Is social networking learning?

Great post by Shannon Turlington on the question of whether social networking is learning.  A point often missed in this debate is the serendipity inherent in social networking that enables you to discover new knowledge – i.e. we don’t know what you don’t know until we uncover it. Shannon writes:

What I like most about using social networking tools this way is how serendipitous it can be. Sure, I can ask questions or search for knowledge on a subject I know I want to learn about, but more often, it seems, I learn things I didn’t know I needed to learn. This happens when people in my network share what they are learning or thinking about or reading or writing about. That, for me, is where the real learning potential of social networking tools kicks in. I don’t think you can reproduce that quality with formal learning tools, because it is so ephemeral and unplanned.Here are some other good points made in the conversation:

  • “I learn far more about what’s news and relevant to my work from my ‘network of trust and interest’ than I do from common denominator mass media.”
  • “Between spontaneous learning and network-of-trust filtering, you get a new level of just-in-time (JIT) learning: ‘before I knew I needed it’ learning.”
  • “Not everyone is going to succeed using social learning.  Many of those that can already use it.  Some of the rest just need permission.  But if you aren’t really interested in your work, if you don’t think it is cool, how much is unstructured, social learning going to work for you. “

Someone also made this point: “There seems to be a tension … among the openness of informal learning, risk management and message control.” I think that tension is always there when there is also fear over loss of control. I have found, though, that in successful learning networks, people tend to police themselves. The organization must let go and trust its people, or people just won’t use the network sanctioned by the organization. If they are really passionate about learning and connecting with peers, they will find ways to do so outside of the organization’s control and without the organization’s blessing. So why not extend that trust and see what happens? The organization can only benefit from engaged employees actively learning about their fields.

And this I think is the essence of what social networking is all about; trust, freedom to act and taking responsibility for personal development. Organisations that don’t support these basic tenets, or erect barriers and conditions that inhibit their development, are going to find it increasingly difficult to survive in a 21st century economy.

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