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Robin Hoyle

Huthwaite International

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

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Not evangelical about social media? Join the club.


I’m involved in a debate about social media at the World of Learning Conference at the end of this month (  In a series of exchanged emails about the event an interesting comment was sent by one of the other speakers.  “Will this be an actual debate – I mean will any of us really be arguing that social media shouldn’t be part of learning and development?” 

The incredulous tone – and the use of the word evangelical in the next sentence – characterises a lot of the social media debate.  It has become the new orthodoxy.  Training without Twitter?  How backward of you!  Facilitating without Facebook?  Heresy!

Well at the risk of being stoned for blasphemy I will be raising my head above the parapet to raise some ideas which may rock the faith of the converted.  Because faith is what this is.  I’ve asked the questions about where the limitations may be, what the evidence is, how it generates benefits for learners and the organisations which have to pay for it.  I’ve received few answers and less evidence.

Sure, there’s a bit of marketing of learning going on.  Is that what the presence of a facebook logo on every vendor’s exhibition stand is supposed to be about?  Unless I missed a memo I think the users are supposed to use social media to learn.  But do they, really?  Or is it just another place to find information?  Nothing wrong with that but looking something up, using it for a specific purpose and maybe bookmarking the page in case I need it again is not learning, is it?  It’s looking something up. 

Skilled information seekers are very important – I’ve written often enough about it being the defining skill for the 21st Century.  But being able to find stuff on a network is not learning.  These two crucial skills are different in my book.  Committing something to memory is not committing it to the almost infinite memory supplied by Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.  It’s the bit between the ears I’m interested in. 

Of course there’s  collaboration - the chance to share information, tips and glorious discoveries.  I have often spoken and written about the social aspect of learning – the importance of learning from each other and learning together.  Projects, action learning, work-based tasks – I’m a big fan of all these experiential and collaborative activities.  Social media then provides a great opportunity to share these experiences with like minded learners without the inconvenience of travel. Doesn’t it? 

Theoretically, yes.

Practically, no.

I have had cause to look at a number of these networks and learning communities.  They follow this pattern:

1.       The moderator or site owner posts a discussion thread or two and asks for contributions.

2.       A number of people post comments.  These consist of “great idea” “this is really cool” “excellent chance to share our learning”.

3.       Three months later what activity there has been is entirely the work of the moderator.  The discussion threads have grown to 6 or 7 items.  The responses and site hits have shrunk to zero.

4.       Five months later.  Disheartened, the moderator gives up posting any new information.

5.       One year later, the network administrator needs the server space and the forum site is closed.

All this despite those very same learners being constantly on facebook when at home.  That’s where they share links on You Tube and all their friends and family submit their comments.  Unfortunately they are discussing their response to CCTV footage of a woman throwing a cat in a bin! 

Learned anything?

Yes, if you want to throw a cat in a bin without being headline news, do it somewhere which isn’t covered by CCTV cameras.

The problem is that social media is social – not work.  In their spare time, people act differently than they do during their working hours.  Frankly, this seems pretty desirable to me. 

We need to adopt online collaboration as business as usual.  This requires the development of some kind of work media - rather than trying to jump on the bandwagon of the facebook/twitter revolution.  Until then, the facilitation of learning and sharing of learning online is a nice idea but one which is no more that an article of faith.

You can read more about the debate in a Guardian supplement – see

Author Profile Picture
Robin Hoyle

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

Read more from Robin Hoyle

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