Learning, released last week and available here.

This month's column is an excerpt from the Report; join me this Friday for an overview of the findings (including some surprises) at the closing session of this week’s eLearning Guild Online Forum on Social and Informal Learning.

Social Learning vs. Social Media for Learning  

It’s important to distinguish between social learning and social media for learning.

Social learning is not new: hot stoves and the like notwithstanding (learning from sad experience and failure), it’s how we’ve always learned, all the time. It’s how we learn our native language, how we learn to get along in school, how we learn about, and function in, the culture of a new workplace. We watch other people, we talk with other people, we read instructions other people have written, and we ask each other things like, “Hey Joe! Can you please show me how to run this spreadsheet?”

New social media tools now enable social learning to happen on a much larger scale. But this doesn’t mean that social learning is something we suddenly need to “do,” as if it hadn’t existed before or that we need to attempt to “implement.” Rather, those involved in eLearning should work to ensure our designs home in on and support areas where social learning is already naturally occurring in the learner’s workflow and leverage new tools where that makes sense. (Workflow questions: Where and when are workers asking for help from one another? Where do they need performance support?)

In the industry right now – as we see in the Social Media for Learning report research data – there is considerable use of social media tools in instruction delivery efforts. But there’s less evidence that people are using the tools to support social learning. Often, people use social media tools as another means of delivering content. For example:

  • Publishing the training department newsletter on a blog
  • uto-scheduling tweets about class assignments from a Twitter account that does not otherwise engage with the learners or ask them to engage with each other
  • Hosting a software application development course, in tutorial format, on a wiki

By contrast, using social media to support and extend social learning invites learners to contribute, engage, and participate with one another online. For instance, when:

  • Setting up a wiki for those in a new-hire induction program to work together to edit a FAQs page for use by the next group coming to the program
  • Having managers-in-training use a microblogging tool for a leadership book-club discussion
  • Helping to support and participating in a community of the organization’s customer service reps, to give them a place to share war stories and strategies for dealing with challenges

          So just using the online tools to deliver content doesn’t support “social learning;” that happens when you use the tools to invite interaction from and between the learners. It’s about social, not media, and it’s about shared learning, not just pushing content.

More partnership, less delivery

While we are seeing some use of social media for learning to replicate traditional approaches to instruction, it’s clear from the survey data that those involved in learning endeavors are missing opportunities for informal learning and performance support. These things are happening anyway, and in some cases other work areas are supporting them.

The marketing department offers discussion forums for new product rollouts. The communications office handles interpretation of policy and new procedures. Where is the training department in this picture?

Learning practitioners are well advised to start paying more attention to learning as it really happens – all day, as we interact with one another, as we go about the business of executing our job tasks or schoolwork. Where do workers struggle? How much time do they spend looking for something, or someone? Where is mentoring happening? How about job shadowing? Are the organization’s workers turning for help from LinkedIn groups or Facebook communities? Where can we as learning professionals become part of the daily workflow rather than a separate entity offering formal scheduled events? How can we be partners in shared learning, rather than an outside entity only delivering it?

View the complete eLearning Guild Report, Social Media for Learning.

And be sure to join me for the Guild Online Forum on Social and Informal Learning.

Want More?

See my “Truth About Social Learning” resources (literature, references, etc.) at

And join me at DevLearn 2011 for “What Managers and Executives Need to Know about Social Learning” and more!