Social learning theory is the idea that people learn most effectively when they interact with other learners about a given topic. Educational psychologists refer to this as social constructivism. Recent credibility for this theory comes from a study by Dr. Richard J. Light (Harvard School of Education) that identify factors that lead to success for college students. According to Dr. Light, the strongest determinant of students’ success in college—even more than the details of their instructors’ teaching styles—is their ability to form or participate in small study groups. Students who studied in groups, even only once a week, were more engaged in their studies, were better prepared for class, and learned significantly more than students who worked on their own.
The principles of social learning (social constructivism) are critically important for learning leaders and instructional designers responsible for creating online learning experiences. Without deliberate planning to allow for social interaction, online learning can isolate learners from each other. Fortunately, the adoption of online social learning practices is increasing. According to the 2008 Annual Report on Corporate Training, structured collaboration is now used by approximately 70 percent of all organizations. This is facilitated by a dramatic increase in availability of online tools that support social learning (see examples below). According to the same report, "Using communities of practice, learners can interact and share ideas in an online 'community.' This group learning format appeals to younger, socially conscious learners and is built around the notion that 'many minds are better than one.'"
The graph to the left, from Training Magazine, shows the dramatic increase in the use of communities of practice in corporate learning environments as a way to enable social learning.
More information about social learning is available in an article by John Seely Brown and Richard Adler called "Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0" (published in Educause Review).
Videos of Dr. Light discussing the results of his study are available by following these links: