We learn better when it’s social

From an early age, we are conditioned to believe that knowledge retention requires dedicated time in focused solitude. But in fact, studies show that the latest generation of learners, generation Z, prefer learning on a far more sociable scale, with access to social learning tools that allow them to share, collaborate and progress.

What is social learning?

Social learning is a learning theory that is based on social interaction and collaboration. According to the author of Social Learning Theory, Albert Bandura:

"From observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions, this coded information serves as a guide for action."

Albert Bandura, Social Learning Theory, 1977

As a theory, social learning shows us how natural it is for humans (and other lifeforms — check out our #bemorebluetit video to see what we mean) to learn from one another. Whether you buy into the theory or not, with social media, most of us are doing observation imitation and modeling all before we’ve eaten breakfast 一 by checking whatsapp, emails and even weather apps. By scrolling, sharing posts and commenting on social media throughout the day, we constantly observe others through the huge amounts of attention-grabbing social content that we absorb.

The phenomenon of viral social content shows us the power of social learning. Lots of social content gains traction 一 overnight, people from all across the globe can come to share the same niche piece of knowledge, like how to make a milk frother using a soap dispenser. The ability to share, comment on and discuss social content creates positive reinforcement that increases your chances of remembering and taking action on something. If people can effectively learn all kinds of weird and wonderful things in social, online settings, they can learn from your training too, provided you weave in social learning.

The benefits of social learning

  1. Improve knowledge retention

    Being able to apply knowledge in real-life situations is critical, so learning from peers and providing relevant and practical information means the learner is more likely to retain it. This could be an interview or a top tip from a co-worker.

  2. Increase engagement and motivation

    A Harvard Business School study shows that social learning can increase course completion rates by up to 85%. When learners are actively engaged in the learning process and have the opportunity to collaborate with their peers, they are more motivated to learn and more likely to achieve their goals. This could be a game or workshop.

  3. Enhance problem-solving skills

    Learners can come up with creative solutions to problems by working together. This is shown within strong social communities where learners can draw from each other’s experiences and perspectives to help each other. This could be a poll or survey.

  4. Increase collaboration and teamwork

    Building a community through collaboration and teamwork not only feels supportive but it also focuses learners to work towards a common goal. Ideas from external, internal and shared experiences all have a part to play in learning, much like Google’s motto, ‘ideas come from everywhere’. This could be a comment or file sharing that supports others.

So how can we take social learning, something we do all the time already, and use it to train people effectively? Firstly, you need to create the right environment.

What is a social learning environment?

A social learning environment is built on social interaction and collaboration. Learners are encouraged to work together, share knowledge, and learn from each other. We see it most often in education, where social learning occurs as students observe teachers or peers and learn from mimicking their behaviors. But we can create social learning environments in our workplaces too, especially in the face of the ongoing skills gap. McKinsey research shows that most companies worldwide — 87% — can see that they either already have a skills gap, or will have one within a few years. We need to be creating environments for people to learn and upskill to future-proof our people and our businesses.

How to build an effective social learning environment

Take advantage of the platforms your audience already use
Create chat groups and spaces for asynchronous collaboration. With the tech available to us, we can create structures for the people we’re training that allow for a free flow of information. Take this example by Google Retail Training UK on YouTube

Screenshot from the Google Retail Training UK YouTube Channel

It features Astrophotography on Google Pixel phones. There’s social connection because of the platform which encourages discussion, encouraging people to get involved, comment and share. The message and product information is direct and the footage is fun and memorable. This shows how the power of social media can be harnessed to create a social learning environment. Plus, it’s one in a series of posts that shows the different use cases and benefits of the camera on Google Pixel phones, demonstrating that saying the same thing in different ways is useful in creating a social learning environment.

You can’t rely on just one message
Hearing something once does not necessarily lead to behavioral change, so it’s ok to repeat information to the group. People’s behavior varies day to day, and it’s appropriate to deliver the same message in different ways multiple times to ensure it is engaged with and then acted upon.

You need to keep testing
Human behavior is always changing and so should the learning that we create. Regular feedback from your social learners should be gathered and monitored against your learning objectives.

Start with the story
People connect over stories. Focus on the message you are trying to communicate first, and the format or channel second. This way, learners have something they can bond over and discuss straight away, meaning the benefits of social learning come into play quicker.

The future of social learning

The future of the social learning landscape is already becoming visible as companies start to take advantage of the ways in which Artificial Intelligence (AI) can optimize social learning. There are already AI-driven insights into the distinct mechanisms that humans use to learn from others, which could inform how we create social learning environments. We’re excited to see how technological advancements shift how we approach training people.

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