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Ed Cohen

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The role of social media in learning

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Ed Cohen of SuccessFactors gives us a new take on social media and their relationship with the learning experience.
Over the past three years the popularity of social media has grown from being an interesting social experiment to mainstream entertainment. We have seen companies and technologies like MySpace go from being the latest craze to almost non-existence within a short time. The one thing that has been consistent with each new type of social media or technology has been someone waving the flag on how it is going to become the latest trend for learning.
I think it is time that people take a step back and think critically about some of the claims about social in general.   We are at the beginning of a fundamental shift in the way that both learning and working is happening in organisations. Social media mean everyone can have access to the range of services and applications to support their learning, performance and productivity. There is no question that social media are here to stay and that they are very powerful media tools, but then again so are magazines, billboards and radio talk shows. Not every form of media makes sense to incorporate as part of learning.
 
"We are at the beginning of a fundamental shift in the way that both learning and working is happening in organisations. Social media mean everyone can have access to the range of services and applications to support their learning, performance and productivity."
When people talk about social media they really are talking about three different classifications. The simplest form is what I call social raw media which are sites like YouTube, Flickr, etc. They are sites where you can share raw media with your friends or the pubic and post it for free. The second classification are blogs and wikis where the information is usually controlled by one or more individuals who have a common goal of sharing accurate information with each other and with the public. These sites tend to be very powerful reference tools for people creating instruction. The third are Facebook, MySpace and Google+, which are the ultimate in social tabloids. These sites have an endless stream of chatter on an endless number of topics created by millions of individuals who all have different interest. Although these sites can provide hours of entertainment and are a wonderful way to keep in touch with friends and family, they offer very little in the way being a reliable source of instruction.
In 1998, the US Bureau of Labour Statistics declared that people learn 70% of what they know about their jobs informally. This implies they only know only 30% of what they need to know on the first day of work - which cannot be good for the employee or business. So the question is can social media play a role in improving this number? It depends on how you use it.
I don't see technology as the barrier to improving the performance of individuals within the workplace. However, I do think technology can be an enormous distraction to learning or training if it is used inappropriately.  If you start with the basic elements, they go something like this:
  1. Identify what is required to do a job
  2. Identify what the individual who is going to do the job already knows
  3. Teach the individual what they are missing to do their job effectively
  4. Measure the individual's job performance to ensure it is properly aligned with corporate goals and strategy
In the perfect world you would repeat steps three and four until the person is ready to move onto the next job position. The goal is to do this process as efficiently and effectively and with as many people as possible. It makes absolute sense to leverage technology to manage the entire process as well as to deliver as much of the instruction as possible. There are reasons why this process breaks down at each step, but social media are being promoted to answer the third step outlined above - teaching individuals what they are missing to do their jobs effectively. In fact, this is often where everything falls apart because the instruction is either mismatched with the needs or is so poor in quality that the person doesn't learn from it. 
"I don't see technology as the barrier to improving the performance of individuals within the workplace. However, I do think technology can be an enormous distraction to learning or training if it is used inappropriately."
Social media fall broadly into three groups. It is pretty straightforward to see how appropriate each one is and how you have to manage it.
  • Raw Media:  As an instructor, you can leverage media that have been posted, but it is up to you to identify what is good, bad or even relevant to what your learning would need to know
  • Wiki/Blog: This is a little more difficult, but often you are able to identify portions of a blog that explain something in great detail. More often than not, I see instructors cutting and pasting from blogs and imbedding the information into a piece of elearning
  • Facebook, Google+: These are almost impossible to use in their raw form for instruction. However, if they are managed from within an enterprise, they can be a great tool for solving the problem of where to go when you have a question
The best way to think of social media really is as different forms of media and not instructional delivery tools. They may contain valuable content that can supplement instruction, but really they should be thought of as media libraries, collaborative reference manuals and tabloids in the context of learning.

Ed Cohen is vice president of learning technologies at SuccessFactors. He can be contacted on [email protected]

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