Social Media and Learning: Part 1

Inside Learning Technologies Magazine, October 2008

Part 1 Social bookmarking, social file-sharing and social networking

Jane Hart is a Social Media & Learning Consultant who works with organisations to help them understand how new social media tools can be used for learning and performance support. Jane is also the founder of the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies, where she keeps abreast of current and emerging technologies. Here she looks at how new social media tools can be used within learning and development.

The first phase of the Web (aka Web 1.0) was all about content publishing by “experts”, which for education and training meant the creation and delivery of online courses. The second phase of the Web (aka Web 2.0) is defined by social media tools, which support social interactions and connections with people, as well as collaboration and sharing, and the creation of user-generated content. These tools are having an impact in all areas of online life, and within the learning arena underpin new models and approaches to learning including informal learning, self-managed learning as well as group learning. This new generation of e-learning has been variously termed Learning 2.0 or E-Learning 2.0 as well as Social Learning.

In this three part article I am going to take a look at how some key social media tools can be used for learning, development and performance support, and how they can easily be implemented within a workplace learning environment. In this first part I am going to focus on the use of social bookmarking, social file sharing and social networking services.

Social bookmarking

Most people are familiar with collecting and storing bookmarks in their browsers, known as “Favorites” or “Bookmarks”. However, social bookmarking is about collecting and storing bookmarks online, tagging them with keywords (so that they become searchable) and sharing them with others. Nowadays there are many social bookmarking services, but the most popular and well known is Delicious, so I’ll use this as an example. Delicious, like all social bookmarking tools, can be used for many different purposes and in many different ways. Firstly it is a valuable personal productivity tool:

  • You can use it to search for websites on a topic of interest by entering keywords into the search box. You need to remember, though that as with all social bookmarking services, it is other users who have tagged the sites, so you might need to try a number of different keywords to carry out a full search for sites of interest. In a Delicious results list you will see the tags that have been used to categorise a bookmark as well as the number of times each bookmark has been saved. Large numbers clearly indicate the most popular or useful stuff – so the “best” rises to the top.
  • When you find someone’s bookmarks you like you can also subscribe to their RSS feed to keep up to date with their new entries and/or add them to your own network. In this way you can begin to build a circle of trusted sources (i.e. people), who provide information of relevance or interest to you and your work.
  • You can of course use the service to store your own bookmarks (even privately if you don’t want others to see them), which means you now have access to them from any computer. By doing this you are creating your own personal library of online content.

But Delicious and other social bookmarking tools come into their own when they are used as “group” tools, e.g. by project teams or training cohorts, as they are a useful way for a group to build a library of related resources. To do this you just need to agree the tag that you are all going to use when you store the link to a site. Using Delicious, to see all the links held under this agreed tag, you then need to subscribe to that tag.

Educators and trainers are using social bookmarking tools like this to build an ever-growing course or training reading list, but importantly one that is not solely produced by the instructor or teacher (as would have been the case a few years ago) but, collaboratively, by all the learners involved. It means that for repeated events there is always a rich resource for new learners to tap into, and to which they can actively contribute, and for one-off events that the collaboration between participants and the sharing of knowledge can continue long after the event itself has passed.

Although most of the free, online bookmarking services offer both private or public sharing, and some support sharing with specific people or groups or inside certain networks, for organisations who want to create a secure and private system behind their firewall, there are a number of commercial social
bookmarking products as well as some free open source systems available. As social bookmarking services have matured they have added extra functionality such as rating or commenting of bookmarks, web annotation, as well as groups and other social networking features, so they are becoming much more than just bookmarking tools. However, for simple sharing and collaboration between individuals for informal learning and performance support purposes, then social bookmarking is an easy first step to take

Social file sharing

File sharing sites allow users to upload, tag and share files online. These files might be documents, photos, videos, presentation slidesets, etc. These services not only provide a place to store both personal and professional files, but are also valuable resources of content created by other users in themselves. As the quality of user generated content (UGC) does vary, file-sharing sites usually incorporate rating, commenting or “favoriting” systems to allow other users to identify the “best” content, and this is also a way to locate people with valuable content to share and thereby grow your own professional network.

