4: Social media tools and systems for learning

This is the fourth Chapter of the Social Learning Handbook 2011, a new version is now available Social Learning Handbook 2014 

In the previous chapter we looked at how social media tools can be used for a wide variety of learning activities – both formal and informal.  In this section, we are going to consider the actual tools that you might use. The choice of tool will, of course, depend on a number of factors:

  • its purpose  e.g. whether you are looking for a tool for your own personal or professional use, or you are looking for a tool to support a group or organizational use
  • the functionality (or range of functionality) you require
  • the level of integration between tools you require
  • how private or secure the data needs to be
  • the cost of the tools

In this section we are going to look at four different categories of social media tools for learning.

  1. Public social media tools
  2. Self-hosted stand-alone social media tools
  3. Social and collaboration suites or platforms
  4. (Social) learning management systems

Public social media tools As we have already seen many individuals are using public social media tools for their own personal and professional use.  In particular they are bringing together the best social media tools to build a Personal Learning/Knowledge Network (PLN or PKN). The most popular free social media tools can be seen on the list of Top 100 Tools for Learning 2010, and include: Delicious and Diigo (for social bookmarking), Google Docs (for collaborative documentation), Blogger, WordPress and Posterous (for blogging), PBworks  (for wikis), and Twitter and Yammer (for micro-sharing).

Fig 8 is an example of how a collection of social media tools might be used to build a PLN/PKN.

Fig 8: Example of public social media tools in a Personal Learning Network

Public social media tools provide a number of significant advantages for users:

  • There is a diverse range of tools with varied and sophisticated functionality for users to select their own favourites.
  • Although publically available, they can often be made private or secure for a group or organization.
  • A huge number of these tools are free. Although some now do have both free and premium versions, the premium versions offer extra functionality.
  • They are easy to set up and use, and don’t require IT support.

Reasons not to ban social media

There are still a number of organizations (as reported earlier in the Handbook) who are unhappy about employees using public social media tools in the workplace and ban their use.  Some of these organizations have yet to understand the power of “social”, whilst others view their use simply as time-wasting or social “NOT-working”. There are often frequent reports in the news that play to these organizational concerns, for example, showing how individuals have “wasted company time” on trivial games, like Facebook’s Farmville.

I recently blogged [1] about a video by Ron Desi, called 10 reasons to ban social media, in which, firmly with his tongue in his cheek, he presented 10 good reasons to ban social media in the workplace. The reasons he mentions are, in reverse order.

  1. Social media is a fad.
  1. It’s about controlling the message.
  1. Employees will goof off.
  1. Social Media is a time waster.
  1. Social media has no business purpose.
  1. Employees can’t be trusted.
  1. Don’t cave into the demands of the millennials.
  1. Your teams already share knowledge effectively.
  1. You’ll get viruses.
  1. Your competition isn’t using it, so why should you?

For some organizations many of these points are valid concerns. We have already addressed some of them earlier in this Handbook, namely that social media is not a fad (10) and that it does have a business purpose (6), and furthermore that your competitors are probably using it in one way or another (1).  But below we will consider three of the other concerns listed above.

  • It’s about controlling the message – Control is a myth [2]. Organizations have never really had any real control, for instance, do they control what conversations people have or what they say on the phone or in emails.  Do they control what people talk about in the pub?  Similarly, they really can’t control what happens in social media.

Having said that, social media actually provides organizations with more visibility about what is being said, and also provides the opportunity to address any incorrect messaging.  Compare Wikipedia where incorrect information is adjusted very quickly by other users.  The need to be in control, however, is a deep organizational issue, which we will follow up in a later section.

  • Social media is a time waster – People get distracted by all types of things, especially if their work is boring. Previously time wasting was blamed on PC games, then instant messaging, now it is social media.  The ideal answer is to help people make their job more interesting or rewarding; banning access to social media won’t alter the problem.

If an individual’s productivity and performance suffers, then this is what should be reprimanded. The responsibility should lie with the individual to use the tools appropriately, and for the manager to deal with productivity and performance issues when they arise; not monitor how their employees spend their time during the day.

  • Employees can’t be trusted – If this really is to be believed, this is a serious point and calls into question hiring policies.  If workers are being hired that can’t be trusted, there is clearly something wrong, and if they have become untrustworthy, then that is reason for dismissal. Trust is a two-way thing, and in fact social media is actually a good way to build trust, as a recent article pointed out [3]:

Social media marketing is a long-term strategy of relationship building to get a consumer to invest in your product. Using similar relationship building ideas will prove to be an effective long-term strategy for getting your employees to invest more of themselves in your company.”

