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Social learning: Buzzword or best practice?

A buzzword among eLearning professionals, ‘social learning’ continues to gain traction in the wake of Covid-19, where digital learning solutions are becoming even more prolific.

While collaborative learning is not a new concept, EDGE Education says in order to maximise how we learn in the 21st century and beyond, educational culture must shift from an individualistic to an inherently social approach.

Social learning is defined by Learning Design Specialist, Katherine Fourie, as the process where changes occur in our knowledge, skills, values, attitudes, behaviours and/or world views, as a result of our relation to or interaction with others.

“Decisions surrounding the inclusion of social learning tend to be binary in nature - either on/off or collaborative/non-collaborative,” she says. “What’s more, social learning tools and technologies - such as chats, forums or wikis - are often considered an afterthought to the overarching learning design.”

According to Fourie, a step in the right direction involves making social learning tools a key aspect of the learning design of online educational experiences.

Why is social learning important?

Specialist Academic Educator, Jana Eicher, says that the ‘social factor’ is deep-rooted in the way we receive and process information. She illustrates this by looking at four key theories on how learning takes place.

Behavourists view learning behaviours as a result of responses to external stimuli in the environment. “For example, where an educator uses prompts to obtain expected outputs from learners, these are essentially social in nature,” says Eicher.

Cognitivists, on the other hand, argue that a learner’s mental processes of storing and retrieving information are the key area of focus. Occurring in response to environmental stimuli (such as engagements with peers and educators), Eicher says they too are socially motivated.

Like cognitivism, constructivists believe that learners subjectively give meaning to their environment, and consolidate resulting new knowledge with what they already know. “This takes place as a result of continuous reflection - a private activity - and collaboration - a social activity,” she says.

According to connectivists, we continuously acquire knowledge by connecting different sources of information. “In this scenario, the role of the educator is to connect curious learners with inquiring minds to networks of peers and of knowledge, which is another social process.”

Eicher says that the link between social learning and these four theories is their agreement that learning doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and is significantly enhanced by social factors.

The benefits of a community and inquiry-based approach

In order to understand how social eLearning experiences can benefit higher education, CEO Dr Andrew Hibling refers to a community and inquiry-based approach called the Community of Inquiry framework. It focuses on the intentional creation of an online learning community, with emphasis on establishing deep and meaningful learning experiences through the development of three connected elements; social, cognitive and teaching presence.

“Meaningful community reflection and engagement are achieved through engagement with participants (social presence), engagement with content (cognitive presence), and engagement with regard to the goals and direction of learning (teaching presence),” says Hibling.

“This approach is therefore social by its very nature. But rather than serving as an afterthought, social learning is central to the design of the educational experience.”

Delivering a community-based educational experience

Hibling says that the answer lies in making community – with its social interaction, collaboration and discourse – central to the learning design of academic courseware.

He argues that in the eLearning space, content is overabundant but this paradoxically renders it insufficient for deep and meaningful learning. “However, when integrated with socialisation, content can become a channel for dialogue, as the development of social, cognitive and teaching presences is enabled. This can lead to reflection and, ultimately, deep and meaningful learning.”

To read more, view the full journal on the EDGE Education website.
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