Sunday, March 20, 2016

Social media as powerful method of learning – the evidence

Discussion around social media and learning tends to focus on the networking effects; the fact that you are in touch with others and gain from that nexus of expertise and knowledge. While this is true, there is another dimension to social media that is pertinent to learning – it’s role in terms of actual learning and memory.
The fact that social media is an act of expression, reflection, elaboration, retrieval and practice is of interest to those of us who like to see concrete evidence for powerful learning and retention. I often feel as though I remember more when I use social media, indeed have stronger memories of the things I posted than the original exposure. Tweeting during a conference helps me consolidate my thoughts and capture key insights. Facebook helps me share resources. LinkedIn is a useful professional tool. However, it is blogging, such as this post, that is by far my strongest form of learning, as it involves a number of things that are all supported by researched learning theory, and which improve memory and recall:
1. Reflection
We know that deep processing increases learning and recall and in my experience, those active on social media get used to reflecting in some depth on their experiences. You get into the habit of reflecting as you know you are likely to express yourself later. The act of Tweeting, posting or blogging is therefore a direct act of deep reflection. This intentional attitude, in my experience, increases curiosity and the habit of taking notes and exploring things in greater detail.
2. Generation
Tweeting, posting or blogging is a self-generative act and we know that this effortful learning (see make It Stick) contributes positively to deeper understanding, processing and eventually recall. In writing you are both retrieving and elaborating on your own experiences. A perfect example of generative learning is the correction and generation of Wikipedia content. All of these forms of generation have proven benefits in learning.
3. Elaboration
The act of expressing yourself also helps elaborate learning, another proven positive effect on memory. With a Tweet, this may be the useful act of being concise and pithy. With Facebook, it may be a longer post but with a personal touch. With blog posts, there’s often a deeper form of elaboration through analysis, structured writing and conclusions. There may also be photographs, graphics, diagrams and links, all elaborating your learning, McGaugh (2000)
4. Retrieval
This is one of the most powerful ways to learn in terms of long-term recall. To use social media is to retrieve what your remember, often re-expressing it in the form of a Tweet, post or blog. This act of retrieval, according to recent research (see make It Stick), is even more powerful than the original exposure. So social media expression may be more powerful than the original learning experience.
5. Interleaved and varied practice
Given the often fragmented nature of social media use, you often find yourself, not expressing a series of similar ideas but a more interleaved set of items. Varied practice, another well researched method of improving learning, is also likely as many who use social media, use its different forms, varying the way information is expressed. It is this variation and sequential interleaving of activity that is far more powerful than re-reading and repetition.
6. Spaced-practice
Social media is not a designed form of spaced-practice, it is just a form of expression that takes place across time. Tweets, posts and blogs may be written minutes, hours, even days after an event or learning experience. Note that this is not a form of mere repetition, which we know does not result in significant gains in learning. It is spaced ‘practice’ in the sense of retrieved, re-expressed and generated knowledge. This is the form of spaced-practice that does increase consolidation and recall.
7. Imagery
An interesting adjunct to the core 'textual' nature of social media is the growing use of images and video. Wikipedia, that great social construct, one which I have not mentioned as a learning resource, but is clearly a monumental achievement and resource, now has accompanying images. But in posting images of places you've been, slides you've seen, objects you've seen in museums, you are reinforcing their presence and relevance in memory. For me, these act as 'cues' in Tulving's sense, which allow me to retrieve entire experiences in conferences, foreign cities, museums, art galleries and so on.
8. Portfolio
Lastly, we have the idea that your learning has been archived. Those active on social media often observe that they go back to look at something that they Tweeted, posted or blogged some time ago. These items preserve valuable information and links, almost like an on-going e-portfolio. In fact I almost regard my blog as my huge, persaonal e-portfolio. You find yourself consolidating your own knowledge by backward reference to your own blogs, posts and Tweets.
9. Habit
One more powerful learning strategy is 'habit' or habitual learning. John Locke and William James both stressed the importance of developing fruitful habits in learning. Strong, autonomous learners tend to have these habits, whether it's reading, Tweeting, posting, blogging, note taking and practice. Social media is, by definition, habitual, some would call it addictive. When learning becomes addictive, we make real progress in moving from the culture of 'learn then forget' to 'learn to remember' and 'lifelong learning'.
10. Social learning
Of course, the most obvious point is left to last. We learn from others and there is a social component in learning. Bandura and others have identified this as an important component in the learning process and social media delivers it in spades.
Rather than scoff at social media, we should celebrate its use when associated with learning. Many report great benefits in terms of learning through social media. There is even an argument for seeing it as a valuable component in CPD. What better way to learn that keeping in touch with experts and colleagues not just limited to those in your workplace or through the occasional training course. More than this it is clear that some well-researched principles of learning are congruent with social media use. And.... it's free.

Note that abundant evidence is presented for all these principles in learning theory, in one excellent book which summarises ten years of research in “Applying Cognitive Psychology to Enhance Educational Practice’. Brown P, Roediger H. McDaniel M.(2014) Make It Stick. Harvard University Press. When asked if there is one book in learning theory that summarises the findings of recent research into learning and memory, I always recommend this one book. For me, it should be essential reading for any teacher, lecturer or learner.

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Anonymous Frances Bell said...

Great points here Donald - and I agree about importance of blogging. I would add that social media is a broad category and so we can't treat it as a universal good. Ever tried mining your Facebook archive - good luck with that :(

9:32 AM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Agree. Social media's a mixed bag. But it has habitual use on it side and ultimately, most of it is searchable. I may do a schema showing which services match which learning strategies. Thanks for the feedback.

10:38 AM  
Blogger Andrew Smith said...

Hi - very interesting as you are presenting an underpinning theory to the work that I am doing around teaching by twitter ( .... I have been using "legitimate peripheral participation (Lave/Wenger) and an element of Vygotsky's cognitive apprenticeship.

Each social media platform elicits a marginally different response - however the outcome is similar. I can prove engagement - the interesting bit (that is difficult to prove) is if the stuff is 'being acquired' e.g. learned.

8:43 AM  
Blogger Joe Wilson said...

If you get the opportunity have a look at Learnium - I think it is still important that you can be a social learner and indeed a social software using teacher while protecting your multiple digital identities

3:49 PM  
Blogger J Bidder said...

Not much to disagree with here Donald - it makes a nice change to read some depth on the topic. I've used FB with primary PGCE Students in the past for a 6 week block of the course and the first time I did it it was astonishing how the absence of friction with the system and transferrable skills enabled us to just 'get on with it'. Should make some time and blog about it I know!

11:36 AM  
Anonymous Ballantine said...

I agree with the above comments that social media can be a mixed bag. I think the best aspect of social media is being interactive. It is a place to make connections, gather information and learn by finding out what others are talking about and want.

1:56 PM  
Anonymous Neil Canham said...

Some interesting points. AS a former teacher and someone passionate about education and appropriate use of tech in learning, I wonder if you could point me to the actual evidence. I see good theories but not evidence to support them.

9:27 AM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

In the book top left - theory taken from there - over 300 academic references.

9:37 AM  

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