Social media – the new learning diet pill?

10th Mar 2011
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With any area of dissatisfaction there’s a natural human desire for the one stop cure – the silver bullet.

Take the slimming pill. Now, intellectually and rationally we all know that losing weight is tricky but there’s only one sure way of achieving success – eat less, do more. It’s not a secret which is kept from us by the medical profession. Despite this rational knowledge, emotionally we want the quick fix, the magic cure which will banish bingo wings and give us a six pack your granny could do her washing on. 

My experience with this is limited to my mother many years ago enjoying life enormously when she was prescribed some magic pills to help her lose weight back in the days when GPs did that sort of thing. It was only when we noticed she was dusting like a whirling dervish at two in the morning that we realised she had been prescribed some kind of amphetamine to help her burn those calories. Certainly, my brother and I had a few months of having our Y fronts ironed at high speed (and I use the word advisedly) but weight loss was only achieved later through a balanced diet and trips to the local swimming pool.

With e-Learning everyone wants it because they recognise that the cost of people attending face to face courses is simply unsustainable in more straitened times, but there’s a dissatisfaction. The concern is that feedback says people miss the human interaction, the chance to chat to colleagues, to share our work problems and discontent with Albert from accounts over a chocolate hob [***] and a hotel buffet. The loss of a mutual and shared experience of squeezing a stress ball in a hotel near Reading weighs heavy on our training delegates.

And now the slimming pill for e-Learning is upon us. Social Media. By signing up to facebook or similar and building a twitter community we will be able to replicate that human interaction – and what’s more to do so in a way which is all zeitgeisty and down with da yoof and more suited to our mutli-tasking times.  The universal panacea for lonely e-Learners is upon us – praise be.

Except it’s not.

Again, rationally and intellectually we know that many of the attempts to harness the power of Social Media become a damp squib pretty quickly. The posts dry up, the trainers lose interest after spending their time talking to themselves and even social media evangelists explain that it’s only by posting a blog (rather than by reading the often ill-informed or self promoting posts of others) that we actually learn anything through reflecting on our experience enough to articulate it and package it for general consumption.

What’s more, using facebook is a particular issue. How does facebook make money? It gathers personal information, parcels it up and makes it available to those who would wish to commercially exploit it. It is simply an advertising channel. Imagine you enlist the support of facebook to create an on-the-cheap learning community.  Assuming anyone uses it perhaps their presence indicates a willingness to learn, a desire to invest time in their own development.

Perhaps they will add the occasional frustration about their current employer and the lack of opportunity to progress. Now that’s not useful to anyone who might want to target advertising at your learners is it? Oh, hang on, what if you were a savvy recruitment consultant looking for dissatisfied Generation Y’ers with a hunger for self improvement?  Perhaps the facebook model works after all – just not for you and your ability to retain those in whose development you have invested.

But worry not because as a learning tool, existing route to Social Media like facebook, or myspace, provide a pretty poor model.

However, online collaboration does have a part to play in the modern learning environment.  But cut through the hype. Your learners - be they graduate trainees, middle managers or customer service teams – have no real desire, nor sufficient time in their working day, to initiate a series of online discussions in the hope of using the reflective process to develop their own skills and understanding.

What they do want to do is look things up. They want to look things up which explain things which they can’t find in the bland corporate communications of modern organisations. That creates an interesting analogy for me.  When I’m visiting a place and have to stay over, I’ll often consult online reviews on hotels – making my purchasing decision on the comments I find there. These are things that aren’t in the brochure – the fact that the rooms are subterranean and local cats have headaches as guests attempt to prove the old maxim that there really isn’t room to swing one; the fact that the rooms overlook a busy road or are next to a nightclub which kindly organises Friday night fights so that the Police don’t feel under-employed; the fact that the rooms are OK but that the food is dreadful or expensive or (too often) both.

For some reason I trust these reviews so much more than the artful photographs which show some kind of dream bedroom.

But while I will visit trip advisor or any of the other sites with guest reviews, I don’t necessarily contribute to these sites nor feel compelled to do so. I may – if invited – award some stars for bedroom cleanliness, value for money or customer service or whatever I’m being asked, but I am primarily a passive recipient of the views of others.  And that’s how 90% of people who log on to these sites interact with them.  As part of the transaction which they are involved in they will utilise the network of previously untold stories – often cataloguing the flagrant problems with the place and occasionally extolling the virtue of a hotel’s  location, value for money, kind, informed staff  and spaciousness.

When I do feel moved to enter a star rating (and assuming it’s not too much trouble and I’m not too busy that day) I become an active recipient in this transactional network. Very rarely – maybe on two visits to one of these sites out of 100 – I’ll add a comment, usually sharing my knowledge that the hotel is OK but that rather than fork out £20 for some undercooked elderly bacon, future guests would be better at the greasy spoon 100 metres away which does a cracking, fresh breakfast for less than a fiver.  At that point I become an active participant in the transactional network.

And that process (and that ratio) is how your learners will use your user generated content in a transactional network that you can set up as an aid to learning.

About 90% of them will use what’s there as an information resource – go there, look things up and go away again.  8% of visitors may participate in something like a rating process – simple, tick box, no real reflection beyond a short internal debate about 4 stars or 5 stars. About 2% will actively participate and add comments.

Now, how do you make sure it’s the right 2%?  From reading reviews on and the like, clearly there are people who make it their business to review electronic gadgets. Obviously, they have time on their hands and a deep and abiding love for the subject under discussion and their own opinion of it. I’m not sure though that their work colleague counterparts are the people who you would necessarily consider to be the most appropriate people to express their views about a new process, product or customer service initiative. 

So to make your transactional network flourish you need to recruit some active participants.  The people who know what life is like on the front line and can comment on how things happen, how they could happen and how their experience helps them. 

You then need to give them time to contribute – make it part of their job, measure them at annual appraisal time on the number of posts they have made.  Having selected some pretty bright people who you would like to be the informal voice of the organisation, get out of their way – let them say what they think (so long as they don’t say anything personally offensive about anyone).  As our social media evangelists have recognised, by so doing you will gain a double benefit.

Information which some people may genuinely find useful and may well trust more than the official corporate line because it comes from an authentic source, and an opportunity for these individuals to develop themselves through the process of reflection that they have engaged in.  You might even gain some insights into the organisation and how things actually happen in the real world rather than the sunny day environment often imagined in the world of training,

This is not just theory. The transactional network really works, which is why our version of it, in a major development programme for one of our global clients, just won Best Online Programme at the e-Learning Awards 2010.

Robin Hoyle is head of learning, Infinity Learning

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By stevepunter
10th Mar 2011 23:17

Thank you Robin, an excellent article, and very timely for me since I and my clients are investigating ways that we can incorporate Social Media into the learning process. Personally I am both cynical of and fascinated by the whole subject. As a baby-boomer I still don't really 'get' Twitter except as an avenue for the morbidly curious fans of celebrities. Several of the organisations I work with (member-based professional institutes with attached Learning Centres) are using blogs, facebook and twitter and yet the take-up is 'patchy' at best, people have put effort into posting a really interesting blog article and quick as a flash there are no comments... no way of even knowing whether they are being read, which is disappointing in that having nobody make a comment is one thing, having nobody read is it far worse. The lifespan of a blog-posting appears to be about a month and 4 of five comments at best. Then it dies.

I have conducted some testing with my own blog written for specific audiences (T&D people) and have done all the right things in terms of key-words and tags. Result = very few comments and no way of knowing how many 'reads'.

So I am content to wait and see. For me, the Jury is still out.

Steve Punter, Auckland New Zealand.

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