Social Media in Formal Learning Programs: Inside and Outside the Firewall

320px-Social-media-for-public-relations1Learning is inherently social1, and social media offer exciting opportunities for people to learn. Members of the learning and development (L&D) community increasingly embrace this for their own informal learning and networking, but using social media effectively in formal learning activities can be more of a challenge.

The potential advantages are tremendous, including extending interaction and learning opportunities over time, reaching into the workplace, putting learning activities in the context of work, reducing or eliminating classroom time, and empowering learners to participate at the time and place that’s most convenient for them. Online social media used in training also promises an opportunity to sustain relationships started in formal programs with the hope of developing self-supporting online communities of individuals with common training experiences.

At the core of the challenges to using social media in training is the age-old need to stimulate learning. Jane Bozarth suggests several strategies to encourage students to learn with social media. Among these are facilitating discussions, encouraging collaboration, building community, and providing practice opportunities for students.2

For many workplaces, there’s another important issue to address: will the social medium or media used be public (outside the firewall) or private (behind the firewall)? This isn’t a trivial question, and both the subject matter and the nature of the organization play roles in answering it.

Outside the firewall

There are tremendous advantages to using public media. A few include:

  • Ease of administration: the media are managed by an outside entity and typically accessed using a standard Web browser
  • Low cost: most public social media can be used at no cost
  • Ease of use: most of us learn how to use social media with little guidance
  • Access to far-reaching networks: with public social media, it’s possible to reach experts in most fields of study with a simple request
  • Large pool of individuals to learn from: you’re not limited to the participants in a given training activity and can draw on support from personal networks developed over time

To help protect their intellectual capital and proprietary information, a great many organizations in the world have policies that prevent employees from sharing work in the public domain without prior authorization. In these cases, each individual who engages in public media must abide by company policies regarding the specific content being shared. In some cases, private spaces within public social media (a private YouTube channel for example) may be viable options.

Behind the firewall

When workplace training involves activities that are relevant to students’ work, the artifacts created (discussions, papers, presentations, and more) are often work products. Public social media often can’t be used for this type of training. If an online social medium is used, it must be private. In addition to increased cost and administration requirements, this also results in a substantially smaller social network than possible outside the firewall.

As long as the formal learning activity (course) is underway and participants engage with one another in relevant ways over a period of time, many of the advantages of using social media in learning can still be realized. Learning does reach the workplace, in the context of work. It also reduces classroom time and empowers participants to engage at the time and place most convenient for them. But the substantially smaller network of individuals in the workplace makes ongoing interaction between students unlikely. The promise of self-sustaining communities is difficult to realize in all but the largest organizations.

  1. Jean Lave & Etienne Wenger (1991), “Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation,” Cambridge University Press.
  2. Jane Bozarth (2010), “Social Media for Trainers,” Pfeiffer.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons user Sofiaperesoa.

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