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Social Media Is Not Social Learning

February 14, 2012
Related Topics: Learning Delivery, Social Networking, Social Media

There, I said it.

Social media is not social learning.

But before I follow through with an analysis of this point, let's establish a few definitions first.

Brian Solis, principal at Altimeter Group, a research-based advisory firm, defines social media as follows:

[The] democratization of information, transforming people from content readers into publishers. It is the shift from a broadcast mechanism, one-to-many, to a many-to-many model, rooted in conversations between authors, people and peers.

In their article "Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of Social Media," published in Business Horizons, Andreas Kaplan and Michael Haenlein define social media as:

[A] group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content.

Marcia Conner and Tony Bingham, in their book The New Social Learning, define social learning as:

[The] result in people becoming more informed, gaining a wider perspective, and being able to make better decisions by engaging with others. It acknowledges that learning happens with and through other people, as a matter of participating in a community, not just by acquiring knowledge.

Previously, I’ve defined social learning as:

An exchange of ideas, knowledge or information typically characterized by friendly interaction through online services that provides supplemental understanding often via personal and professional networks.

So why is social media not social learning?

Quite simply, one is a noun whilst the other is a verb. You can’t do "social media," but you can "social learn."

In the context of those who work in the learning space, social media is the modality whereas social learning is the act. We may bring various modalities into the learning arena (books, pens, activities, videos, anecdotes, role plays, etc.) but it’s the act of learning that makes everything come together.

Social media, as it stands today, will continue to add new modalities, new applications, new ways in which to connect. I personally fall in love with every new social media opportunity that I get my hands on.

But social learning, in my opinion, is the act of exchanging ideas, knowledge or information through social media means. Regardless of what fancy social media application or technologies are available, it is important to understand the difference between what is social media and social learning. Educators have an important role to play as it cannot be assumed people understand how social learning actually takes place or how to socially learn in the first place.

Social learning is a behavior. It is not a separate behavior outside of the overall learning spectrum, but one that is also relatively new. One cannot assume that by enlisting in a Facebook or Twitter account (social media examples) that the user will be able to socially learn.

Organizations not only need to help with the definition of learning, they need to provide the right opportunities to help their employees understand how to socially learn as well.

Blogger Jane Hart was correct when she opined, “true social learning is an integral part of working, not separate from it.” But, providing access to social media tools in the workplace does not constitute social learning. Those social media applications and technologies need to be worked into both the learning cycles of an organization as much as it has to be embedded into the workflows of common business tasks.

The noun is important, but the verb provides the action we’re looking for.

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