Let’s not mix up social learning and informal learning

In March I participated in the workshop “Social Learning in Business” run by Harold Jarche of the Social Learning Centre.

With DynaMind’s focus on social learning I was excited to join a group who would be discussing just that and to perhaps also learn from the way the workshop was run. The workshop’s focus was on informal learning – not social learning. I was surprised to see the terms “social learning” and “informal learning” used interchangeably – as if there is only social learning in the informal learning context.

The organisers don’t consider them to be interchangeable terms but the title of the workshop clearly puzzled me. I appreciate that the use of terms in this sector is often ambiguous and I have given up on being too hung up about this. Yet, I can’t help but point out that this is a good example of how the confusing use of terms makes conversations about these concepts so challenging.

The reason why the term social learning is used instead of the term informal learning is that “social learning is not just something that happens in a formal context” (dixit reply in the forum). I agree with that last bit, interesting online discussions don’t just happen. But does this mean they don’t happen in formal learning? No. The learning tasks need to be designed to promote social learning. Does that make it less social? Of course not.  From the experience in our eWorkshops which are designed based on social constructivist principles, formal learning can be very social. Our eWorkshops always are.

The “Social Learning in Business” workshop was an interesting experience on many levels. The workshop was built on four individual assignments (I was surprised by the use of this school term – is it only me?), focused on how each of the participants approached informal learning. We had to share the greatest barrier to adopting informal/social learning in a selected organization. Then we narrated our work for two consecutive days in 100 words or less and shared our reflections. Next we each had to do a value proposition for communities in our organization (or one we work with). And finally we were asked to conduct a value network analysis around our own professional learning network.

There were 52 participants in the workshop and only a handful were still talking at the end. Few did the assignments and shared their ideas in the forum. Even less people engaged in conversations around these reflections. There was very little discussion considering the number of people “present”. Most people never participated at all. It felt like a mini-MOOC. It’s too easy for the organisers/facilitators to say “well, everyone gets out what they put into it”. Really?

Don’t get me wrong, we got many links to resources and articles about informal learning. Almost every reply post had a new link and many of these were indeed interesting readings. I have huge respect for the work done by the team at the Social Learning Centre.

Yet I felt disengaged most of the time. The problem with feeling disengaged in these “learning” environments is that you’re immediately branded as one of the people who don’t “get” it.

Our eWorkshops have a typical completion rate of at least 80% – with 100% not being unusual. Up to the very last day there is a very strong buzz – which is then sometimes transferred to more informal environments if the client so wishes. The learning community that gets established through the solving of real workplace problems is so much stronger than what we can achieve by simply “talking about the subject”. It’s those participation and completion rates that are proof over and over again that we’re doing lots of things right.

I was imagining how the “Social Learning in Business” workshop would have worked if it would have been designed like one of our eWorkshops.

Our eWorkshops are online learning events where *working* together leads to learning together. Grounded in the problem-based learning philosophy the participants solve problems together. The many active discussions are a means to an end. People share lots of their own experiences when they solve a workplace problem – that’s the way they often make their case. The problem forms the context and fully engages the people solving it.

I would have loved to solve real problems in the “Social Learning in Business” workshop. Throw me into the deep end and make me *do* something in a safe environment. Make me apply the learning while I learn. I didn’t want to *only* talk about informal learning, read yet more resources, nor did I need to get a feel for informal learning (many of our clients are moving into this direction so I have the exposure).

I would have liked to work on a complex (welcome to the real world) scenario with the other participants in the workshop, develop strategies on how to promote and support informal learning, and decide together on what to do when things go pear-shaped. Give a group a context and a problem – and the learning goes much deeper.  It makes sense.

Before I close, let me make it crystal clear that I have huge respect for the work of Harold Jarche and Jane Hart. I have been following them for many years and have learnt heaps about workplace learning from many of their writings.  I hope it is fine to share my perspective on the “Social learning in Business” workshop – which in no way changes how I perceive Jane’s and Harold’s professionalism.

Is teamwork compulsory in eWorkshops?
Learning styles… aren’t we over this?


4 Comments. Leave new

  • […] In March I participated in the workshop “Social Learning in Business” run by Harold Jarche of the Social Learning Centre. With DynaMind's focus on social learning I was excited to join a group who would be discussing just …  […]

  • There is a difference in scope as well, as you charge almost 10 times as much for your eWorkshops as we were charging for ours. We also offer custom, interactive workshops, focused on organizational issues, at a higher cost, with more involvement on our part. Our aim with the SLC workshops was to offer introductory workshops to the broadest audience possible, at a very low price.

    • Hi Harold,

      Thanks for your comment. First a correction: we charge 3.5 times more for our e-facilitation workshops as you charge for the SLC workshops, not 10 times as you indicate. I can only speculate around levels of effort, but I believe I’m probably not too much off the mark if I say the facilitation time can be multiplied by the same.

      However, it’s not about that. The engagement and completion rates are way higher. In a “content+share your experiences” model, multiplying the facilitation time will only bring additional engagement up to a certain level (unfortunately it plateaus early on the curve) . It’s the design that makes the difference. Turn a more traditional workshop into problem-based learning and engagement dramatically increases – provided the facilitator adapts his/her strategies.

      I appreciate the SLC workshops are introductory (and thanks again for sharing so many interesting resources and insights!) and for a wide audience, but I challenge the fact that in a “beginners” context we need to stick to a “content + discussion” model. I also appreciate that the vast majority of online courses and workshops are built on that model. Yet, as a learner it is much more powerful to be thrown into the deep end and DO something together with people who are in the same boat – because that’s exactly what we face at work. What do you think?

      Thanks again for popping in and sharing your thoughts – much appreciated!


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