Four years ago I wrote about pair programming where programmers learn programming techniques by working in pairs. Collaborative learning extends far beyond that.
I - and most people I know - prefer to learn some things alone and some things with others. Sometimes I can learn a topic from just reading about it and practicing, while other times I choose to discuss, practice, and learn with others.
What is social learning?
Daniel Pink in the forward to The New Social Learning by Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner summarized it like this:
Social learning isn't a replacement for training and employee development. But it can accomplish what traditional approaches often cannot. For instance, this new, technology-enabled approach can supplement instruction with collaboration and co-creation and, in so doing, blur the boundary between the instructor and the instructed and enhance the experience of all.
In the past, the term "social learning" was used to describe a learning process where learners watched others model desired behaviors, but the use of the term has changed. Per the book it now refers to a mechanism to help "...people in organizations learn quickly; innovate fast; share knowledge; and engage with peers, business partners, and the customers they serve." Most of that sharing and engagement occurs over public or private social media sites including Facebook, Twitter, Yammer, and LinkedIn. Technology-aided social learning of this type is not really new. In the early days of the Internet (when it was the ARPAnet) there were email discussion lists where novices and experts discussed technical and non-technical topics. Some of those lists survive today.
The idea is that learners can collaborate to learn from each other or from those with experience. Much of the time that learning is just-in-time. Learners can search, ask questions, or text message internal experts. And as Pink notes, it is not a replacement for formal training and planned employee development, but it can be an excellent supplement. I use, recommend, and curate social learning of various forms.
For those interested in the brain science behind social learning, researchers have found that content acquired via social learning is actually stored differently than material one learns on one's own!
"But we don't want to share"
One objection to social learning is that companies and learners don't want to share with the outside world what they are learning. That makes sense. It may be that a company is moving into a new venture and doesn't want to share with the world that their employees are learning about that new area.
In such cases, teams may choose to learn in a closed social group. This "team learning" often has all the aspects of other social learning activities. In many of these cases, teams use closed social media groups or social learning features on company learning management systems (LMSs).
Social/collaborative learning is not for all learners nor for all topics. It is not a replacement for well-designed formal learning. It is, however, an effective way to learn some topics and supplement the learning of others.