The power of social learning

Social learning is a term that is increasingly being used by ELT practitioners. But what is it, and what’s all the fuss about? In this post, Shaun Crowley, educational marketing expert, explains the concept and the mechanics behind it in ELT and non-ELT apps – arguing that social learning has the potential to enhance EFL blended learning.

Social learning is a concept without a definitive definition. In psychology it’s a process by which individuals learn from observing the behaviour of others (Bandura, 1977). Since then, social learning has been defined in different ways for different industries. For example, in ecology, it’s a process in which an individual’s understanding is situated in the practice of the wider community (Reed et al, 2010).

In the ELT industry, we tend to use social learning to mean learning English with the help of social media tools. This definition presents social learning as a function. So any asynchronous application with a basic forum bolted on could be described as ‘having social learning’. I prefer to think of social learning as a process in which language practice is contextualized within the interactions of a community of learners, leading to shared benefits in the language learning experience.

So a student-centred classroom is an example of effective social learning.

But these days, schools and universities are increasingly venturing beyond the classroom, looking to online solutions to extend their educational offers. This is where I believe there can be significant benefits to adopting a social learning approach to independent study.

Social learning in ELT

Until now, social learning has had a controversial impact in ELT. Web 2.0 entrepreneurs who have pioneered in this space (Livemocha, Busuu, Babbel) utilize it as a method for replacing the classroom, not supporting it. The key functionality is the peer-to-peer correction, useful for learners who don’t attend classes, but perhaps not appropriate as a tool to support class-based study.

Busuu uses the community of different language learners to mark each other’s written work.
Busuu uses the community of different language learners to mark each other’s written work.

A richer use of social learning would be if students could apply the language they learn by interacting with an online community in meaningful ways, using English as a lingua-franca.

Whilst I believe there are pedagogical benefits to this approach, the overriding benefit lies in its potential to improve student motivation levels. This is important because for any CALL process, maintaining student motivation is a major challenge. Without a teacher, classmates, or the stimulation of a classroom environment, even students with a natural desire to learn English will struggle to engage in an online learning process. Worse still, reluctant learners in mandatory English classes are likely to disengage altogether from participating in online homework.

Both of these ‘pulling’ forces – an engagement in the learning process and a natural desire to learn – are important contributors to students’ overall success in learning a second language (Dornyei, 2009, p.218). This is where I believe social learning has a key role to play.

‘Pulling’ students into online learning with gamification and social learning

Gamification is one way to help learners engage in an online learning process – by integrating points, badges, levels, leaderboards, and challenges. Or to define gamification more specifically, by integrating a series of feedback loops in which a user engages in an action, receives feedback, causing a feeling of gratification, and therefore encouraging the user to complete the next action.

Candy Crush is a game that integrates regular feedback loops to keep players engaged.
Candy Crush is a game that integrates regular feedback loops to keep players engaged.

But gamification only gets you so far. Standard feedback loops cannot arouse a desire to participate in language learning. Enter social learning, which has the power to do this through the application of social engagement loops.

The mechanics of a social user experience

In Twitter, a social engagement loop works like this: a motivating emotion (a desire to connect and express an opinion) leads to a social call to action (a Tweet).

At this point, the person may leave the system, until someone mentions the person in a Tweet, which leads to user re-engagement (person logs in again and Tweets a response). This leads to a visible reward (more followers), looping back to a desire to Tweet again.

A social engagement loop, as defined by Zicherman & Cunningham, 2011
A social engagement loop, as defined by Zicherman & Cunningham, 2011

In an ELT context, my product, Linguavote, integrates social engagement loops like this:

  • Motivating emotion (desire to express an opinion in English, prompted by a poll on a particular subject)
  • Social call to action (student writes a comment in English for the community to read)
  • User re-engagement (student receives ‘likes’ from the community for her comment)
  • Visible progress/reward (student can see all the ‘likes’ she has received in each status category)
  • Motivating emotion (desire to win more ‘likes’ in a particular status category)
Linguavote’s “like” system creates a social engagement loop.
Linguavote’s ‘like’ system creates a social engagement loop.


Social engagement loops are important for two reasons. Firstly, they are effective in re-engaging users back to a system after they leave it (this is important: Flurry Analytics reports that after 30 days, a free iPhone app loses 95% of its users). Secondly, they are effective in helping users maintain flow – the balance between challenge and skill – in particularly challenging activities. For example, to make online payment fun (two terms that rarely collocate), Venmo allows users to pay friends and leave payment notes that appear on a public feed, encouraging ‘likes’ from the user’s friendship group. To motivate marathon runners, the Nike+ app plays a cheering sound whenever Facebook friends ‘like’ the run notification posted by the app.


Nike+ and Venmo apps integrate social engagement loops to help users complete potentially challenging tasks.
Nike+ and Venmo apps integrate social engagement loops to help users complete potentially challenging tasks.

Creating a natural desire to participate

Just like exercising, achieving a state of flow in online language learning is difficult if you don’t have an intrinsic desire to participate in the first place. This is concerning, given that reluctant learners represent a large proportion of the ELT industry’s end-users, and an area where e-learning is most likely to fail. One way of arousing an intrinsic desire to participate is to replace the explicit objective of language learning with a more enjoyable one.

Lingopolis attempts to do this by practising English vocabulary through the activity of building a virtual city.