Shared content can be re-used in a number of ways, e.g. downloaded or embedded into web, blog, wiki pages or social networking spaces – although of course, content originators can choose whether they wish to share files publically or only privately with others. Many file sharing sites also include group or social networking functionality where you can share content and conversation with others, in the same way as social bookmarking sites above, and this is breathing new life into these services.

Here are three key examples of file-sharing sites and what they offer to learning and development professionals.

  • Flickr is a photo sharing site. When you upload photos to the site Flickr lets you establish the rights you have to each image under the Creative Commons scheme. This also means if you’re looking for images to use in a web or blog page, slideshow or newsletter, you can search for photos that have “attribution licensing”, that is the author will let you display the image so long as you give him or her credit. You can also embed a flickr slidestream on a website as a slideshow.
  • YouTube is a video sharing site. YouTube videos can usually be embedded into blog or web pages, although when you upload videos you can select sharing options, for example whether it is to be publicly or privately viewable, and if you want to allow embedding or commenting. YouTube is a great source of informational and instructional videos as well as screencasts (software demos). It is no longer the place just to find funny or odd videos; many traditional, mainstream organisations, like the Queen and the Prime Minister are now using YouTube as a major channel of communication.
  • SlideShare is a presentation sharing site. This is a useful place to host
    presentations that you have given in training sessions, conferences, etc, in order for them to be accessible by others. Once again it is also a useful presentation resource. Where enabled by the author you can either download the presentation itself or embed it into a web or blog page. Slideshare has groups functionality (public or private) where you can create your own collection of presentations; and this would be a useful space to aggregate training materials.

Social file sharing, therefore, lets you not only source the “best of the best” content out there – so there is no need to reinvent the wheel – but also offers the opportunity to contribute your own content. For organisations that want to keep it all behind their firewall, the principles of file-sharing can still work, provided that content created by individuals within the organisation is valued and that sharing across the enterprise is encouraged. In these difficult times organisations can no longer afford to continuously build expensive, sophisticated new content – particularly if it already exists in some format in another part of the organisation.

Social networking tools

Social networks are communities of people who share interests, and social networking services offer different ways for their users to interact, such as chat, messaging, email, as well as share files, blog and discuss online. Unfortunately public social networks like Facebook have created a stigma around social networking. Although the immense popularity of these sites has led 3rd party organisations to create serious business applications to run within Facebook, for example the first LMS and course authoring system (from Udutu) is now available, there is still a reluctance by organisations to see Facebook as a legitimate enterprise tool.

Whilst public networks like Facebook and LinkedIn  do provide an enormous opportunity for professionals to network much more widely than previously, so-called “white label” social networking platforms enable organisations and even individuals to build their own networks and tailor them to a range of purposes, as well as provide the level of security that they require for their people and organisation. Hence we have seen the emergence of smaller, niche social networks or communities around many different topics. For example, I manage a number of small social networks using the Ning platform, including one called Workplace Learning 2.0. This community is intended for those who are interested in discussing new tools and approaches and the issues surrounding them for workplace learning. This and many similar social networks are useful in that they offer and support the ongoing, informal professional development and networking of individuals.

Social networks can also be set up to provide a space where learners can meet and discuss their “learning” both formally and informally. My social network, 25Tools is the place where learning professionals come to discuss and share their experiences with the 25 free tools I recommend. In this case the community is there to support the content in the online tutorials, and the contributions from the community members form a key element of the learning experience. The participants add tremendous value to the whole activity in terms of the ideas and resources they provide, and they are also able to provide support for one another online. This turns the traditional model of learning on its head, where the instructor was once the centre of all learning activity.

The social aspect of learning has often been missing from online learning initiatives up to now, since the focus has been being heavily on creating and delivering sophisticated online content. And yet for many people the social element is an essential part of learning, and in some areas, communication is a fundamental necessity, e.g. language learning. But in all areas, the sharing of knowledge and experiences by learners is invaluable.

Learning & Development professionals therefore need to think how they can move into this new phase of Social Learning, and build or help others to build “social solutions” as a response to training or performance support needs, rather than just content. I’ve provided a few examples here, in the next two editions of this magazine I will look at some further social media tools for learning and development. Next month I will discuss the use of micro-blogging services, and in the conference edition I will consider a number of different options for collaborative learning and content development.

(c) Jane Hart, Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies. Please do not reproduce without permission