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Social networking: The future of learning


Have you joined the social networking revolution? Kirstie Donnelly looks at how these online tools can enhance the learning experience.

The proliferation of social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter is changing the way we interact with each other. Take the fact that in May 2009, 734 million people visited at least one social networking site. That is 65% of the worldwide internet audience using social media!

Clearly the days of purely communicating by email are a thing of the past. For instance, streaming videos, reading and posting blogs are two of the most common forms of communication used by internet users throughout the world. Barack Obama’s weekly presidential address to the American people is seen by millions on YouTube, while Stephen Fry’s 600,000 Twitter followers are regularly updated about the actor’s latest movements.

For learning and development professionals, the question is how can we use these tools to improve employees’ skills? 

Imagine a production operator in a manufacturing firm who can log onto their own IT learning social network during a quiet period. Once on the site they can see which skills they need to focus on and watch relevant videos they need to interact with in order to brush up on their IT knowledge. Any questions they have about a topic are quickly answered by other learners in their network. By dipping in and out of various resources the employee can learn at their own pace, while the interactive elements use familiar technology which they enjoy using. This example is not as far away as you might think and work is already underway to ensure employees gain the maximum benefit from the next generation of elearning technology. 

"For employees adapting in this social networking age, the tools we use to improve their skills must be transformed to ensure learning is kept relevant and engaging."

From learning new skills from 'how-to' video guides to solving on-the-job problems by talking to industry experts on sector-specific Facebook groups, technology is changing the way employees take in information. For employees adapting in this social networking age, the tools we use to improve their skills must be transformed to ensure learning is kept relevant and engaging. 

The changing technology landscape shows us that today’s learners want to know things quickly and at the touch of a button. They want the flexibility to learn when and where they like, and not be restricted by traditional classroom-style training courses. They want short, focused training resources delivered via a mix of media, and do not want to be involved with long guided linear courses.

The key is resources not courses. We need to move away from linear courses and focus on engaging our employees with innovative resources that use a mix of media – social networking, podcasts, vodcasts, quizzes, etc.

For learning and development professionals, this technology offers us the opportunity to engage with learners and support them with creative resources in a way that they are familiar and comfortable with, thereby helping to overcome some of the traditional problems we face with existing learning engagement.

Using the technology

At learndirect we are piloting the use of technology through a 'community of practice' portal to support the delivery of National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs). Learners taking a childcare NVQ are able to access free resources (such as academic articles or participating in debates on childcare issues). Adopting this approach helps to ensure that learners are both supported and can support each other as they work towards their qualification.
A social networking element enables learners to discuss topics with their peers to reinforce their learning. For example, childcare employees may select and complete resources that relate to real-work situations. If a member of staff from a nursery school wanted to take the class on a group trip they can watch a vodcast and take part in an interactive quiz the week before the trip to reinforce their knowledge. 

"We need to move away from linear courses and focus on engaging our employees with innovative resources that use a mix of media."

The benefit of this approach means learners can access training materials relevant to their assessment and then demonstrate their competence for submission as evidence. 'Just in time' access to learning overcomes the three-month timeframe associated with completion of a module in a college environment. As a result employers will benefit by seeing their employees obtain qualifications and achieve competence faster without the stop/start system of waiting for an assessor or the return of a portfolio often found through traditional assessment. 

In this context, the learning provided is short, focused and based on the real world, encompassing a range of learning styles.
By linking discussion threads and peers with similar interests, this approach can open up opportunities to reach and discuss issues of importance with fellow professionals. Learners are able to personalise their learning experience, and the higher level content means they can get something much more tailored to their specific needs.

The growing popularity of social networking means we must ensure access to learning is as easy as setting up a profile on Twitter if it is to be fully utilised. We need to engage with our learners using tools that they understand and benefit from. 

In the future, we can expect to see millions of workers logging onto sector specific social networking sites that are designed to boost the skills of employees. These sites will contain a variety of tailored resources that will stimulate real reflection rather than stifle it, leading to a new age in employee engagement.

Kirstie Donnelly is director of products and marketing for learndirect

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