Does Social Learning have a future? 

In the beginning……  Genesis Ch1 VS1…  From that moment evolution began.

Every so often (may have been thousands of years) there has been an invention that has changed the way life evolves.

The invention of the wheel was such an invention. Up till now, it is still a mystery as to who invented the wheel and when the wheel was invented. According to archaeologists, it was probably invented in around 8,000 B.C. in Asia. The oldest wheel known however, was discovered in Mesopotamia and probably dates back to 3,500 B.C.E.

Some number of 1000’s of years later the Internet evolved.  The Internet was invented by the US Department of Defence as a means of communication if they were attacked by Russia. That was in 1969. The WWW on the other hand was invented by an Englishman called Tim Berners-Lee in Switzerland in 1989. The Internet dates back to the 1950s and 60s, although few of us knew of it then as it was part of the American defence system.

Has the internet been as a significant invention as the wheel?  Well both have touched the lives of every living being today. The Internet probably got known faster than the wheel.

What has this to do with social learning?  You may well ask, you may not be interested right now, but they do have similarities.  In between these huge inventions there have been very many smaller inventions or advancements.  for every 10 or so advancements, one survives the test of time and makes it to the mainstream.

Take the wheel…  It has no operational flaws, but many have advanced its manufacture and use. From the smallest cog in your wristwatch fitted with teeth to ensure an engineering fit with another, to a wheel fitted with a tyre that can support many hundreds of tonnes of pressure when a plane lands on it. Or even as a carbon fibre disk fitted to a Formula1 car as a brake disk to heat up to 900 degrees C to slow the car from 200 mph to zero in just a few seconds. All take a very different form from the original invention.

To the web, and to Web 2.0 to be precise. “Web 2.0” refers to the second generation of web development and web design that facilitates information sharing, interoperability, user-centered design and collaboration on the World Wide Web. This was exactly how Berners-Lee imagined it from day one, but the technology was not far enough advanced so it became an information system. Some say it is not really far enough advanced now and Web 2.0 is a little on the cutting edge.

With this information sharing we are seeing vast changes in the way people handle information, specifically learning. eLearning took on the role for quite some time as information delivery housed in ‘page turner’ style learning. Today for some companies it does not matter what it looks like, the stigma attached to eLearning is such that some will continue to complain that it does not do it’s job, no matter What it looks like.  Too technical, too boring, too gaming, too superficial, too long, too short….  for some you just can’t provide the right blend or balance. For others who have embraced the technology to their advantage it has become a huge time and money saver. But do we get the best from what we have?

Then just when you thought it was safe to get back in the training water as eLearning settled into mainstream, along came Twitter and Facebook and a range of social learning sites all allowing the user to play a part in whatever way they want.

For some corporate entities this was a step too far. IT blocked Facebook and Twitter, then Ning and any other site that looked a tad like them. This without any real thought to the power that lay behind them.

To begin, I too thought that Twitter was a gimmick. I stated publicly that Twitter was like driving down the road while yelling out of the car window. I stated Facebook was a place for kids who did not have the social abilities to have a conversation face to face.  OK I admit I was wrong on both counts.

The problem is not what they stand for or how they work, but how we have been unable to find a successful way to harness what they do. Neither have we been able to direct the user from what they see to what they may like or need if shown it. We are not following the users patterns merely letting them use it, or not.  I am not talking about creating private versions of Facebook or Twitter, but tapping into what exists and everyone is already using.  Not trying to reinvent the wheel.

There is a fine line however between those who read and those who write using these systems. How many tweets do you need to post a day? or, How many hours a day do you need to be logged into Facebook before it  has become a compulsive disorder?

Putting the possible compulsion to the back of your mind and educating people to use and not misuse these systems is the key to creating powerful links between the social learning the bandwagoneers (real word? who knows but I like it) are trying to peddle now and the formalised learning we have already in our repositories. The question is, how do we make the link? And how do we get the user to read the formalised content that your company has approved rather than the blog I am posting here or the tweet that one of the many I follow post each day.

The answer started in a conversation I had with Karyn Romeis, Jane Hart and Jay Cross at the Learning and Skills Group in June. Thank you guys for pointing me in the right direction without even realising you did it.  I accused all three of being compulsive. Jay has posted very little since on Twitter, (sure that’s not my doing)  Karyn continues to publish her well written ‘erratic learning journey’ (last on Friday, thanks Karyn, well worth the read) and Jane, well Jane Hart over the weekend posted many tweets and Facebook entries all about work, and it was the weekend. Compulsion? Maybe not, Jane runs a brilliant site but does post at all hours!

The conversation started me thinking to what was missing in a tweet or Face-book entry that we, the trainer, could tap into, what could we use to our advantage. Then someone said to me ‘maybe it’s not what it contains but how they use it’. How they use what Facebook or the content?

I looked into how we (including me) use Google, Facebook and Twitter plus other similar social sites.

