Image courtesy Carla216 on Flikr

There’s a buzz in the learning and development community about social learning, kicked into high gear by the explosion of social media. There’s also a concern that the term “social learning” is being misused to always mean learning through use of online social media (I wrote on this topic earlier, as did David Kelly in How to Save ‘Social Learning’ Before We Destroy It). Social learning, we are quick to point out, has been around since before written language, when there was only story telling, cave painting, or even drawing in the dirt with a stick (HT Jane Bozarth).

There’s also real danger in jumping on the bandwagon looking for a way to implement the latest technique without understanding how it can best serve the needs of the learner. This is when the hammer sets off in search of nails. We need to avoid doing this, just like we need to use correct language so we don’t screw up social learning (the way we did elearning).

Participating in numerous Twitter chats, I’ve found these issues aren’t unique to learning and development. Every business discipline seems to be “going social.” I’m finding a disturbingly large number of people who assume that “social” in their field means using online social media, and occasionally wanting to use it without thinking how it enhances the business process. Many of these disciplines (learning and development is only one) were inherently social to begin with. Ignoring this diminishes how social media improves or enhances these already-occurring social activities.

Social media are interactive communication channels

Image courtesy Ian Britton

At least a part of the problem may stem from a fundamental misunderstanding about what constitutes social media, or even media in general. Getting to basics, when we refer to a medium we’re talking about a communication channel and not the message content. When I draw in the dirt with a stick, the dirt is the medium, what I scrawl in it is the content, and the gathering around it makes it social. Paint on cave walls, face-to-face gatherings, phone calls, and even email are all media, all communication channels. So too are newspapers, television programs, and radio broadcasts, but we call these print or broadcast media; they’re communication channels, but they’re not social media.

Being social implies interactive communication between two or more people. Print and news media aren’t social because they’re primarily one-sided channels (hence the word, “broadcast”), even though people may gather and talk about them. A social medium enables interactivity, the degree of which depends on the medium. A “briefing” or stand-up presentation is a gathering of many people but presumes one person sending a message that others hear and may (or may not) question. A conference call is more interactive with many peers. In one-on-one settings, the level of interactivity depends on the context; superior-to-subordinate is different from peer-to-peer. A classroom workshop setting where students collaborate and learn from one another is definitely social. You can apply this evaluative thinking to almost every medium you like.

Not all social media are online

Note that all the examples of social media just mentioned aren’t even online as we define it today; online social media are just a subset of the whole of communication channels available. These online media include blogs, threaded discussions, wikis, online forums, instant messaging, microblogs, and social bookmarking, among others. These online social media can be aggregated into platforms where people “gather” and socialize, such as Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Yammer, and others.

Bottom line

Paying attention to these distinctions may help us (as David Kelly writes), “rescue social learning before we dilute and ultimately destroy its value…” If we think about a social medium as being a communication channel through which we socialize, to interact, we might begin to provide clarity to our conversations about all our social business processes.

Thanks for reading! @tomspiglanin


Social Media, Communication Channels, and Learning — 1 Comment

  1. Tom,

    Totally agree with you on this. I’ve always maintained that classroom traing was and remains one of the best examples of social learning.

    At work, we seem to have created an artificial divide in social media. We have a SoMe policy, covering external use and organisational reputation/brand management, but internally, I have to call it ‘collaborative’ media to get any kind of engagement or buy-in to its deployment and subsequent use.

    Great blog, thanks.

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