Social learning is just one learning tool that can be employed to promote learning in any classroom. We typically think of social learning as peer to peer (P2P) and it is dependent on several factors to be successful:
1) The base level of knowledge or experience a learner brings to the discussion
2) A positive, open learning environment
3) Facilitation of discussion
I have employed the idea of social learning in both F2F classrooms and of course online classrooms which depend on this mechanism. Here are some of the pros of social learning:
1) Different perspectives (although as the instructor, I tend to lean towards my own, there are other valid points that need to be acknowledged)
2) Critical thinking (especially if students are asked not only to contribute an opinion, but an informed one)
There are some cons as well:
1) Discussion quality is limited to the engagement, preparation and knowledge base of the students contributing (if the information is too new, students likely lack context)
2) True facilitation of these discussions. These discussions can go sideways really quickly if not guided correctly.
Now let me expand on this idea of facilitation. What it really means for the instructor is letting go of controlling the conversations. For instructors (well for me anyway), this is not always easy. Instructors need to loosen the reins enough that students can then explore the topics, not be “informed” about them by the “expert”. However, the conversations still need to be guided and students prompted to think more deeply about their perspectives; challenged not to defend their position, but to be uncomfortable not being certain of the answer. This is a great way for students to learn how to critically evaluate the information and learn how to respect other thoughts and ideas. This also does require a knowledgeable and talented facilitator to guide that process.
Another potential problem arises when students are not adequately prepared or are just not engaged in the material. One way I have found to get students to contribute that often won’t in a classroom setting is to take the conversation offline; out of the virtual classroom if online or take it online if in a F2F environment. I tend to do this using digital content I have vetted that helps them connect the idea of what we are discussing to the real world. This is helpful for 2 reasons:
1) It gives the students who are not really prepared or engaged a chance to connect with something that can promote both of those.
2) It helps bring context to their conversation.
I wanted my students to be able to connect with their peers, not just in their current class, but peers across the world studying similar ideas and constructs. That is social learning and we created this mechanism on TheHubEdu. I have been using this for these “offline” or “virtual hallway” conversations with much success in my current classes. True social learning is bigger than your classroom and it involves sharing ideas, thoughts and content. The conversations are just the beginning.