Scaling Social Learning

Source: Community of Inquiry Framework

I know. Some people will shudder reading that title. I used the S word. While I know things can’t always be built for scale they also can be designed with scale in mind, particularly when you are already part of a large ecosystem. Now that I’ve acknowledged that, onwards…

It was absolutely fantastic to host discussions on social learning with other practitioners this summer. I loved hearing the debate and push back against scale from Andrew at (well formerly, now Mozilla), Alex from NYU and Vanessa at P2PU. Social learning requires scaling quality, not quantity, they said. In other words, to create a good social learning experience for lots of people doesn’t require lots of people, it requires high quality interactions between small sets of people. Have you heard of the Dunbar number? This number speak to something in the wiring of our brains, it says we can only really get to know 150 people. This makes it harder because we can’t build social relationships with everyone on a large web platform (or anywhere for that matter).

This is why scaling social learning is hard. Non-social learning can more easily reach more people. Getting to reach people in need is great, fabulous, and from the testimonials that come into Khan Academy, life changing. I’ve cried watching some of the stories of learners who use our platform.

But we can’t stop there. We can’t say we’ve solved something with an adaptive learning technology. The quality can go so much higher (see my Twitter essay/rant at the bottom of this link). The reason scale matters is because so many innovations don’t reach as many people as they need to in education. Scaling is hard due to our system and the setup of education. There are important things to do without scaling, but there’s a very real problem in the last few decades in education that too many innovations haven’t made it out into wider practice. At Khan Academy, I want to see us tackle social learning to keep pushing the quality higher for our learners.

After our discussion I wanted to hear more about the magical social learning moments from Andrew and Vanessa that happen at any scale. I’ve asked each of them to reflect a bit more about that and am including it in my blog post below.

Here’s Andrew’s story from

One day a group of kids on DIY who were interested in journalism decided to start a newspaper. They called themselves “The DIY Times” and self organized by essentially hacking the limited features that we had at the time into a system for assigning roles, proposing stories, editing posts, and distributing their work. They created projects with titles like “DIY Times Chat Room” and would just hit the refresh button constantly to overcome our lack of synchronous chat. The six kids who made up the staff of the newspaper were from all around the world (Europe, Asia, and North America) and used Google Translate to help overcome the language gaps. They had taken our vision and actualized it – before we were ready – before we even had the features or the moderation tools to support it! In this way six kids was all it took to convince me that we were ready to start focusing the experience of DIY around community.

Here’s Vanessa’s experience:

My first P2PU courses had around 10 learners each, which was great. I knew all of their names, where they worked, what they were struggling with. I made friends with them outside the P2PU platform—on Twitter, on Facebook. In fact, I still look to Mary Ann Reilly today for advice and counsel… The landscape looks different now—over 5,000 people signed up for our Play With Your Music course. We grouped folks together in cohorts based on musical taste, which sustained engagement. For a while. But soon after, we noticed something interesting happening. After becoming comfortable with the tools and the content, people were finding each other. That sort of emergent relationship-building really only happens when there are 1.) enough people in the room who 2.) feel comfortable sharing with each other and 3.) care about the thing they are working on or doing.

I want to hear more stories like that from our community at Khan Academy. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your story of how/why social learning is important to you. Share it with me at