Social learning theory is the idea that we learn from our peers more than any other source. A well established ratio of learning and development is the 70:20:10 model. 70% of our learning comes from practical experience, 20% from the people around us, and only 10% from formal courses and reading.

A lot of this is based in observation and imitation; we see what others are doing well and seek to emulate it ourselves. It is an inherent trait of people to compare ourselves with others – sometimes to an unhealthy degree, but often simply as a way of understanding how we are doing.  We also ask our peers for information and opinions, and trust the people we know more than a faceless page on the internet to give us the best advice.

Social media has been a huge influence in the growing expectation for social learning elements. It is easier than ever before to post a question and have a informed friend or stranger answer it for you, and this is now what people expect from their learning experiences.

Harnessing social learning in online training

Social learning broadly falls under the umbrella of informal learning, which also covers learning through practical work and independent research. Informal learning is recognised as a more effective way of learning than formal learning, but by its very nature it is difficult to harness into any formal processes.

Bringing social elements into a learning process introduces feelings of teamwork and also of friendly competition, which are both highly motivational. Learners can collaborate with each other and share their opinions on forums, while competing to score higher on leaderboards.

Adding a forum on your training programs provides a dynamic additional layer of learning. It is difficult  to write clear training content that answers every possible question a user might have on the topic. An online forum, on which students can contact each other or their tutor to answer their questions, can fill these gaps.

Learners can also learn and help each other through peer review. By reading each other’s work, learners can get a stronger understanding of each exercise and benefit from productive comparison. They can also help each other improve with the help of constructive feedback.

How to encourage social learning

It would be an advantage to make sure that the LMS you choose can be built with a forum feature. This will provide a channel for your learners to discuss any questions they might have with each other.

To get discussion off the ground on a forum it might help to adopt a facilitator role. For example, you could introduce a discussion topic and then allow your learners to take it from there. Once the forum has been active, learners will ideally become comfortable engaging with each other online and initiating further discussion whenever they need it.

Integrations with third party applications like Slack, email or a choice of social media is also something to look for. Learners might be more engaged with the material if it is involved in their existing social media activity.

Other benefits of social learning

Building a forum and other social learning elements into your course has benefits beyond making training more effective. By encouraging communication among your learners, you can create a positive sense of community. This a major advantage whether you are training external clients or your own staff.

Most of the questions your learners will have could be directed to other learners. Giving them the ability to do this through a forum will radically lighten your workload as an instructor. Similarly, while peer review can’t replace feedback from an instructor, it can provide a useful first stage review as a draft. By redirecting support back into the course, you will have the time to train a larger body of students.


However, there are challenges to creating a successful social learning setup. The benefits of a forum and other social features rely on the information being engaging and comfortable enough to use. This means that you may need to put some initial work in to initiate discussion.

You also need to review what you are offering in terms of social learning. On the whole, offering lots of different forum options that have the same function will not be a good idea. You will end up with a diluted user base that spreads out between them, confusion over which discussions are taking place on which forum, or a few of the forums being empty and silent. The best approach is to first carefully review the kind of communication that would be helpful for your user base. Then, select one type of forum that suits it.