I’m a big fan of social media (SoMe) learning. In a traditional class you work with students for a limited amount of time and then they return to the workplace, usually with little follow-up or ongoing support for the concepts just learned. With social learning, students interact and contribute to greater meaning for all. Better still, learning with social media allows us to extend that interaction into the workplace over an extended period of time.

So why hasn’t everyone in the learning and development (L&D) community kept up with the development of Web 2.0 tools? Why isn’t everyone using social media learning today, instead of only a relative few leading the way? And how can anyone think SoMe is just the latest “fad” in learning?

An incomplete look at L&D evolution

Once upon a time there was only social learning. We told and retold stories that at some point got written down, and then transcribed by hand for others. Ultimately they were printed, and new ideas and thoughts could be printed and distributed to larger and larger audiences.

photo courtesy Mary Harrsch fotopedia.com

Early formal learning was also social. The ancient philosophers and mathematicians gathered to discuss and think, creating new schools of thought. The same was true in virtually all disciplines: science, music, art, religion, literature, architecture, and more. Centers of excellence (often universities) in these fields developed, and participation meant extended travel to study with the masters.

As universities diversified to offer more general education, formal learning changed. Supporting it were textbooks chock full of facts and information, but real learning still required an expert (professor) guiding us in larger and larger classes toward some level of knowledge. We either learned enough to pass or learned too little (assessed by exams) and failed.

L&D organizations followed this model. We pulled experts away from their jobs and called them subject matter experts. We created slides and other materials, even creating textbooks in some cases, and asked our experts to teach. We argued that if it worked in college, it can work in the workplace.

An incomplete look at communication technology evolution

Photo courtesy Ian Britton FreeFoto.com

Not long after the mass introduction of personal computers, we began to connect to the growing Internet using software applications and communication hardware, initially modems and then faster and faster services.

But it was e-mail that really began to change things. It allowed people to connect to one another in a way never before possible. The World Wide Web changed things again, formatting information from the Internet in a visually appealing way. People were now connected in near-real time to information from around the world.

Social media began to develop as Web applications running not on personal computers but on Internet servers. Discussion boards appeared and people interacted asynchronously, asking and answering questions, helping one another. Blogs became soundboards for those with ideas but no platform to share them. Wikis enabled community-generated content development.

Social networking sites changed things again, integrating a number of social technologies with new ones and gave rise to friend-based online communities. Twitter (microblog), and now Pinterest (pin board), adopted a follower model instead, which meant communities could be substantially asymmetric and highly complex.

And with mobile technologies, people now carry their communities almost everywhere they go.

Where L&D was led astray

L&D wasn’t naive to these developments. Most of us embraced these evolutionary changes as opening new ways to deliver our programs the desktop. We had names for each of them: Computer-Based Training, and then Web-Based Training. At the time, everything was “e-“: e-books, e-billing, e-banking, etc. We dubbed our products e-learning.

We even created “blended” learning solutions, combining instructor-led class sessions with online assignments. We delivered e-learning through e-mail. Some of us even used blogs and wikis to deliver our e-learning.

But through it all, our focus was primarily on “pushing” our L&D products to our audience. After all, we are organizationally rooted in the university model of education where experts teach and students learn. Or do they?

photo courtesy http://100books1000miles.blogspot.com

The Social Learning “revolution”

What many of us failed to realize until recently is how much learning was taking place in  online communities. You need to learn how to fix your car? Search Google. Need a recommendation for a good restaurant? Ask your friends on Facebook. Have an idea you want to share with leaders in your field? Blog it and Tweet it. Every day, people discover new ways to learn using online social media. All you need do is pick up your mobile phone or tablet and connect.

It took centuries to evolve from social learning into the university model. We can’t afford to  remain static or to evolve back toward social. We need to make a revolutionary change in how we facilitate learning, focused on the learner, using social media. It’s not a fad. If we don’t change, we will simply become obsolete.

Thanks for reading! @tomspiglanin


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