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Clive Shepherd

Skills Journey Ltd


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How technology accelerates social learning


What impact are technological developments having on social learning? Clive Shepherd provides some answers.

Social learning is, of course, not a new phenomenon. Ever since humans have existed, they have sought each other out to share ideas and solve problems. According to the 70:20:10 model, developed at Princeton University, while 70% of what we learn at work is experiential and 10% is formal, a sizeable 20% comes through observing, collaborating with and receiving feedback from colleagues.

Indeed, when you consider the extent to which our day-to-day work experience as well as our formal learning also require us to interact with others then 20% is undoubtedly an underestimate. We are social creatures. Even when we have been learning happily on our own, we find it irresistable to then seek out our peers in order to share our successes, test out new ideas and compare our experiences. 

"Imagine how much more we are liberated from the constraints of our physical environment by being able to network with more than two billion other human beings around the world, day or night, at practically no cost, by using the internet." 

Technology, in the shape of desktop computers and mobile devices connected through telecommunications networks, may be seen as an obstacle to the natural process of social learning. After all, the inexorable shift from the classroom to self-study e-learning is surely reducing the scope for social learning, not assisting.

This is a fair point, but most organisations recognise that self-study should be used in the context of a blended solution and, as we have already mentioned, self-directed learners inevitably share their experiences with colleagues, even when this is not built in to the formal intervention.

Others would argue that, as increasingly we choose to communicate using text messages and online social networks, we are reducing the quality of our social contact. This is hard to accept. We have not reduced our capacity for face-to-face interaction, just enhanced our ability to stay in contact with those who are beyond our reach geographically. Did the invention of the telephone stunt our ability to communicate? I think not. Instead it opened up countless new possibilities for social contact at a distance.

Imagine how much more we are liberated from the constraints of our physical environment by being able to network with more than two billion other human beings around the world, day or night, at practically no cost, by using the internet.

Of course, the medium through which we communicate does place some limits on the richness of our experience, but humans are remarkably adept at communicating with limited tools. The Victorians were quite capable of forging relationships by exchanging correspondence, just as many marriages are now the result of textual exchanges on dating sites.

But not all online interactions are so limited. It is now almost routine for friends, families and business colleagues to communicate over thousands of miles using high-quality voice and video links. Sure, nothing beats being eyeball-to-eyeball, but the online experience is in most circumstances a perfectly acceptable second best.
So how can technology accelerate social learning at work?

There are at least four contexts in which this can occur, as I explain in my book The New Learning Architect:
Experiential learning:


One of the most powerful ways in which we can exploit the learning opportunities in our day-to-day work is through blogging. A blog is essentially a work of reflection shared with others online. For regular bloggers, this process represents an extraordinarily productive learning activity. While full-form blogging may not be everyone's idea of fun, micro-blogging, using tools such as Twitter, has mass appeal and provides many of the same benefits. 

On-demand learning

In a modern, tech-savvy world people are less enthusiastic about acquiring knowledge and more interested in hunting down online resources - both human and content - that they can take advantage of as and when needed. Social networks allow us to find expertise. Forums make it easy for us to ask questions and provide answers. Wikis permit us to work with peers to create information resources for the benefit of all. 

Non-formal learning

Much of our development takes place beyond the confines of formal courses. Social networks allow us to form communities of practice. Tools such as Twitter provide a means for us to share interesting resources with colleagues. Blogs, online videos and podcasts make it possible for us to create new developmental material to share with our peers. 

Formal learning

Social media also has an increasing role to play in formal courses, particularly more extended development programmes. Blogs allow students to maintain learning journals. Forums allow for on-going discussion between learners. Wikis allow students to jointly research and present assignments.

Although the use of enterprise social networking tools is still in its infancy, a significant proportion of senior managers definitely get the idea. In a recent study of 900 US-based business executives, when asked, "What internal social strategies will you focus on most on in 2011?", some 37.3% chose internal education and training, the second-highest ranked option. I'm not sure many organisations know how this is going to happen but they know that inevitably it will. It is impossible to imagine that the effect that social media has had on our personal lives won't sooner or later be reflected in our places of work.

Clive Shepherd is a consultant specialising in learning and communications technologies. He is widely acknowledged as one of the UK's foremost experts on e- and blended learning, with more than one hundred published articles and four books to his name. He speaks regularly at major international conferences and contributes regularly to his blog, Clive on Learning.

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Clive Shepherd


Read more from Clive Shepherd

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