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.


Daan Assen said...

Great post, and finally an attempt to have a critical approach to social media in learning in a steam of hype feeding messages. Good to conclude with a positive note. I agree that social media have a lot to offer for learning, but critical reflection is needed!

Guy W. Wallace said...

Excellent post.

James Durkan said...

I was thinking about this earlier. Following on from my current irritation about the plethora of rose-tinted accounts EVERYONE has, I, too, deplore the lack of objective evaluation on this. Now I have progressed from that.

I'm concerned about all these impressionable, malleable (and isn't that how we like them?) youngsters being used in these untried practices. I remember having to get permission from my university's ethics committee whenever I wanted to use subjects. Or, to take a real-world example, where are the risk assessments or SWOT analyses that precede these iniatives? After all, they are being sent off into a public domain that contains unpleasant, disagreeable people. What has been done to protect them against attacks on their sense of identity or their self-confidence? What plans are in place to deal with undesirable heresies? Novices don’t benefit from uncertainty, do they?

I suspect I know the answer. I only have to recall a Swansea teacher being suspended because he made a helpful video about e-portfolios but neglected to anonymise the student record he used for the demo and inadvertently published identifiable, confidential observations about the individual.

I want this to work. But I want these innovations to be handled responsibly, to be properly documented so that we can have a better sense of which strategy will work in which circumstances. Anecdotal evidence subjectively assessed and applicable to specific, unique circumstances is of little value, surely. But is that just my background as a researcher making me unreasonable? I'm not a fan of the paperwork, but I do like to see safe practices.

Dave Ferguson said...

It's useful to compare your ideas with this equally sensible social media policy at Ford Motor Company.

Note especially how it's pretty much channel-free and applies readily to non-social-media contexts (letters to publications, presentations at industry forums, etc.), including these paraphrases of their summarized guidelines:

-- Be honest about who you are.

-- Make clear that your opinions are your own.

-- Use good judgment; share only public information about the company.

-- Remember that what you say is permanent.

In other words, what goes on Twitter, stays on Twitter.

Paul de Roos, MD said...

This surely is a beautiful blog post! I highly appreciate it.

As a Junior Doctor with a past of involvement in education improvement, I think that:

1) One size does not fit all.. Which means that all post industrialization curricula "creating" academics and professionals are obsolete in their educational approach.

2) There are tons of tools out there and the world looks different, yet educational sciences from the past did bring us virtues not to be abandoned. Solution: offer them all and let the student pick = Mass customization (vs mass production).

3) Educational environments need to be so rich, that even "distraction" leads to learning.

4) Personal interest and motivation need really to be the core of any educational program in academia.

What we see in social media is that it's highly engaging and addictive.. Now.. if only my education was highly engaging and addictive.. how much more would I learn!

Herve Tunga said...

Very good post, I like the balanced treatment of all the points.

When I need to nail a spike, I don't use scissors... Social Media is indeed an amazing tool, very nice and trendy though still a tool very helpful in some cases.

Leandro Codarin said...

Great Post! Sometime I hear directors talking about the "pragmatic", but... we need to stop and think about our justification when we decided to used social media to learn.

Thanks to help me to stop and think about it. ;)

Robert M said...

Interesting post and all your points are pertinent, however I don't agree. The student is in control of this, not the company, the school, or the educator. Schools that don't offer socialized learning to students will die, along with the teachers. The students are demanding collaboration and socializing learning is the only way to provide it. A student can discover all of these things. We don't have to think for the student after all they're quite capable of doing that themselves. They are aware of the perils. It's the educators who are scared by technology, and socializing learning, not the students. They breath it.

Sim Stewart said...

Great article, there's a definite bandwagon effect with social media and unfortunately it's often the people who shout loudest that get heard, not those who talk the most sense.

One of the major issues is that the majority of the tools being promoted have not been designed for effective peer to peer learning. Take Yammer for example, the enterprise version of Twitter. These are micro blogging tools, that's micro publishing which means pushing out content to anyone who will listen. As a platform this does not lend itself to effective and efficient knowledge share. It leads to some knowledge share but it also creates huge amounts of excess data and noise as everyone talks (tweets) at the same time, it's only the big 'birds' that really get heard.

One of the keys to learning is engagement but if the social tools we use serve to add to the information glut then the result is contrary to this objective. Ineffective and unfocused social tools exasperate the problem of information overload, not solve it, adding to the likelihood of people becoming unfocused and disengaged.

Donald Clark said...

Wouldn't disagree Robert, but schools will not die. Most education in most countries is state funded, so it is a matter of looking at classrooms, technology, timetabling and pedagogy afresh. On one specific point, learners, especially children, are susceptible to distraction, especially in social contexts. In this sense social learning practice can be disastrous.

