social learning theory

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Applying Social Learning Theory to eLearning

Albert Bandura’s social learning theory hypothesizes that we learn by observing and modeling the behavior of others. We watch and replicate the actions and emotions of those around us to develop an understanding of a behavior or attitude. This theory has been pivotal in understanding how we learn, and how to create the best environment for learning to occur in. The question is, can social learning be transferred to be social eLearning? In this post, we take a look at Bandura’s theory in the context of a Learning Management System.

Is eLearning a social activity?

First, let’s tackle whether or not eLearning is a social process. It can be an asynchronous and isolated activity and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It depends on the types of training being carried out and the learning objectives. Not all content has to be a group activity. Some training just has to be done. Compliance training is the best example of this. Other forms of training, however, require a little bit more interactivity or other engagement tactics. Incorporating a social element is a way to coax learners to engage. Gamification, webinars and other features do their best to fill the social void. But in order to take complete advantage of social eLearning, you have to allow learners to interact more fully.

Bandura’s social learning theory

According to the theory, the process of learning is affected by the environment and interactions we have. Bandura’s theory focuses on observation and imitation. In fact, it’s often called observational learning. Bandura carried out a series of what he called the Bobo doll experiments. (Bobo dolls are inflatable dolls that you can push over and because of their weight distribution, they pop right back up.) In the experiment, children would be shown adults behaving in a negative manner towards these dolls. The children would then be observed replicating the actions they’d seen. We observe an action, we remember it, and then we try it out ourselves. The theory goes beyond the simple proposition that children pick up negative behavior from their parents. It can be applied to how all groups of individuals learn from each other. It’s broken into four defined principles.

The 4 principles of social learning

  1. Attention: We cannot learn if we aren’t focused on the task at hand. Bandura suggests that social contexts help to focus the learner. The group is focused so the individual is more likely to be.
  2. Retention: We learn from the collection and recall of information. In order for the learner to perform the action themselves, they have to have a memory of it. Retention is crucial.
  3. Reproduction: As the old saying goes ‘practice makes perfect’. Reproducing an action and repeating it allows you to get a better cognitive hold on the subject matter.
  4. Motivation: When an action is completed, the reward or consequences that follow are observed. These help to motivate the observer to act in a certain manner. If a learner is rewarded and the observer sees this they’re more likely to follow in their footsteps.

Applying the theory to eLearning

In order to apply social learning to your training, first, take the four principles and evaluate if they’re present in your programs.

  • Is the collective attention of the group on a training exercise? This focuses them.
  • Is the training memorable, so that learners retain the information?
  • Can the learners try out the learning objectives themselves?
  • Are the actions of learners recognized publicly – so as to motivate others?

As mentioned earlier, to fully leverage social learning learners have to be placed in an environment with other learners. Gamification leaderboards partially simulate this environment as learners can observe the performance of others and this drives them to replicate those actions. They don’t give a very clear picture of the actual learning process, however. How did an individual approach the training? How did they navigate problems? For this, we need something a little bit more built for purpose, like a discussion forum.

Discussion forums

Discussion forums, in a learning management system, have two broad functions. They’re an environment where learners can:

  1. Contribute and interact
  2. Observe the contributions and conversations of others

Learners can socialize with one another before, during and after their training. And importantly, these discussions take place within the forum. The major advantage here leverages the observational learning elements of Bandura’s theory. Learners can observe the discussions of others, enabling them to learn from the experiences of others and gain new perspectives.

The social learning revolution

Bandura’s theory is mainly focused on learning within a physical room. It can, however, be applied to eLearning. Observational learning is becoming easier to facilitate even within asynchronous activities like eLearning. By combining elements like live webinars, gamification, and discussion forums you can optimize the learning opportunities to improve the overall performance of your learners.  




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