From Instructor To Community Leader: Studies Show Social Learning Is The Future Of Learning
Kumpol Vashiraaskorn/

Social Learning Is The Future Of Learning: What Studies Have Shown

In fact, when the instructor is excelling in her role, remote learning is more effective! Let’s find out how by taking a look at the Mitra’s famous School in The Cloud Experiments.

We are living in a remote world. Working from home is on the rise, with more and more companies allowing employees to work from anywhere with flexible time schedules. The rise of mobile has lead to a massive digitalization of the business world, and we are no longer restricted by time or location. This shift is going to affect the world of education as well, which is why we must ask the question: how to effectively train learners remotely?

In the past, an instructor would act as a lecturer: the sole voice of the classroom leading the less-informed through a series of speeches explaining the information, in a one-sided dialogue. But in 2018, we don’t need instructors the same way we used to: we need them to curate conversations and foster human interactions.

And ironically, this style of instruction is the most effective way to drive learner engagement. Let’s take a look.

The Power Of Social Learning

Humans are hardwired to learn: it is in our DNA to constantly gain knowledge, improve, and flourish. So when left to our devices, to quote Jeff Goldbloum, "learning, uh, finds a way".

How powerful is this instinct of ours? Is it powerful enough for a group of students, for example, to teach themselves a complex subject in another language? It sounds pretty unlikely but that is exactly what happened in the first of a series of experiments conducted by Education Researcher Sugata Mitra.

In what he dubs the Hole In The Wall Experiment [1], Mitra brought a computer with internet access to several rural countries around the world and left it for the local children to play with. In each location, the children managed to teach themselves how to use the computer within hours and were observed recording each other singing, sending emails, and playing games on websites they found on their own—all on a computer with the language set to "English", a language they did not know.

Pleased with how successful these experiments were going and happy to find that learners are able to succeed in unlikely circumstances, Mitra wanted to test the limits of this phenomenon. What he found in this next experiment is truly remarkable:

I set myself an impossible target: can Tamil speaking 12-year-old children in a South Indian village teach themselves biotechnology in English on their own? And I thought, I'll test them, they'll get a zero—I'll give the materials, I'll come back and test them—they get another zero, I'll go back and say, "Yes, we need teachers for certain things."

He called upon 26 children and said to them "There’s some really difficult stuff on this computer, I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t understand anything. It’s all in English. I’m going now, good luck!" and he left.

When he returned 2 months later their scores had gone up from zero to 30%—an educational impossibility given the circumstances. He found that not only had the students learned the complexities of DNA replication and genetic diseases, some of them had taken on the roles of instructor and would help the other students learn, all on their own accord.

What does this mean for learning? It means that learners are capable of much more than they are given credit for and the instructor should be viewed as a facilitator, not an education-provider. The instructors in this experiment were not knowledgeable on the subject nor well versed in teaching strategies: they merely lead conversations and stimulated teamwork.

What Happens When You Encourage And Stimulate Discussion

It is our capacity to feel the emotion that separates humans from other species. Many psychologists even go as far as arguing that every decision we make is driven by emotion on some level. And it makes sense—at our core, we all want the same things: to feel valued and important. So it should come as no surprise then that emotion is able to motivate us to do incredible things.

So what happens when you combine human emotion with learning?

Sugata Mitra had a hunch that encouragement and facilitation might help improve his students' scores, so he tried a second approach with the Biotechnology students. If you recall, their scores had gone from zero to 30%, but 30% is not a pass.

So I found that they had a friend, a young girl, that they played football with. And I asked that girl, "Would you teach them enough biotechnology to pass?" And she said, "How would I do that? I don't know the subject."

I said, "No, use the method of the grandmother. What you've got to do is stand behind them and admire them all the time. Just say to them, 'That's cool. That's fantastic. What is that? Can you do that again? Can you show me some more?'"

She did that for 2 months. The scores went up to 50, which is what the posh schools of New Delhi, with a trained biotechnology teacher were getting."

Can you believe that? Their scores increased to 50% by simply having someone motivate them and ask probing questions. This person had zero knowledge on the subject and yet her encouragement is directly responsible for their knowledge gain.

This revelation leads to what has become Mitra’s most famous achievement: The Granny Cloud [2]. The Granny Cloud is an online school where Grandmothers from the UK volunteer one hour a week in an online course with students from rural parts of the country. The role of the Grannies is to encourage the students in whatever they are learning, giving praise, and making the students feel proud in their work. And just like in the previous example, these Grannies have zero previous knowledge on the Subject Matter—their effectiveness lies in their ability to encourage and stimulate conversation, not lecture information.

Why has this method been so effective? It all comes back to what we know about humans. Human emotion is a powerful motivator, and positive reinforcement is a tried and true way to stimulate behavior. And secondly, active learning and human interactions can drive learners to achieve results that would never be possible with a stagnant online learning course that lacks interaction.

The most significant part of this experiment was that the encouragement from the Granny instructors took place remotely, in online human interactions. This solidifies the effectiveness of online learning and can make a case for how eLearning should become a staple in your learning strategy.

Will Learning In This Way Lead To Actual Retention?

The findings from Mitra’s education experiments were remarkable, but still, we must ask the question: does learning in this fashion work in the long term? Is any of this information actually retained? Surprisingly, yes.

Knowing that critics might ask the same question, Sugata Mitra tested the students again 2 months after the original assessment and found that their scores stayed the same, and in some cases actually improved.

How is this possible? Because the conversations that took place among the learners during the courses triggered a dozen different responses that make it more memorable.

  • The memories of interacting with one another are more strong than the memories of simply reading the material. By learning actively and socially, the learning process became emotional. And the part of the brain that handles emotion, the amygdala, also handles memory, which is why strong emotional events are more easily remembered. (So if you’ve felt moved by the Granny Cloud studies, or shocked by the Hole in the Wall experiment, you will very likely remember this article in a few weeks!)
  • By discussing with each other and their instructors online, the children were left with visual photographic memories to recall on.
  • The students felt a sense of self-importance and pride when they found the correct answers, which triggered a positive emotional response, strengthening the memory.

Overall, the learning process was a success thanks to the human interactions that took place—which tells us just how important these types of interactions are!


Sugra Mitra believes that education is a self-organizing system, where learning is an emergent phenomenon. The future of learning seeks to embrace this fact, and it is for this reason that the role of the instructor must change.

The instructors of tomorrow will encourage and curate conversations, by creating the setting and allowing the learners to interact, in remote settings. The role of the instructor will become more engaging, as the job will be less administrative and more involved in the learning process. Trainings will become more interesting, and engagement rates will skyrocket.

And the best part? When the role of the instructor shifts to that of a community leader, there is no need to have one instructor per topic, since strong subject knowledge is not necessarily required. You can let experts within your own organization take the reins, which will cut down on costs for the training modules.

The future of learning will open new possibilities for training, and it starts with turning eLearning managers into online community managers.


  1. The child-driven education
  2. Granny Cloud
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