Informal Learning Insight of the Month: (1 of 3) Eleven Useful Social Media for Informal Learning

The recent proliferation of social media has re-ignited interest in informal learning processes.  In the first of two articles, I identify a number of social media that can support informal learning processes.  In the second, I identify principles to consider when using social media for informal learning.

Specifically, in this article, I first define what social media are, then identify XX social media you can use for informal learning.  Of those, I start with the familiar, suggesting how to adapt widely used social media for informal learning purposes—then name several social media that are likely to be unfamiliar to you, but are more specific and appropriate to informal learning.

What Is Social Media? 

Social media are web-based tools that let users easily share information, collaborate, and communicate.  According to Patti Shank (2008), social media provide one or more of these capabilities:

  • Read/write web, which lets people both read and provide content.
  • Microcontent, which focuses on providing small pieces of content rather than providing an entire web page
  • Web as platform, in which one application is provided inside of another, such as the weather being provided on the home page of a newspaper or a Google map being provided on the directions page to a hotel.

Several people, like ASTD President Tony Bingham and author Jane Bozarth among others, have proposed a link between social media and informal learning.  But which social media can you specifically use—and what roles do they play in informal learning?  The next sections identify eleven.

The Informal Learning Applications of Five Types of Social Media You’ve Probably Already Using for Other Purposes

The term social media usually brings to mind names like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.  But how can you use them for learning?  This section identifies several classes of common social media and suggests how to use each with informal learning.

1. Blogs.  Although originally conceived as a personal journal shared online, blogs (shortened form of web log) have evolved to become columns to which readers can post comments and the author(s) sometimes replies.  These can range from topic-drive blogs, which focus on a single topic, or personality-driven blogs, which reflect the opinions of an individual.

Training and Development professionals create blogs using publicly available software, like Blogger and WordPress, or with blogging tools built into other software used in their organizations.

In terms of informal learning, blogs provide learners with content and opinion-based perspective.   Although these columns—or posts—as people call them, provide instructional material.  But the real discussion—and learning—often occurs in the comments that follow an entry in a blog. Bloggers (people who post to blogs) can determine whether people can provide comments anonymously or whether commenters must identify themselves (as is increasingly the custom).

2. Social networking refers to websites that let several users publish content to it.  Most social networks encourage users to publish information about their current activities.  These networks also let users restrict who sees the information to their personal networks, people whom the user has contacted and specifically invited to see their information (or who has received such an invitation from another user).  Members who are networked can see one anothers’ profiles, which contains information about who they are, where they live, what type of work they do, and what interests they have.  In addition, social networks let users create “groups,” which can let people from outside a network share information with others who share their interests.

Training and Development can use publicly available software like Facebook (typically associated with personal, private networking) and LinkedIn (typically associated with business networking)  to form social networks, or they can create networks on proprietary software, such as software embedded in proprietary applications, like Lotus groupware.  Many organizations prefer that employees use such private networks to prevent the leak of sensitive information.

In terms of informal learning, training and development professionals use social networks in ways similar to the discussion boards and lists that existed online before social networking, as well as a means of sending announcements and similar types of communication, and to bring together people who might not otherwise meet.  Social networking also lets workers set up their own networks, without the direct involvement (much less approval) of the organization.

3. Microblogging refers to the 140-character messages that people post using Twitter, and status updates on social networking sites like LinkedIn and Facebook.   Because Twitter popularized microblogging and each posting is called a tweet, many people refer to the act of microblogging as tweeting.

Regardless of the service used, each provides a place to easily post the update.  For example, Facebook asks users to post “What’s on your mind?”

In terms of informal learning, training and development professionals use microblogging to direct users to longer articles and blog posts of possible interest, and to discuss an event with others, usually while the event occurs.

4. Virtual worlds refers to software that provides a three-dimensional (3-D) online environment that users can enter and interact with other users who are online at the same time in unscripted ways (The Horizon Report 2007).  The 3-D environments can be designed to resemble real environments (like museums and businesses) or imaginary ones, and can be public or private.

Training and development professionals create this material using publicly available software like SecondLife, or specialized animation and simulation software. Note that, even if they use publicly available software, to create a virtual world that meets the needs of the organization usually requires additional custom programming not necessarily needed to use the other three types of applications mentioned so far.

In terms of informal learning, training and development professionals use virtual worlds to simulate complex environments, conduct online lectures and chats, and to let users interact with one another.

5. Photo and video sharing services refer to services that let people publish photos and videos in a central location and make it widely available to others.

Training and development professionals create the photos, videos, and similar graphic images using the same types of software used to create podcasts and vodcasts.  They share the materials on picture and video sharing sites.

In terms of informal learning, Training and Development professionals can, with permission, use the images in the materials they produce.  Shared videos provide instruction on a number of common concepts and procedures.

Next post:  Six Social Media that Have Specific Uses in Informal Learning




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