Thursday, July 14, 2011

Social Media in Learning and Social Learning are just not the same thing

It concerns me how a lot of the social learning conversation seems to veer around the tools in the space. Tools are arriving thick and fast and yeah, it's easy to get caught up with all the bling. And this is not to say that I'm never excited by tools - nothing could be far from the truth. This said, social learning is less about the technology and more about the human interaction. I often seem to get the sense that a large part of the learning community believes that the use of social media in learning is social learning. So sharing your courseware on a Facebook group then becomes social learning as does organising a lrchat-esque chat with pre-defined questions on a microblogging platform. To me this is perhaps Elearning 2.0 where you incorporate a higher degree of user interaction into your courseware, but it's still not social learning.

I want to explain my views in a little more detail on this blogpost and I hope you can humour me. And feel free to tell me I'm wrong.

We can't set a low bar for 'social'

If the mere use of a social media platform makes a learning experience social then we've been social all along. I do a lot of classroom training as well. My classroom training is never about being a sage on stage. It's full of real world activities, interpersonal interaction and experience sharing. I do a lot of socratic facilitation in the classroom - I use my questions to draw out experiences, perspectives and lessons for the group. This said, I decide on what questions I want to ask, the agenda and the topic for discussion. If you think of lrnchat, it's quite the same thing. There are a set of pre-defined questions and a pre-defined topic for discussion. The only thing that's different from doing this with a facilitator in a classroom is that now we've distributed the discussion and there are several more participants than there could possibly be in the old world. So yeah, it's a far more scalable approach, I don't believe it's any more social. Now this isn't a criticism of lrnchat - I love being part of the discussion. All I'm saying that this is no different from formal interactions we've practiced earlier.

My bar for 'social' is quite high

Image credit: Jon Husband

I believe that true social learning has a few important characteristics. And this is where the 'new' social learning is different from the old. Here's what I think are non-negotiable criteria to dub any learning as social:
  1. Democratic: To me the classic example of social interaction is gossip at a watercooler. Gossip emerges from the ground up. It doesn't need someone to lead, though a regular gossip fellow can facilitate the conversation and lubricate it. The key ingredient with social interactions at work or otherwise however, is that the crowd decides the agenda, the crowd decides the conversation. When a minority decides the agenda for a large group, then the interaction can still be social, but not enough to be any different from older models. Learning is truly social when individuals can decide what they want to learn and how they wish to collaborate on it.
  2. Autonomous: The key factor with social interaction in real life is that it moves by itself and is not controlled by a facilitator. I look at my social network on Facebook and on Twitter and even my enterprise social network to behave this way. We aren't talking about a specific platform, it's about a pattern of interaction. Now a facilitator can help make the flow of the interaction smoother, but in no way does the facilitator become responsible for the direction of these interactions. We can term something as social learning when it gathers a pace of its own without intervention from a trainer, facilitator, manager or leader of any kind.
  3. Embedded: One of the key aspects of social interaction in real life is that it's about life in general. It's not a separate exercise. I share stuff that I'm passionate about, I talk about things happening in my life. I blog about issues on my mind at a given point in time. Learning is truly social when it's embedded into the context of work. Think about this - I face a problem at work I know nothing about. I post a question about it to a company social network. Soon I receive a response from another colleague in a different team. That's the kind of interaction I'm speaking of - 'just in time' learning.
  4. Emergent: Social interactions have no predefined structure. The structure emerges from the natural interactions of a participating group. A big problem with enterprise social learning is the desire to structure before you start. Predefined structure has its uses - I don't doubt that. The uses however are limited to finite amounts of information - such a sitemap for a website. The nature of social communication is that it's frequent and high volume. You can try second guessing the structure for this endless stream of communication and you can also guarantee failure for every such attempt. As I've mentioned earlier, everyone's structure is different. Andrew Mcafee has written quite eloquently about the concept of emergent structure. "These are all activities that help patterns and structure appear, and that let the cream of the content rise to the top for all platform members, no matter how they define what the cream is. Without these mechanisms, online content becomes less useful –  less easy to navigate, consume, and analyze — as it accumulates. With these mechanisms in place, just the opposite happens; the platform exhibits increasing returns to scale, and becomes more valuable as it grows." You should read the complete article here.
This is my view and I'm happy for you to tell me I'm wrong - only when learning exhibits all of these characteristics can you call it truly social. This may or may not involve the use of social software, though I suspect it'll be quite tough to foster these characteristics without social media. What I'm saying though is that social media is a crucial tool for the success of a social learning initiative, but the use of social media doesn't necessarily mean that a learning experience is any more social than that in a classroom.

My aim is not to stir a hornet's nest with my statements in this post. In fact I've been wanting to write this post for a while but was wary that I'll upset some of my friends by terming what they do as 'not' social learning. Frankly if you don't agree with what I've said, feel free to post in the comments section and shout at me. I'm no theorist, but from experience I've built a bit of an opinion. If it resonates with you, I guess I'm thinking right. If it doesn't, I guess I'll learn from you. Look forward to hearing what you have to share. Until next week, bye!


Nic Laycock said...

Sumeet. You are so right! I posted about this last year ( What is the case is that social learning becomes expanded and empowered through the new toys with which we are all bombarded. That's why I have turned my attention to the fact that the true root of social learning - and its enabler - is community in one guise or another. I have posted on this on Jane hart's SLC and I have my own blog where I am trying to get the attnetion switched back to the human aspects of our learning. it would be great if we can journey together on this insight that we share (

Mark said...

What's fascinating to me is that what we now call "social learning" (and you've done a great job explaining its key principles) is what traditionally (i.e., in academia) is known as "adult education" (as distinct from "higher education" or "training"). There's one important consideration I would add, drawing from Eduard Lindemann: "Adult education is social learning for social change." I would suggest that, as a worthwhile objective, all social learning (in your sense) should be about social change.

Valerie said...

I agree that it's not just the tools. But I think it's an error to limit the term "social learning" to learning which is structured by the learners. What you are describing is "informal" social learning, which is great, but hardly the only form of social learning.

The "sage on the stage" is actually a profoundly social structure for learning, as well. People have for centuries, and I think, will always gather for a learning experience structured by somebody who is respected as knowing what she's doing.

Sumeet Moghe said...

@Valerie. I don't disagree with you. What I do disagree with is creating a structured experience using social media and terming that as a 'more social' experience. I think it's more scalable, but hardly more social.

I also want to make the distinction between the 'new' social learning and the old. The new social learning in my view needs the four elements I described. The old is still social, no doubt, but hardly models real world interactions.

stacy@singlemom said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
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Its because "bling" can still get a lot of people to use tools which makes them talk about it incessantly if they are impressed. My friend who is in the dental web design industry is one person I know that really uses a bunch of different tools for social media.

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It Explains the role of social influence from the media, peers and parents. Social learning Covers a wider range of explanations such as the importance of cognitive factors rather than suggesting we have no control.

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