Informal Learning Insight of the Month: Principles of Using Social Media for Informal Learning

The recent proliferation of social media has re-ignited interest in informal learning processes.  In this month’s Insight of the Month,   I identify principles to consider when using social media for informal learning.  In the next month’s Insight of the Month, I identify eleven social media that have specific applications with informal learning.

In it, I first suggest some general principles to consider when using any technology for learning.  Then I identify some “pluses” to social media as a technology for facilitating informal learning followed by some “minuses” that could affect its effectiveness.

Some General Principles to Consider When Using Any Technology for Learning

When considering a particular technology, think about these issues:

  • The capabilities of the technology . That is, what does it do—and is that what you want it to do?  Do they match?  If no, then the technology is not likely to do anything that you need it to do—and probably isn’t worth another look.
  • The cost of the technology.  That is, what does it cost to not only acquire the technology and support it, but also to prepare learning and informal experiences that use that technology.
  • The time needed to design, develop, and deliver materials in that technology . Some technologies are inexpensive to acquire (especially with so many free services available online) but can use a lot of time (ask social networking addicts).

In other words, consider practical issues when choosing any technology to use with informal learning, including social media.

The “Pluses” of Social Media for Informal Learning

Social media offer many advantages, including these, which are widely communicated in the trade press:

Social media can reduce content development costs.  Specifically, social media can reduce costs in these ways:

  • Software acquisition:  If it’s possible to use widely available tools like LinkedIn and Facebook, they’re generally free to use.  But if you’re using social media internally, commercial software does not offer the type of security needed to protect proprietary and personnel information.
  • Content development, because “volunteers” in the community who have knowledge about the topic can all contribute to the creation of resources that members of the organization can use to strengthen their own knowledge.  These “volunteers”—staff members, suppliers, and customers, might answer questions posed to a group, supply an article for an internal online encyclopedia, or informally share insights.

Social media supports learning among peers—without limits on geography. In many organizations, casual spaces like water coolers, lounges, cafeterias, and coffee shops lead to casual sharing of information—and serious learning.  But geography limits who can share: just the people who work in the same place.

Social media breaks these barriers by providing a virtual casual space where people can have those casual conversations that lead to serious learning.

Sometimes social media teaches; in other instances, it leads workers to enlightening content.  That’s because different types of social media facilitate different types of social interactions—some emphasize short interactions, others emphasize longer ones.

For example, the primary means of communicating in microblogging (Twitter), social networking (Facebook, LinkedIn) and social bookmarking (Pinterest) is brief, either a link or a limited number of characters.  As a result, they’re great for linking people to content rather than communicating complete lessons.

In contrast, blogs, wikis, and shared applications promote interactive work and the creation of long documents which, in turn, can provide complete lessons.

Increasingly workers already have social media accounts and, for many, that’s how they interact with the world.  Training and development professionals can leverage this connectedness for learning purposes.

The “Minuses” of Social Media for Informal Learning

Receiving less attention are some of the questions and concerns about social media and informal learning.  Consider these.

Most uses of social media for learning are still in their early stages and as much conflicting evidence about their use as learning tools exists as their use in other spheres.  For example, although some practicing professionals believe that social media are the future of learning, research on uses of social media have found that its use is not as widespread among younger adults as assumed (Freeman 2010), much less learning professionals (Rossett & Marshall 2010).

Furthermore, many trials using Twitter, Facebook, and blogs for learning have had mixed results.  One issue that arose in many studies:  sustaining interest in the social media. Students would tweet or blog at first, but did not sustain the practice.  In one study, for example, the number of tweets dropped by 75 percent between the beginning and end of a course.  In another study, students were busy tweeting but, as one noted, they had no idea what they were tweeting about.

On a more basic level, much confusion exists around basic terminology for social media, just as it does for informal learning in general.  One common type of confusion is among blogs and wikis.  Blogs are individually written pieces that clearly identify the author and individual comments on it.  In contrast, a wiki is a collaboratively written document; the identity of individual authors is not provided.

