Social Learning

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= We participate, therefore we are


Social learning is the development of knowledge, skills, and attitudes while connected to others (peers, mentors, experts) in an electronic surround of digital media, both real-time and asynchronous.

(Harold Jarche).


John Seely Brown:

“The emphasis on social learning stands in sharp contrast to the traditional Cartesian view of knowledge and learning—a view that has largely dominated the way education has been structured for over one hundred years. The Cartesian perspective assumes that knowledge is a kind of substance and that pedagogy concerns the best way to transfer this substance from teachers to students. By contrast, instead of starting from the Cartesian premise of “I think, therefore I am,” and from the assumption that knowledge is something that is transferred to the student via various pedagogical strategies, the social view of learning says, “We participate, therefore we are.”

This perspective shifts the focus of our attention from the content of a subject to the learning activities and human interactions around which that content is situated. This perspective also helps to explain the effectiveness of study groups. Students in these groups can ask questions to clarify areas of uncertainty or confusion, can improve their grasp of the material by hearing the answers to questions from fellow students, and perhaps most powerfully, can take on the role of teacher to help other group members benefit from their understanding (one of the best ways to learn something is, after all, to teach it to others)." (


Strong and weak social learning

George Por:

"All learning is social but when we talk about social learning we mean something more specific in a sense of a weak and a strong case. Weak social learning occurs in communities or networks of learners, strong social learning is a result of communities or networks that learns. In the first case, we talk about a collection of intelligences , where the individual is using the shared resources for the benefit of his own learning and development. In the second case, we talk about collective intelligence , where the result aimed for is not only individual but group or social development, as well.

Strong social learning is a co-creative quest for meeting problems or opportunities that affect a group or society, which requires collective sensing, intuition, meaning making, and other qualities of collective intelligence. " Intelligence refers to the main cognitive powers: perception, action planning and coordination, memory, imagination and hypothesis generation, inquisitiveness and learning abilities. The expression 'collective intelligence' designates the cognitive powers of a group." (Lévy 2003)

Strong social learning improves all of the above at the collective level, but cannot happen without weak social learning also occurring and benefitting the individuals. Only then will they develop the sense of ‘ownership’ of the learning process and its results, which is required for self-organizing action. That's why we explore in the next sections some of the social learning theories focused on the individuals and the connections among them, rather then the learning by whole systems." (


1. Mimo Ito:

"What characterizes learning in settings where kids are engaging in popular, networked, and viral new media cultures?

First, there is very little explicit instruction, and learning happens through process of peer-based knowledge sharing. People engaged in a practice seek out information or knowledgeable peers when it becomes relevant to their work, and in turn, they help others when asked. Although there are people acknowledged as experts, they are not framed as instructors.

Secondly, rather than working to master a standard body of material and skills, participants in these practices tend to specialize. Much like we see in academic life, there are opportunities to develop status and a role as an expert in a particular, often narrow specialty. Alternately, this can involve developing a particular style or signature in creative work. It is not about trying to acquire the same body of knowledge and skills as all one’s peers in a given community of practice.

Finally, these environments are based on ongoing feedback and reviews of performance and work that are embedded in the practices of creation and play. These groups also have contexts for the public display and circulation of work that enables review and critique by their audiences. Competition and assessment happens within this ecology of media production and consumption, not by an external mechanism or set of standards. In other words, individual accomplishment is recognized and celebrated among peers in the production community and other interested fans, providing powerful motivation for ongoing learning and achievement.

We can see these dynamics at play in a wide range of settings; these are not processes that are exclusive to new media engagement. New media becomes significant when it enables kids to have greater access to these specialized practices of peer learning, knowledge sharing and amateur communities of creative production." (

Social Learning in the Enterprise

Jane Hart, on social learning in the enterprise:

" Social Learning is about creating and sharing information and knowledge with other people using (often free) social media tools that support a collaborative approach to learning.

