What is Social Learning?

We all need to be careful with fads, buzz words, and opportunistic organizations selling solutions. This is certainly true of social learning, which is too often described synonymously with social media.
Cathedral of Learning - Pittsburgh, PA

I even sat through a presentation from someone on the topic of social learning, most of which was focused on consumer social services like FourSquare, Pinterest, and the usual suspects including Twitter and Facebook.

This is fine and maybe I learn something when I used these tools. In fact, I have learned plenty. But using these services is not social learning. There are plenty of definitions and if one contains the phrase "social media" I discard it. Social media is a method or a tool. But it is not part of any reasonable definition of social learning.

Social Learning Defined

The best definition of social learning I have encountered in my research so far comes from a paper from Ecology and Society called, What is Social Learning?

In it the authors define social learning as a process that must:

  1. Demonstrate that a change in understanding has taken place in the individuals involved
  2. Demonstrate that this change goes beyond the individual and becomes situated within wider social units or communities of practice; AND
  3. Occur through social interactions and processes between actors within a social network.

After reading this definition, does social learning occur in your organization? And how can we implement social learning with these three criteria?


Reed, M., Evely, A. C., Cundill, G., Fazey, I. R. A., Glass, J., Laing, A., ... & Stringer, L. (2010). What is social learning?. Ecology and Society.