One of the key benefits of open learning is that it is social. Learning is social when the process of acquiring knowledge and skills involves interactions with others, including sharing ideas with peers and mentors. Social interactions during the learning process can be very beneficial. This is because they have an emergent property, meaning sociality generates unexpected benefits for all the participants. For instance, if one learner explains complex content to a peer, both learners benefit. The learner who is doing the explaining reifies knowledge and the actively listening learner benefits from gaining extra clarity.

Social learning does not happen by chance.

Individual learning is so ingrained that students tend to divide group projects into separate chunks of work that require only cursory interactions

Learning is hardly ever designed to be a social experience. One of the reasons is that, even in primary education, students are taught to learn independently. As students progress to tertiary education, individual learning becomes so ingrained that even when group work is assigned, students tend to divide the work into independent sections and assemble it individually. This type of group does not really lead to social learning because even though some degree of cooperation exists, the emergent knowledge and competencies that arise through interaction and co-creation are absent. Dividing group work may be the standard mode, but it misses out on the rich opportunities for sociality and for developing crucial professional skills.

We must reclaim the social part of social learning.

To take full advantage of sociality, it is essential to design the learning activities in a way that is conducive to social learning. One way to do so is by using one of the existing frameworks, like Gilly Salmon’s 5-step framework, which is based on the principle that social learning is a process that requires careful planning and facilitation. The five steps of the framework can be described as a scaffolding technique in which students learn how to do social learning first and then move into the subject content. The first step is creating an accessible and engaging learning environment that motivates learners to participate and then encouraging learners to connect and establish relationships with each other. Once that sociality is established, students can start to share information and knowledge with other learners. The system then moves to more complex activities, such as knowledge production and solving real-world problems. The last step is for students to reflect not only on the content but also on how they learn.

In learning settings, sociality is not a byproduct of the learning experience but rather an emergent outcome of a system that must be actively designed and managed. In other words, social learning does not happen by chance. Whereas social learning has many benefits, students tend to seclude themselves from the class and return to individual learning. To make learning a social experience, learning designers must actively set the scene so that students can learn from each other and by doing things together. This means going beyond mere talking with each other and creating an accessible and engaging learning environment that motivates learners to participate, encourages learners to connect and establish relationships with each other, and facilitates knowledge production and problem-solving through social interactions. By doing so, learning designers can harness the emergent properties of social learning.

Putting the “Social” back to Social Learning