The research began into how people look for and find and then use the information they see in informal posts. There was no plan by the user to search and find, as they ‘fell over’ the information they saw. So without a plan to learn or a design to teach, this informal information could hardly be called learning. Could it?

What I found is that there is an extraordinary pattern that takes place. I started in Twitter, read a couple of Jane’s posts and then found this from Koreen Olbrish.

KoreenOlbrishTwitter in the classroom: 10 useful resources – Social Media In Learning #twine (via @CathyLAnderson)

The user clicks the link as it looks interesting to them and they are taken to a single blog post on Twine, (I had never heard of Twine, so made a mental note to come back and take a look) and this contained another url to follow.  Do they click this next link? or do they give up and return?  Well the link in this instance caught my interest while writing this blog, it stated :-

DESCRIPTION Although, according to Gartner’s Hype Cycle , Twitter is about to enter the “Trough of Disillusionment”, …
So they follow the second link and guess what? I am back at Jane’s site

What was extraordinary? Actually not the Tweet, not the link, not the return to Jane’s site. But the mental note to go back to Twine.  I found myself now entering a search term in Twine for ‘Social Media in Learning’, found 36500 results, clicked the first, a post from George Somebody and found a Toolkit that had been reposted from where? Yes you guessed it, Jane’s site.

Now frustrated as all points go to the same place, I started to look for other information, posted from third parties that say the same thing. The ‘Theorist’ in me will not believe what I am told by one person or site unless I can back it up.  So off to Google I went, Twine now in the trash and the first page of Google is all….  I will let you guess.

Wikipedia was next, under Social Learning, I found criminology and:-
Social learning refers to the acquisition of social competence that happens exclusively or primarily in a social group. Social learning depends on group dynamics. Social learning promotes the development of individual emotional and practical competence as well as the perception of oneself and the acceptance of others with their individual competencies and limitations.

Thread ended, never really learned much, got frustrated, wasted almost 40 minutes of my morning and I am not in a group, I am here by myself.

So tracking backwards, Wikipedia, Google, Twine, and Twitter never actually answered any question I had. If I had a question in the first place?

The answer lies in Electronic Performance Support Systems (EPSS).  Started life as the help files you get to in a program when you click F1.

In Electronic Performance Support Systems, published in 1991, Gloria Gery defined EPSS as:

an integrated electronic environment that is available to and easily accessible by each employee and is structured to provide immediate, individualized on-line access to the full range of information, software, guidance, advice and assistance, data, images, tools, and assessment and monitoring systems to permit job performance with minimal support and intervention by others.

Also in 1991, Barry Raybould gave a shorter definition:

a computer-based system that improves worker productivity by providing on-the-job access to integrated information, advice, and learning experiences.

An electronic performance support system can also be described as any computer software program or component that improves employee performance by

  1. reducing the complexity or number of steps required to perform a task,
  2. providing the performance information an employee needs to perform a task, or
  3. providing a decision support system that enables an employee to identify the action that is appropriate for a particular set of conditions.

As an author of an EPSS system (CSL, ) I began to consider how to alter our EPSS system – which already watches your screen to provide Context Sensitive Learning links from software and content to learning nuggets stored in a repository – and add a simple system of keywords based upon your searches in Google or Wikipedia or Twine and keywords found in sites like Twitter and Facebook.

The thought process is that if you use a social site, find something of interest, follow your nose and search the ‘term’, then the term becomes the driver and the link to learning. If you have a repository of accepted, approved learning, with a keyword attached that matches the search term, or something in the tweet being read, it is at this moment you need to inform the user and with the minimal support and intervention by others to deliver a nugget of learning. In our EPSS system we now do this with a balloon in the task tray, a single click and the approved information is delivered. Contextual Social Learning.


To take this further it is better to deliver a link to a blog (an internal blog that has further links to learning nuggets), this fits in with the style the user is using at that time and so it will slot into the path they are already following.

Informal delivery of this type can start with the social event in an online social site or just a search with a search engine. either way the informal and the formal have been delivered as if they are one.

My original question was Does Social Learning have a future? Had you asked me three months ago as Jay, Karyn and Jane found out my answer was NO, it’s a fad it will fade away…  Now I am not so sure I was right, maybe a little hasty. But with that said, more people need to be convinced and more need to be posting their own views and thoughts. If everything continues to point only at Jane’s site, convincing the Theorists may prove to be an uphill struggle. I am convinced that it is not something to be driven by just a training department, the user is already driving it themselves. We can only assist and provide the tools (like EPSS) to make it feel a little easier.

It will remain a mystery as to who invented the wheel and when. It is less of a mystery how we can utilise informal learning. Will Social Learning ever really become an integrated part of our lifestyle? Time will tell.  I think it is just another part of eLearning, which I hope before long looses the ‘e’ and just becomes a part of the wider learning we all do each day.

For more information on how CSL works, drop me a line. I will be happy to give you a copy to play with.

follow me on Twitter @neillasher