The 'aim of the game' in Lingopolis is to create a city; learning vocabulary items is a step towards achieving this goal.
The ‘aim of the game’ in Lingopolis is to create a city; learning vocabulary items is a step towards achieving this goal.

However, the issue with Lingopolis is that without social engagement loops, this kind of gamification feels somewhat ephemeral. Now – let’s imagine a Lingopolis where users can interact with each other’s cities… visit, rate, assist, comment …

The inclusion of these social engagement loops would make the user experience more meaningful and a lot ‘stickier’, encouraging users to continue using the site long after the novelty of building a city has worn off.

The secret to social success: status

The reason why social engagement loops are so effective is that the motivating emotion that drives them (to connect, to gain respect) is based on our universal human desire for status. Indeed, the prospect of higher status – of being valued by others – is the unconscious motivation that drives a lot of our behaviour, and no less when we’re online. Our need for status fuels the continued success of Facebook… How many of us are secretly satisfied when someone likes a photo we have posted, validating that people are taking an interest in our lives?

If we can integrate students’ pursuit of status into ELT social learning platforms, I believe we can motivate reluctant learners to engage in independent study – and stay engaged. If we can do that, we can improve the effectiveness of blended learning in schools and universities.

The implications of social learning

To sum up, I believe social learning has the power to intrinsically motivate online language learners if meaningful social engagement loops can be integrated into the design of apps and online platforms. There’s an implication to this. For educational institutions to adopt social learning, they need to shift expectations away from e-learning as being a method for checking students’ linguistic accuracy, to a method of facilitating general fluency in the language.

If education institutions decide to go down this route in their blended learning, we could be in for some interesting ‘flipped classroom’ models in the years to come.



  • Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Reed et al (2010) What is social learning? (Ecology and Society)
  • Zoltan Dörnyei (2009). The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford University Press
  • Gabe Zichermann & Christopher Cunningham (2011) Gamification by Design: Implementing Game Mechanics in Web and Mobile Apps. O’Reilly

Shaun Crowley is a consultant for an educational marketing agency and the director of, an online language learning platform that features social learning and gamification, developed to support English programmes in schools and universities. Prior to founding Linguavote, Shaun worked for Oxford University Press ELT Division as a sales and marketing manager, and has previous experience as an EFL teacher.






5 thoughts on “The power of social learning”

  1. Wow, it is great to see something from the world of games brought so completely and consciously into the world of language learning.

    On the other hand, and this is a very small criticism, I do question some things about your thoughts on implicit-explicit activation.

    1. Your graphic does not make it clear what elements are intersecting in the middle. If you think deeply about this graphic it is quite confusing. Especially since “attention to” something is at the root of rote learning.

    2. I don’t really see how this approach can be called a “new approach to language learning”. This comes from someone who is always on the look-out for anything new.

    3. In your example you can expect that the student will understand the word job without looking it up on his own (which many will probably do anyway). If a students does look it up this process then becomes an example of explicit learning. Moreover, in the case of a student not looking up the word, what you now have is “educated guessing or guessing from context” which graded readers have employed for years.

    4. Based on the examples you have given I would not expect (no certainty) my students can understand “job” nor understand it in contrast to a very similar word “work.”

    5. I too use pictures extensively to teach. I find that pictures, while quite liberating in many ways, can be quite misleading and do often still force students to do dictionary work (bye bye implicit learning). In your example you defined an engineer as someone who builds machines. This definition, while historically accurate is very misleading in today’s world. Factories and factory workers build machines today. Engineers are more likely to do other work (including designing machines). Moreover your picture shows someone “working on/with a machine” which given today’s reality would more properly be called a technician.

    • Hi Mike,
      Thanks for comments.
      Clearly there are limitations to using images as the sole apparatus for defining the meaning of a word. As you pointed out, students will often need translations or definitions in order to fully understand the meaning of a word. In Linguavote, students can access translations at very low level and monolingual dictionary-type definitions at higher levels to support the flashcard phrases/images.

      But I believe the image-based approach has an important role to play in CALL: many students are visual learners and therefore images work well as a mechanism for facilitating language recall. The same is true for audio – it’s important for students to be able to hear the language as well as connecting the text to an image.

      In your analysis of Linguavote’s Implicit-Activation method, I should point out a few things:
      – Indeed, Linguavote presents new language with flashcards – this is traditional rote learning, nothing new there I agree.
      – The “new approach” is a subtle variation on this model: after the flashcard drills, students complete a recall activity in which this language is contextualized in longer phrases. Each phrase contains language that will be drilled in the following lesson.
      – So for example, in Lesson 1, the explicit learning is “a doctor”, which is then practised in the context of this phrase: “A doctor helps sick people”.
      – In Lesson 2, the explicit learning is “She helps sick people”, which is then practised in the context of this phrase: “She helps sick people. It’s a rewarding job.”
      – In Lesson 3, the explicit learning is “A rewarding job.” This is then consolidated in this phrase: “A doctor helps sick people. It’s a rewarding job.”

      So whenever language is presented explicitly, it is also presented implicitly earlier or later in the unit. This means we are integrating implicit learning – or to put another way, “incidental learning” in addition to the traditional explicit learning (intentional learning).

  2. Thanks for the article and for having a play of Lingopolis. 🙂 Adding more social engagement loops is something we’re planning on doing as soon as we can – watch this space!


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