Monday, June 20, 2011

Social media & learning – note taking on steroids

With all this talk about social media and learning, we may be missing the essential benefit, which is simple note taking and the sharing of those notes. Social media is notes on steroids.

I’m a note taker, whether it’s at talks, conferences, in margins of books or thoughts captured in my notebook. On top of this I write the equivalent of notes on Twitter, Facebook and longer blog posts. It’s a lifelong habit. I’m therefore astonished, when giving keynotes and talks at learning conferences, to see learning professionals sit there and NOT take notes and worse have no means to take notes.

In addition, articles on ‘learning how to learn’ or ‘metacognition’ often disappoint me, as they seem vague and lack the sort of direct advice that really does lead to a dramatic increase in retention. With this in mind I want to recommend something that I’d put at the top of any list. It’s simple, it’s obvious: it’s NOTE TAKING and its amplification through SOCIAL MEDIA.

Why take notes? Several reasons:

1. Increase memory

Studies on note taking (with control groups and reversal of note takers and non note takers to eliminate differences) show overwhelmingly that not taking increases memory/retention. Many aspects of increased memory have been studied including; increased attention, immediate recall, delayed tests, free recall, MCQs, remembering important v less important knowledge, correlations with quality of notes and deeper learning. Bligh (2000) has detailed dozens of studies in this area. Wittrick and Alesandrini (1990) found that written summaries increased learning by 30% through summaries and 22% using written analogies, compared to the control group. Why does note taking increase retention? First, increased focus, attention and concentration, the necessary conditions for learning. Second, increased attention to meaning and therefore better encoding. Thirdly, rehearsal and repetition, which processes it into long term memory. All three matter.

2. Increase performance

If you take notes AND review them, you do better on assessments (Kiewra 1989, 1991). Interestingly, Peper and Mayer (1978) found that note taking increased skills transfer and problem solving in computer programming and science (1986). Shrager and Mayer (1989) found similar effects in college students, learning about cameras. It would seem that note taking allows learners to relate knowledge to experience.

3. Detail & structure

As to the best type of note taking, it’s the most information in the fewest words. Students tend to miss lots of important information (even omitting negatives!), with as little as 50-10% of the important points noted. Detail does matter. Research also shows that mind maps are fine for conceptual structure bit not so good for detail. They are also difficult to construct during a lecture. There is also evidence to support the use of colour and/or lines with symbols that have classificatory meaning (EX – example, D- definition etc). In other words, the evidence for simple mind map productivity is very thin. Interestingly small breaks for revision of notes during talks increases performance as does revision in pairs (O’Donnell 1993).

4. Further learning

Notes offer the opportunity for further learning through rewriting. Notes that are spread out so that further work can be included and self-generated questions are also useful (King 1992). This points towards further reflection and study. This is important and leads to my next point that learning can be massively amplified through the use of social media.

5. Tweet it – seed it

I’d contend that the amplification of notes is the best way of using social media in learning. Note taking can be transformed into a social learning experience for yourself and others through social media. Tweets during a talk or conferences session brings it to life, captures the salient points and let’s others know what’s going on. Then there’s the amplification through retweets. In addition, links can be included. But its strength (limited characters) is its weakness, as further exposition is usually needed. Tweckling is OK as long as it doesn’t become useless carping!

6. Blog it - log it

This, I believe, is a far more useful social medium for learning. Blogs are personal voices and it forces you to write a structured and considered piece, enhancing your own learning, as well as sharing that learning with others. In addition, it opens up the discussion for further comments, often further expanding your learning. I find I gain a great deal by reading other blogs of the same event, to capture points I’ve missed. There’s also the bonus of archiving. One has a searchable database of knowledge.

7. Evernote - remember everything

Tools like Evernote point towards single. searchable repositories that work on all of your devices, for the capture, storage, organisation and recall of learning. The fact that people grab web pages, screenshots and photos adds to its richness. On top of this there's YouTube for video capture, podcasts, RSS and chat rooms. All can be seen as expansions of not taking.


Note taking increases learning, results in deeper learning and leads to further learning. Social media is essentially an amplification of this process, it multiplies these effects through both personal and social learning. So in the search for an actual example of social media in learning, note taking has been researched and evaluated to be extremely powerful.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sexual abuse, e-learning and the Vatican - just plain weird

This is Frederico Lombardi (more of him later) and this story is just plain weird. The Vatican sees e-learning as a way to prevent its priests from committing sexual abuse on children. They have set up an ‘e-learning center’ to supposedly protect children and help the victims of sexual abuse. Now, I’ve spent the whole of my adult life promoting the use of technology in learning, but this takes the communal mass biscuit for inappropriateness.

