Do your employees want to learn by themselves or with others?

The answer might surprise you: both.

In his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Dan Pink notes that people have a strong desire to be autonomous and inter-connected.

When it comes to training, your employees ultimately want the freedom to learn at their own pace, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they want to sit in a cubicle, reading objectives and watching videos by themselves.

They do want social interaction; they just don’t want to be told what to do. So how do you design a training course to meet both of those needs?

eLearning is the obvious answer, as it’s flexible enough to be self paced, but there needs to be a social element as well. That’s where “social learning” comes in. Here’s what you need to know about it…

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What Is Social Learning?

Social learning is learning with and from other people, whether it happens online through media, forums, or other digital interaction, or offline through in-person discussions, meetings, or conferences.

By using resources like comments, posts, instant messaging, group discussion boards, wikis, or even video chats, eLearners are able to engage with their peers in order to ask questions, start discussions, or solve problems. It’s a highly interactive style of learning that encourages communication.

[Tweet “So why is social learning so important for employers? Simple: engagement.”]


Social learning supports active participation, which is an essential element to training. Learners are able to share knowledge in a way that enables them to engage not only with the coursework itself, but also with instructors and co-workers.

Of course, engagement isn’t the only reason you might want to consider using social learning in your eLearning training courses.

Why You Should Use Social Learning

According to the 70/20/10 Model for Learning and Development, 70 percent of an employee’s work-related knowledge comes from on-the job experiences, but a staggering 20 percent coming from interactions with others, while only 10 percent comes from structured or formal training.

This means that aside from actually doing their job, employees learn best from interacting in social environments. Here’s why:

1. Social learning improves critical thinking

Social learning can help employees discuss scenarios related to in-the-moment decision making, which can improve critical thinking.

Interaction with other learners helps employees challenge pre-conceived notions about what to do during on-the-job incidences – how to handle a customer interaction, how to deal with an emergency situation, etc.

Learners are also encouraged to share relevant information about different topics that others may have overlooked or undervalued. This increases the likelihood of retention because employees are able to add to the dialogue beyond the prescribed topic.

Even if your coursework is less open to interpretation (like safety and compliance training, for example), collaborative environments can still help students think critically about important concepts presented in the coursework.

2. Social learning encourages shy learners

One of the benefits of eLearning in general is that it provides flexible environments and tools to accommodate different learning styles.

Online social learning in particular can encourage participation from employees who feel intimidated by in-class discussion or by coursework that’s tough to work through individually.

Learners that may not ask a question to their boss or supervisor in person about important work and safety-related topics may be more inclined to leave a comment in a group discussion or leave a query in the comment section of a video.

3. Social learning appeals to younger learners

Another benefit of social learning is the impact it has on young workers. Millennials make up an increasing number of the workforce, and their penchant for social media and other forms of digital interaction is notable.

Social learning can leverage networking, social media, and other technology to engage a new batch of workers that might otherwise find coursework boring.

Younger learners are also able to quickly adapt to digital formats, making them the perfect guinea pigs for any company looking to test the waters of social learning.


4. Social learning bridges the diversity gap

Social learning also has the ability to help diverse teams co-mingle in ways that would otherwise be impossible. Through interaction and discussion, learners can bridge the gap between other cultures by establishing a “neutral zone” where interaction and understanding is encouraged.

In fact, one study found that students who engaged in social learning felt more emotionally connected to their peers and were more willing to overlook obvious cultural differences. They felt as though they had people to talk to if they had a problem or needed help.

If your workplace consists of various cultural barriers or is physically spread out over different countries, social learning makes it possible to connect those cultures with a common cause and purpose.

5. Social learning makes stale content “new” again

Even if your eLearning course materials won’t change significantly over time, you can still keep things “fresh” by using social interactions to encourage new perspectives.

New participants and discussions will continually reinvigorate your content, meaning that you won’t have to update coursework for each new batch of learners. You’ll save significant amounts of time, money, and energy on your eLearning materials.

Your coursework will also benefit from new ideas or points of interest brought by outside perspectives, which can then be added in or used to create new courses. Social learning allows you to tap into a greater knowledge base and can even help turn learners into teachers.

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Final Thoughts

When it comes to engaging learners and making sure they’re able to retain the information given to them, social learning is an effective tool that can be used in any eLearning course to do both.

Social learning allows employees to connect to their superiors and their co-workers, regardless of learning styles and culture divides. It gives them a voice and helps them think critically about the ideas and topics presented in your materials.

It’s also a great way to inject new ideas and concepts into coursework that’s outdated, saving you time and money in developing new materials, and the best part is that you can add it to any eLearning course you’ve already developed.


Jonathan Davis is an accomplished professional with experience helping Fortune 500 companies achieve success in employee communication and training programs. Jonathan focuses on delivering reliable, successful outcomes that increases employee engagement through highly targeted deliverables, creative messaging and robust programs.