If the people advocating the use of a particular social medium don’t really know what it is, how can they effectively promote its use for formal learning purposes, much less informal learning?

Not all social networking software is appropriate for business purposes.  In general, people use Facebook for their personal and social lives, and LinkedIn for their professional lives.  (That’s “in general”—many organizations want to use Facebook to reach consumers and potential members.)

This has significant implications for informal learning.  In terms of promoting informal learning related to work, LinkedIn might provide better access to people and when they have the mindset to consider work-related issues.  In terms of simply using the media, some organizations ban the use of Facebook for work-related purposes. Indeed, some schools have done so to prevent inappropriate contact between teachers and students.

The issue is not whether these bans are right or wrong; as long as they formally exist in an organization, training and development professionals cannot use the banned or limited medium to facilitate informal learning.

The content provided through social media is “buyer beware content” (Shank, 2008).   In many cases, the content has not been reviewed by others for accuracy, completeness, and readability.  (Indeed, in some cases, the content hasn’t even been spellchecked.)  In other cases, people who post to social media provide their thoughts and opinions about issues, but may not be basing them on facts—or may simply choose to ignore the facts.

That means that informal learners must be able to not only assess the appropriateness of content to their needs, but also need to assess the quality of the content they’re reading.

For some socially-created content, like the Wikipedia, the community of contributors usually eventually ensures that the content eventually is accurate.  For example, studies have shown  that entries in the Wikipedia have a similar level of accuracy to those in the well-regarded Encyclopedia Brittanica. But wikis are the only social medium that lets users correct the original content. When errors appear on blogs, Facebook updates, and other social media sites, the only way to point out the errors is to post a comment or update and hope that others read it.

Participants in social networking communities often need etiquette lessons. Research suggests that people tend to exhibit less inhibited behavior online than in person, a tendency often reflected in online comments.  These, in turn, anger other users, who respond with inflammatory comments of their own.

Some users are extremely polite—but see every group member as a prospective customer and try to steer every group conversation to a sale for themselves—even in conversations that have nothing to do with sales.  In addition to annoying and offending many of the participants in the community and hampering the likelihood that informal learning might occur in these discussions, these perpetual marketers defeat their own purposes.  Most usually lose the sales they hoped to gain.

In the believe that anonymous comments led to this behavior, many online news and information sites now require that users register themselves with the site before they can make comments and refuse anonymous comments.

Similarly, some discussion groups within social networking sites have guidelines to keep the focus on learning and networking—and off of a lot of other things.

Consider privacy. Although social networking connects people across departments, organizations and geographic boundaries, the extent of information they collect and share, and the encouragement to share all sorts of personal information raises concerns about privacy. Facebook privacy settings and whom one should “safely” friend on Facebook and connect with on LinkedIn have received much attention from the popular press.

Similarly, the information collected and sold about users on these systems without the knowledge of those users has received much attention.

Receiving less attention, however, are the more fundamental issues of privacy—like sharing company secrets, private personnel information, and other types of internal information.  Although most organizations have policies regarding these disclosures, employees often violate them—and the casual atmosphere of social media often leaves workers with their guards down.

To prevent such leaks, some organizations have adopted proprietary social networking software for use within the organization.  Although these raise costs (organizations need to acquire the software, as well as install and support it), they provide safety and privacy.  But they’re less familiar and less likely to receive the attention from workers as public sites—unless the organization makes a concerted effort to drive people to the proprietary social networking software.

In Other Words

Social media—like all technologies—are just one set of tools in a complete repertoire of instruction and performance improvement solutions that training and development professionals can offer to their clients.   The challenge is to use it effectively, making sure that the situation benefits from the use of social media and that the issues that could derail its success are addressed as part of the plan for using these media.

Tip: For descriptions of technology used for informal learning, see Chapter 7 of Informal Learning Basics.  For information on how to integrate technology with particular types of informal learning, see Chapters 5 and 6 of the book.

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