But it gets weirder. This announcement was made at a press conference for a full ‘Conference’ on ‘Sexual abuse on children by clergy’ funded by the Pontificial Gregorian University in Rome. Monsignor Klaus Franzl (not to be confused with Fritzl, the Austrian incest beast) announced yesterday, “The e-learning center will work with medical institutions and universities to develop a constant response to the problems of sexual abuse.” By the way, I wonder how Christian apologists explain the horrors of the Catholic priest rape holocaust or the Fritzl case. If there is a God, he truly does work in mysterious ways. Check out this brilliant denunciation by Christopher Hitchens.

Available in six languages it is supposed to get new guidelines out to Bishops and priests about child abuse. Now in my book, this is not an area that needs ‘guidelines’ but a process of bringing those beasts to justice and helping those who were abused. “We want people to know we are serious about this” says Father Frederico Lombardi. Oh yeah – so you weren’t serious about this before! This was the same Frederico Lombardi who tried, unsuccessfully to protect the current Pope from the scandal. He's the pontiff's PR supremo.

Let’s be clear here, the current Pope, god’s man on earth we’re told, has been complicit personally and institutionally in the abuse scandal. In 1979 a young boy was subjected to sexual abuse by a German priest and the current Pope, then an Arch-bishop, protected that priest, who went on to commit further crimes. The Pope’s brother had to admit that his memory failed him and admitted he knew of the case. Ratzinger was also responsible for obstructing investigation into this criminal activity.

Now if the Vatican had simply funded initiatives and retributive payments to the victims, fine, but this smacks of an on-going PR campaign to dampen down a global criminal epidemic by priests, that should make everyone wary of allowing contact between them and children. I’m with Christopher Hitchens, in ‘God is not Great’ and his chapter ‘Is religion child abuse?’ Ignatius Loyola famously said ‘give me a boy until he is ten, and I’ll give you the man’. How hideously true this turned out to be.

If any lessons are to be learnt from Catholic child abuse, it is that education should remain secular. Education should open up young minds, not subject them to dogmatic closure. This is why I am absolutely against the state funding of faith schools. I do not want tax money to fund schools where the creed supports genital mutilation (both boys and girls), gives priests contact with young children and imposes dogma on impressionable minds.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

7 objections to social media in learning (and answers)