Social Learning is fast becoming recognised as a valuable way of supporting formal learning and enabling informal learning within an organisation (something that has been overlooked for far too long). The use of online communities and networks, where employees are encouraged to co-create content, collaborate, share knowledge and fully participate in their own learning, is helping to create far more enduring learning experiences." (

More at

Social Theory of Learning vs. Theories of Social Learning

George Por:

"The "social theory of learning" view represents a different scope than the theories of social learning. The first connects KF research with a larger, society-level and evolutionarytheories and contexts, in which learning and education happen. The second connects KF research with the praxis, and specifically, with the issues of how education adapts to the new learning needs of people and society in the 21st century. The exploration of a social theory of learning has to precede the theories of social learning, because the scope of the first can illuminate issues, and help identifying gaps, in the second. The social theory of learning developed by Etienne Wenger has a scope that sheds light on the emergence of such trends as the"horizontalization of learning" and"partialization of learning imperatives ." Understanding of both of them contributes to the design thinking about federated courses.

"Horizontalization of learning : a shift in our a view of knowledge communication that emphasizes less the vertical relationship between a producer and a recipient and more horizontal interactions required for the negotiation of mutual relevance.

Partialization of learning imperatives : the complexity of knowledge domains creates relationships of interdependence so that learning increasingly means being part of broader systems and learning to participate productively rather than mastering everything oneself." (Wenger 2004)

We will come back to and draw on the horizontalization and partialization trends, and the dimensions of the "curriculum of meaningfulness," when addressing the high level requirements of federated course design informed by them.

Wenger's theory postulates a "curriculum of meaningfulness," of which he identified the following 7 dimensions. We quote all of them because each can serve as guidepost to federated course design and generative starting points to the design conversation. These dimensions of the learning experience seem to be transformative, which is just the kind of learning that we can expect people taking federated courses will be ready and asking for.

  • "Experience of localized depth. Going deep into some learning, into the practice of a specific community and get a good sense of what full membership is. Experience learning with others in the context of a community. Get far enough to experience peer-to-peer learning with masters of the practice.
  • Experience of boundary crossing. Interaction across a boundary through engagement in a shared task that forces cross-boundary negotiation.
  • Experience of time depth. Reach an experience of “flow” by being fully present and creative in an activity.
  • Experience of time dislocation. Engage in a substantial contact with a different generation as a vista onto history or onto the future.
  • Experience of cultural dislocation. Immersion in a different culture with a different discourse of the self.
  • Experience of agency and power. Make a personal difference somewhere; not necessarily a great success in abstract terms; have an effect on the world that is experienced as personally significant.
  • Experience of scale. This may be the most difficult to imagine and to achieve in practice. Hence its place last. Gain an appreciation of a full learning system in which one is personally involved by traversing the fractal at multiple levels of scale. Learn to find the community structure. Understand in as direct a way as possible how the levels constitute each other and how the various functions are effective across these levels (performance, governance, institutionalization, social fabric, personal trajectories)." (Wenger, 2004)

Wenger's social theory of learning has the individual's perspective in its center of gravity, and analyzes social trends as context to better understand his/her learning needs. There's a need and possibility to develop a more integral theory that would be "bi-focal:" including in its core both the individual and the society as evolving systems. Building such theory will be essential to accelerate the development of large-scale social learning practices needed to spread knowledge relevant to the world problematique." (


John Seely Brown:

"“Because my goal as a teacher is to bring my students into full legitimate participation in the community of instructional technologists as quickly as possible, all student writing was done on public blogs. The writing students did in the first few weeks was interesting but average. In the fourth week, however, I posted a list of links to all the student blogs and mentioned the list on my own blog. I also encouraged the students to start reading one another’s writing. The difference in the writing that next week was startling. Each student wrote significantly more than they had previously. Each piece was more thoughtful. Students commented on each other’s writing and interlinked their pieces to show related or contradicting thoughts. Then one of the student assignments was commented on and linked to from a very prominent blogger. Many people read the student blogs and subscribed to some of them. When these outside comments showed up, indicating that the students really were plugging into the international community’s discourse, the quality of the writing improved again. The power of peer review had been brought to bear on the assignments.” (

More Information

Learning 2.0

Federating Social Learning Theories