Ever since Peter Henschel, whose Institute for Research on Learning pioneered the concept of Community of Practice, listed “Learning is fundamentally social” as the first of seven Principles of Learning (h/t Jay Cross) this concept has been a mainstay in e-learning literature.
With regards to language training specifically, language itself is the preeminent social tool and a fundamental glue that binds social connections.
One could be forgiven to think that a strong social element would be mandatory in all language-learning platforms/contexts, yet the majority of software products are completely cut off from the Internet of social connections, while the majority of language classrooms let fixed schedules and walled-in, physical locations dramatically limit the potential for learning opportunities emerging from social interactions outside the classroom. There is tremendous room for improvement here.
“Evolution of Learning” diagram from Jay Cross’ Informal Learning
The fact is, the application of language in real-life, social contexts is the best way to practice lesson input, discover what works, what doesn’t work, and generally play with the new language. This meandering approach is how language learners reach increased levels of performance, as opposed to simply achieving an abstract understanding of vocab, grammar and syntax. This difference is also one of the key criticisms of standardized proficiency exams not being truly representative of an actual ability to perform.
Moreover, social connections play a powerful role in motivation. Whether driven by peer pressure or game mechanics, these connections can play a powerful role in what Steve Rae termed “walkaway value“:
IBM’s Steve Rae posits three gravitational forces for informal learning. The first force is access. The learner has to know the opportunity exists, the costs are reasonable, and it fits her requirements. The second force is quality: production values, ease of use, what I was looking for. The dominant factor is walkaway value. The includes what’s-in-it-for-me, timeliness, time savings, economic value, outside incentives, punishments for not doing it and participation.
In a previous post “The Important of Mobile“, I argued that the grafting of ICT onto the learning process just laid the plumbing, upon which learners would need to be motivated to engage with learning materials, their instructor and their peers. Social interactions not only facilitate the learning process, but also play an important role in generating this motivation.