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Social media: The natural way of learning

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27th Jul 2009
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Donald H Taylor unpicks the current buzz term ‘social media’: what it is, and what does it have to do with learning?

Ask 10 people what ‘social media’ means and you’ll probably receive 10 different answers. Those who think in terms of concrete tools will answer ‘Twitter’ or ‘Facebook’. ‘Collaboration’ is a typical answer for those that like to abstract, and then there are functional definitions like this one: “Social media is people having conversations online.” It's a quote taken from the very popular slideshow 'What the F**k is Social Media?' posted by Marta Kagan two years ago, which is a lifetime in the world of social media, where a Twitter update is out of date within minutes.

"Sharing information is one of the ways in which we learn naturally, possibly the most natural way of learning we have. After all, when faced with a problem the instinctive reaction is to ask someone for help."

Kagan’s is a marketer. Her point is that the way people use the internet to communicate about brands completely subverts traditional marketing. Broadcast adverts, press releases and ‘push’ promotion is far less effective than the word of mouth that takes place in the conversations now taking place online.

These conversations take place using tools such as blogs and wikis, over micro-blogging tools such as Twitter and are collected and fed to peoples' desktops through RSS feeds, sometimes aggregated by a variety of widgets. All this amounts, Kagan says, to a conversation, and her point for those in marketing is a clear one: ‘Messages are not conversations’.

What does all this have to with learning? Quite a lot.

Another technology fad?

As chairman of the UK Learning Technologies Conference for the past 10 years, I’ve seen enough learning technology fads to last a lifetime. Some have withered but most (for example virtual worlds) have simply settled down and found a comfortable niche. None has changed the world of learning, whatever the claims of their zealots as they were launched.

Social media might be very different. They can be used very effectively for learning, have mass appeal and are definitely here to stay.

That doesn’t mean that social media will somehow do away with all other forms of learning. That is where social media for marketing (as spelled out by Kagan) differ from social media for learning. Will social media completely revolutionise what marketers do? Fundamentally we trust our peers more than we trust adverts. In marketing, a positive conversation with a friend always trumps a message pushed out by an ad agency.

In learning, there is no such dichotomy. Organisations continue to need ‘push’ learning to help employees learn what they need to know, with a well-designed structure and with accurate content. This side of training and learning will continue. Social media add the ability – for the first time – for the learning and development department to support ‘pull’ learning. It enables learning and development departments to reach the daily conversations which form a great deal of the learning that goes on daily in most organisations.

Sharing information is one of the ways in which we learn naturally, possibly the most natural way of learning we have. After all, when faced with a problem the instinctive reaction is to ask someone for help. Do they have an answer? Do they know someone else who does? Have they met similar problems before?

For the first time the combination of technology and the internet has made it possible to answer these questions quickly and rapidly among a far wider collection of colleagues than those in our immediate circle. Among the social media enabling this are wikis, blogs and social networking sites. Most of them are free; all of them are easy to use.

Culture is crucial

If this free, easy enhancer of a natural way of learning sounds too good to be true, it is. There may be no initial cost with any of these tools, but there is definitely a cost involved in implementing them properly – mostly in the time it takes to ensure that the right culture is established and maintained in the communities that come together on these media.

This emphasis on ‘culture’ might sound like a strange one – aren’t there more pressing pedagogical and technical issues? I don’t think so. Any social medium revolves around the people that make it up. The wrong sort of online culture is dysfunctional and prevents learning taking place, no matter what else you do. Typical symptoms of a dysfunctional community include bullying, self-promotion and the willingness to perpetuate myth. The right culture for an online learning community encourages communication, praise and collaboration, but is intellectually rigorous, open and honest.

If you are considering using social media, I would suggest two steps.

Step one: Seed, feed and weed

First, consider the mantra of David Armano at Harvard Business blogs who suggests there are three steps to go through in creating a social network: Seed, feed and weed.

Seed your social media with the right people and content – a core (say 12 - 30) of positive, respected, well-disposed, active employees who will get involved from the start, and set that culture on the right path, a polite, sharing, communicative, no-blame culture where collaboration is welcome. That’s crucial to the success of your network.

Feed: You cannot assume that the community will flourish alone. It will need feeding. This could be a weekly email to members, or an RSS feeds or other tools to ensure that fresh content and ideas are regularly fed into the group for comment.

Weeding doesn’t mean getting rid of members (although abusive members, those that use the place to sell or otherwise abuse a code of conduct must be shown the door). Rather, it means tidying up the abandoned discussions, profiles, images and other data that create clutter and prevent people finding the information or people they are looking for. It may also mean creating new search mechanisms to help users get the best from the community.

Step two: get involved!

First, get a handle on social media by watching this five-minute slidecast: a 'Simple Social Media Map'. Then create your own! Actually you don’t have to create your own slidecast if you don’t want, but you certainly should get actively involved in the world of social media. Get a Twitter and LinkedIn account, and reconsider the blogs, wikis and RSS feeds that you visit regularly. Getting out there as a consumer and producer will give you a feel for the potential and limits of social media that you cannot find any other way.

A silver bullet?

Can all learning be done this way? No. There is more than one way to support learning. Sometimes it will be a well-structured and delivered classroom course.

Can all organisations employ social media to support learning? Possibly not.

"The first usual objection is ‘we can’t control what they say! They might get it wrong.’ The answer to that is that they already are getting it wrong – in phone conversations, in email, when chatting during cigarette breaks. The advantage of social media is to give visibility to the rumour and misinformation that circulates in any organisation."

There are three objections to social media at work. Only one of them is valid.  The first usual objection is ‘we can’t control what they say! They might get it wrong.’ The answer to that is that they already are getting it wrong – in phone conversations, in email, when chatting during cigarette breaks. The advantage of social media is to give visibility to the rumour and misinformation that circulates in any organisation. Norman Lamont deals with this beautifully in 'The Threat to our Information'.

The second objection is ‘but they should be working.’ To which the only reply is that if they are learning, they are working. And if they are not – for example if they are using a work-only social networking site to chat and gossip - then it will be visible, and something can be done about it. This is a management issue of ensuring focus and motivation. It is not a technical issue.

But the final, valid, objection is ‘our information is not to be shared.’ This is irrefutable. There are some places – for example, City dealing rooms – where it is against the law to share certain types of information between departments and even between teams within the same department. Never mind that they do it over a closed, firewall-protected system. It is simply against the law to share this information with anyone. Everyone knows it, but the risk of someone sharing something they shouldn’t by mistake is too great. In these cases the risk outweighs the potential benefits.

But these cases are rare. Even the US intelligence agencies, famously jealous of the information they hold, shifted post 9-11 from a ‘need to know’ to a ‘need to share’ approach to information, creating a communal information zone called Intellipedia, which has been credited with several intelligence successes by speeding up the flow of information between the 16 contributing agencies.

If the CIA can find it in itself to share information and encourage learning internally, then perhaps it’s time to consider using social media as part of learning mix.

Donald H Taylor is chairman of the Learning and Skills Group and the Learning Technologies conference. He blogs at www.donaldhtaylor.co.uk

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