Donald Clark said...

Sim Stewart - This is a key issue. Broadcasting streams of information leads to an information glut that has to be scanned by the learner. It's hard to pick out the diamonds from the gravel. There's also the danger of cognitive overload.

Frank Weber said...

Great post.
It reminds us to keep our feet on the ground a little and not to get carried away by our enthusiasm.

Just because the kids go crazy about social media doesn't mean we have turn our education system into facebook. We can use it when it makes sense, not more, not less.

Glenn said...

No tool, whether it's social media or a blackboard should be used unless it adds value to the learning experience. Or to look at it from the learner's perspective, "Will this tool enable the learner to accomplish the course objectives easier or increase the amount of knowledge gained?"

Say I'm teaching a woodworking class to teenagers. Do I need power equipment such as a circle saw? Yes. Handsaws take too long. However, a circle saw can kill someone. Am I going to instruct them in how to safely use it? Darn right.

Therefore, an instructor should always lay down the parameters of behavior in the class and instruct learners in the do's and don'ts of each tool.

Am I going to need an engine hoist in my class. No, it would just be a distraction in a woodworking class, therefore, I will not have it in the room.

Think like Apple, not Microsoft. Simplify the experience by removing anything that does not add value. If it does add value, instruct the learners in the proper use of it to avoid distraction (or death).

Now back to your post. Is there a place for social media in learning? Yes, in some cases. No, in others. But when it is used, the learner should be properly instructed in how to use it to maximize the learning opportunity.

Stephan Hughes said...

That's the danger in all things innovative and new,

We tend to blindly go along with the herd, not stopping to realy reflect on the pros and cons. This is especially crucial in the educational field. No wonder why teachers complain that students lack effective communicative skills, that go beyond using FB or and tweeting - we have happily contented ourselves with just scratching the surface and nothing more.

Wilma Kannegieter said...

Thank you for this post, Donald. I fully agree with you. I am an educational technologist and have been for 24 years or so. I have seen many hypes come and go. The present social media hype is one that is embraced by so many people because this is the first one that is so easy for everyone to use. It's like mega-pixel photography or HD video being available for everyone. It does not necessarily make for good pictures/film. One the contrary. Because of the ease of use/multitude of possibilities, there are very few questions asked in advance about what you want to make, why you want to make it, who you want to make it for or with and how you are going to use the result.

The interesting bit for me is that – talking to students – they are not the ones that want Facebook in their curriculum – they just want clear and good instruction – and if that instruction is: use Facebook or another platform to set up a discussion with peers or a particular target group e.g. about religious prejudice – that is good. If you leave them in the dark about the how, the why and the context of your assignment – they - and rightfully so – think you are not a good teacher. By the way: they are not always keen to use Facebook, Linkedin or Twitter for educational purposes…

Not long ago a student asked me how to deal with some media assignment he got– I gave him some pointers and he asked me: How do you know all this? Everybody says I am supposed to know this, but I don’t. Is there a school where you can learn this stuff? Of course I could have told him: “Dear student, the school of life will provide you with all knowledge – ask your peers – try it out – stumble – fall – spread the word – reflect and try something else”. Instead I gave him a couple of good links to articles that were going to help him with his questions.

The school of life is a beautiful thing. We all gather so much wisdom and knowledge throughout our lives by social interaction, experiences etc. with or without social media. But education is there to direct us so we do not waste time on just finding the path on our own. It’s there to give us a good basis/directions so we are able to explore life as it comes along. I can’t wait for the social media hype to die so we are left with some useful tools that may indeed help us in our explorations.
The other thing I would like to see happen: let’s define social media clearly and especially and focus on added value in education.

Unknown said...

While I somehow second the flavor of the blog, but intrigued at the purpose - uncontrolled excess of anything is bad ( I am suffering from gout because uric acid levels have exceeded in my body. It happens due to excessive proteins which is indeed needed for the body. The problem of Gout will re-occur if the intake of proteins isn't controlled). Uncontrolled social learning will also cause trouble although it sounds unlikely as it is always opt-in. One can be added to a community but can never be made active unless self-driven.

We need all types of learning mediums - ILT, WBT, e-learnings/online and Social Learning. None can replace the other however usage will be defined on the scope, audience, cost, urgency etc.Every medium has its fun and follies - and that's why a combination is always a better approach. Lets not trade cars for bikes or pizza for burgers - we need all.

To think of it, you would have never read this had we never ventured into social learning! Happy Learning :-)

judith Dex said...

Great post. Nice observation and delivering objections to social media in learning. I hope you can write about social media for schools

Madeleine Charney said...

May I have permission to use the graphic at the top of your blog? Or can you tell me the source so I may ask them? Thanks. It's for a web guide at UMass Amherst. --Madeleine