Debunking 4 Myths of Social Learning

mythical creatures

You’ve heard of “safety in numbers.” You may not have heard of “learning in numbers”…though you’ve probably already done it.

Working together has been part of the educational process since ancient Greece, if not before. But in today’s increasingly collaborative world, where answers to information are mere seconds away, this approach is being reinvented by active learners, for active learners. Ongoing improvements in personal technology and online communities have redefined what it means to be social. And this will, in turn, redefine what it means to teach and learn.

Let’s go myth-busting.


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Myth 1:


Social Learning Is New

Albert Bandura

Albert Bandura, late 1970s

We all want the next big thing. But the next big thing is not always the next new thing.

In the late 1970s, Albert Bandura established the most well-known theory of modern social learning, which proposes that people can learn in a social context.

More specifically:

  • Learning can occur by observing others’ behaviors and the resulting outcomes
  • Learning can occur cognitively without a corresponding change in behavior
  • Modeled behavior is reinforced by producing desirable outcomes (for both the observed party and the learner)
  • Three variables in the social learning context—the learner, the behavior, and the environment—can influence each other
Illustration of social learning

The advantages of social learning, including learning by example and the reinforcement of knowledge that comes with the “human connection,” are as valid today.

However, the advent of social networking technologies has helped create a new breed of social learning. In today’s environment, instructors still act as models, facilitators, mentors, and guides, but at the same time relinquish a degree of their authority to the “learning community,” which includes students in the classroom, remotely located students, and a huge variety of resources that are as close as an Internet connection. In turn, each individual in the network of learners actively shares both knowledge and challenges.

The first generation of active learners who have grown up in a digitally connected environment provides a 21st century direction for social learning.

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Myth 2:


Social Learning Is the Same as Social Media

Social media and social learning are as much the same as French fries and French toast. In other words, they’re different (but both wonderful).

Social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Pinterest make it easy and motivate people to connect, share information, and develop relationships. Yet they can also provide the means to wander aimlessly, discovering people and information that may serve no value when it comes to learning.

When using these sites in the classroom, specific goals, directions, and guidelines on how to reach them (such as input from an instructor or lesson plan) can be used to facilitate formal social learning. However, social learning can also occur informally, without a pre-defined leader or curriculum, when topics originate organically from the learners themselves—for example, a group of students who get together to study for an upcoming test.

Social learning venn diagram

Social learning strategist and designer Tom Spiglanin explains social learning and social media exist separately, but social media can be used in support of social learning.

Dan Pontefract, head of learning and collaboration at Canadian firm Telus, posed a further distinction in Chief Learning Officer: Social media is a tool; social learning is an action. And online social technologies have enabled frictionless social learning opportunities.

Researchers Baiyun Chen and Thomas Bryer found that online social tools provide learners with “connections across boundaries and over time” and facilitate informal discussion and collaboration (key elements of social learning).

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Myth 3:


Social Learning Is Just for Fun

Social learning is fun, but not just for fun. Like all of us, it multi-tasks.

Social learning has real benefits for both individuals and institutions. The interconnected, interactive nature of social learning exponentially amplifies the rate at which critical content can be shared.

Both individuals and institutions reap real benefits from social learning. The interconnected, interactive nature of social learning exponentially amplifies the rate at which critical content can be shared and questions can be answered.

Cathy Davidson

Cathy Davidson, professor at Duke University

In Cathy Davidson’s essay Collaborative Learning for the Digital Age in The Chronicle of Higher Education, she describes a course she offers at Duke University called “This Is Your Brain on the Internet.” The course was based on a suggested reading list that included specialized journals, popular magazines, and websites, but was to be “peer-led, with student interest and research driving the design.”

Regular blog posts were also a requirement of the course, and much to her surprise Davidson discovered “that the most elegant bloggers often turned out to be the clunkiest and most pretentious of research-paper writers.”

Her experiences offers insight into how contemporary social learning frees learners to better process content and better retain what they have learned. When allowed to let go of the rules that accompany formal term papers, the changes were significant. They were more expressive. And they were able to interact with course content in ways that were more meaningful to them than a traditional format “that invites, even requires, linguistic and syntactic gobbledygook.”

Davidson, a professor of interdisciplinary studies at Duke University and one of the creators of the school’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, goes on to point out that social learning does far more than simply give license to gossip with peers or surf online content. In fact, existing research indicates benefits specifically related to the social and interactive nature of social learning:

  • At every age level, people often take their writing more seriously when it will be evaluated by peers as well as teachers
  • Blogs directed at peers exhibit fewer typographical and factual errors, less plagiarism, and generally better, more elegant and persuasive prose than classroom assignments by the same writers

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Myth 4:


Social Learning Doesn’t Have Broad Appeal

Dial-up: RIP. Roaming charges: RIP. No matter how the digital world evolves, social learning is here to stay.

Social learning may be hyped, but that does not mean it is a passing trend. Modern day social learning is a reflection of the educational environment today’s students have helped create for themselves (and future students) to perform at their best.

Observations suggest social learning is here to stay:

Social tools are making the web “old school”

According to comScore, the time spent using social tools increased by more than 62% (from 1 out of 13 minutes to 1 out of 8) between 2011 and 2012. This means use of the more traditional web, what Ben Elowitz, founder and CEO of Wetpaint, calls “the searchable web,” fell by more than 500 million hours during the same period.

He attributes this to the fact that “the connected social web is alive, moving, proactive, and personal, while the document web is just an artifact—suited as universal reference, but hardly a personal experience.”

And those experiences build relationships…which increase engagement…which stimulate learning.

The active learner

The active learner

Today’s active learners are demanding and benefiting from social learning

Mashable Tech reported that after adopting a pilot social media learning program, the grades of one Portland, OR seventh grade class increased by more than 50% and 20% of students school wide completed extra assignments for no credit.

Tweets improve understanding of the classics

Upper level students in a class on Chaucer at Shenandoah University use Twitter to post tweets from characters they are studying in class. The posts must be in keeping with plot and character development.

The exercise has improved students’ critical thinking and given them greater insight into the material. Instructor Byron Grigsby, who is also the school’s vice president of academic affairs, said, “(It’s) causing them to think about the characters in different ways.”

A New Bedtime Routine

Fourth graders at an IDEAL-New Mexico school have redefined bedtime reading. A teacher created online literature circles that her students participated in for one hour, once a week at home. She found her students so excited to read with each other that after the hour long collaborative session ended, they consistently asked the teacher for more group reading time.