Social media – I’m a fan. I blog, facebook and tweet daily, and love all of the additional resources and tools. But when an important social and technological phenomenon turns into a bubble of evangelism, we’ve got to handle it with care. I’ll present on the use of Social Media in organisations in Zurich this week, to Directors of many of Europe’s top companies, and explain the upside but it’s just as important to be open about the downside. I agree with the Nick Shackleton-Jones Tweet, “When the tide comes in you’d better don your trunks and not bury yourself in the sand” but it’s also rational, for some, to walk up to dry land to avoid getting wet. Even the Vatican had a Devil’s Advocate department when discussing canonisation, so before giving Social Media the status of sainthood, let’s consider some of the downsides.
Objection 1: Dumbness of crowds
We have ‘constructivists’ who wouldn’t be able to string two sentences together when asked what that actually means in terms of real psychology. Then the woolly ‘social learning’ advocates who see all learning as social (ridiculous) and can’t see that some of it is a waste of time, like going over the top of your head to scratch your ear. Much of my productive learning is completely solitary and I’ve spent far too much time in my life, in wasteful, long-winded social contexts, like classrooms, training rooms, lecture theatres, meeting and conference rooms, learning little or nothing.
It’s a matter of balance, not blind belief in half-baked social theory. We need to see a mix of approaches that include social learning but not to the exclusion of focused, solitary learning. Reading, writing, reflecting and deep processing needs isolation from others, not chattering classes.
Objection 2: Weapons of mass distraction
Employees and learners can get stuck in a tar-pit of unproductivity as social media is sticky, seductive and addictive. Most parents have experienced concern about the amount of time their kids have spent on say, Facebook and Twitter, when they claim to have been studying or doing assignments. At work, it’s easy to avoid doing things you don’t want to do by escaping into social chat.
First, if you’re really that worried, monitor usage, which many organisations already do. That’s fine, as it’s a way of managing excessive use, but it’s far better to police by policy. Simply add a few words to your existing HR policy around the excessive use of social media for non-organisational purposes. In any case, in the end, in the workplace, employees have to be trusted.
Objection 3: Confidentiality, libel & harassment
Many organisations have examples of naïve, even malicious use of social media. There are genuine fears around the leaking of confidential information and reputational damage. In addition, individuals have been libelled and harassed, leading to complicated and expensive HR management issues and court cases.
To be honest, I think the fears are exaggerated here, but they do have to be managed. Again, police through policy, pointing out the dangers of inadvertently leaking information and expected behaviour towards others. To be frank, these four words should suffice ‘Don’t be a dick!’
Objection 4: Non-alignment
In this survey, less than 18% of decision makers at 100 of the UKs top 500 companies (by turnover), thought that L&D was aligned with the goals of the business. It is not always clear that social media solves this problem, as it can encourage divergence of task, as one link leads to another and one is led, not by goals, but interest. This can be worse than simply ‘not seeing the wood for the trees’, as social media can be so random, fragmented, long-winded and unstructured, that it is difficult to square off effort with relevance.
Anders Mørch of the University of Oslo sees this as one of many ‘double-edged’ sword phenomena in social learning. Say what you will about informal learning, there’s still a massive role for ‘aligned’ formal learning. Many things can’t be left to the vagaries of a social approach, as they have to be tackled within a fixed timescale.
Objection 5: Crap content
The mixed quality of user-generated content is also a concern. Even in media sharing the poor quality of lectures on YouTube EDU and other media sharing sites, show that sharing in itself is not always a virtue if the content being shared lacks quality or relevance. Putting one’s faith in user generated content can be a disaster if you’re relying on that alone.
Wikis solve this problem by having a process of communal and tracked amendments, but you need volumes of contributors to raise the quality of the content. Rankings and strong social recommendations by trusted colleagues is another useful control, feeding high quality links and content from outside the organisation.
Objection 6: Redundancy
Many of the productivity tools are here today, gone tomorrow. Some simply collapse, as they have no sustainable way to monetise the product. Some get dropped (even Google products), others get bought by the bigger boys and suddenly disappear or become part of a larger software suite. It can be hard to keep up.
There seems little danger of the major entities, such as Google, Facebook and Twitter disappearing, so these are safe bets. However, it would be wise to regard others as useful even though they are temporary, especially tools such as Doodle etc. Data storage is another issue, however, Google and Apple are as stable as anyone in this regard.
Objection 7: Security
Many organisations, obviously the military, government and banks, but also many other organisations, are nervous about DoS attacks and data theft, and are rightly nervous about unlimited access to social media and tools. Global Corporations are under siege from hacker groups and online organised crime. Even Julian Assange won’t use Facebook as he’s sure the data has already been sucked out by non-desirables. This is not irrational fear, it’s the real deal.
However, HR and training bods should not be making this decision. They need to ask the IT experts about the dangers. This is fair as they wouldn’t be expected to restrict your behaviour in teaching or training. Once a real examination of the issues has been done, it can be allowed. Point to other organisations that have done this and have had no problems.
OK, that’s the Devil’s Advocate stuff over. The reality is the astounding rise of the internet as a social intermediary with social media being the number 1 use of the web, 600 million Facebook users. Potential employees, employees, learners and customers, are using this stuff in anger. The modern executive, manager, teacher or trainer can’t really call themselves a professional without at least a knowledge of social media. You’ve got to play with this stuff to understand its virtues and vices.
You also need to understand, plan and assume its use, for there’s no way that it will not be used. Every one of your employees has a mobile which is a pipe to the outside world beyond your control.
However, it’s easy for academics and advisors who have never really had to ‘run’ an organisation, or take responsibility for real jobs and lives, to get over-excited about their passions. They themselves can be subject to social conformity, groupthink, non-alignment and hype. It’s important that this type of over-optimism is not at the expense of realism.
To be fair, people like Jane Hart, Jay Cross, Charles Jennings and Harold Jarche et al, understand all of this, the danger is the bandwagon effect and evangelistic groupthink, which can lead to the abandonment of good practice elsewhere. Social media is not the answer to every problem, but it’s a undoubtedly a useful and powerful advance in learning.