We’ll take a look at trust issues later in this Handbook.

For further responses to these 10 concerns, take a look at 10 reasons NOT to ban social media in the organization [4].

Banning social media is therefore akin to throwing the baby out with the bath water; in doing so organizations are losing the opportunity for harnessing the power of social media in so many ways. Banning social media is actually pretty pointless anyway.  As many studies show, individuals are accessing it on their own mobile devices.  Clark Quinn [5] refers to this as taking a “social media cigarette break”, where employees often have to leave the building in order to connect with their personal and professional networks.

For many professionals access to the Social Web is fast becoming an important feature of modern business life, so it would be far better to provide help to those who need it about how to use social media sites effectivelyandresponsiblyrather than shutting it down to stop a few people playing Facebook games. (We will pick up on this again later.)

Some organizations may recognize the fact that public social media tools do have a place in workers’ professional lives, but still consider that such “consumer” tools (particularly free consumer tools)  have no place as organizational tools, citing privacy and security implications and the fact that the tools can change or even disappear overnight.  A recent GigaOm article [6] pointed out that many have already become “enterprise-friendly”, and that the gap between consumer and enterprise tools is narrowing quite rapidly.  It also stated:

“… businesses cannot ignore the benefits such tools undoubtedly bring to the workplace, and trying to block their use will likely be a futile exercise that will only lead to disgruntled employees.” 

One factor that is worth considering, however, is the concern about ownership and use of organizational data on public systems.  For instance, terms of service may include items like:

“We may provide information to service providers to help us bring you the services we offer.”

Some organizations may therefore prefer to use their own tools for private, secure organizational use.  But in doing so they need to bear in mind that such internal social collaboration tools or systems on their own cannot provide everything many employees now need to do their jobs effectively in the 21st century; they will still need access to the public Social Web.

2 – Self-hosted stand-alone social media tools

For those organisations who want to self-host stand-alonesocial media tools, e.g. for blogging, wikis, social bookmarking, etc, there are a number of tools available, both commercial, proprietary options as well as free, open source systems. Examples include:

More social and collaboration platforms (both open source and proprietary) can be found in the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies’ Learning Tools Directory [7].

Open source v Closed source (proprietary) tools

This is a good time to discuss the differences as well as pros and cons of open source tools and closed source (proprietary) tools.

The main difference is that with (most) commercial, proprietary software you don’t get access to the source code –  that is the code written by the programmers – which means you cannot change the software. When you buy proprietary software you are actually buying the right (a licence) to use the software in a specific way.  With open source software, on the other hand, you do have access to the source code and are therefore able to modify it according to your needs.

Although open source software is free to download, users are subject to licences, which grant licensees the right to copy, modify and redistribute source code, but may also impose some obligations on them, for example modifications to the code that are distributed must be made available in source code form [8].

The perceived advantages and disadvantages of open source and proprietary software are shown in Table 7 below.

Table 7: Advantages and disadvantages of open source and proprietary software

Proprietary software

Open-source software

Advantages Support and training available from the supplierRegularly updated Free software/licence feesFlexible and customizableOpen standards (for integration with other systems)Growing community of developers
Disadvantages Costly licencesCustomizations at extra cost Can be complex to install, configure and customize without specialist helpUpdates irregular

Which is best: open or closed source? A question and answer on WikiAnswers [9] provides the following additional piece of advice

“Generally, for smaller organizations and projects, open source solutions seem to suffice. The difference in cost more than makes up for the perceived disadvantages mentioned above. Larger organizations seem to require more robust, high-quality product with high levels of service and support. They want responsible, reliable assistance, and support from their suppliers. …  open source provides unique advantages which include filling the low-cost high-control niche that are difficult, if not impossible, to achieve through commercial, proprietary avenues.”

3 – Collaboration suites and platforms

Instead of using stand-alone tools to provide social media functionality, another option is to install a collaboration suite or platform, which integrates a number of key social technologies like wikis, blogs, RSS feeds, social bookmarking  and file sharing as well as user profiling, in one place within the organization. Although the functionality of each of the individual components of a collaboration platform may not often be as sophisticated as dedicated, stand-alone products, it does provide other advantages.

  • The ability to set up group (work)spaces for teams, projects and other group activities.  In most cases, group spaces can be set up by users without the need for administrative approval, so this provide a very open and flexible platform.
  • It may offer a personal (often customizable) dashboard on which users can place links to their own and group resources.
  • It will have a single, consistent interface to all the functionality.
  • It only requires one login to all the components and resources on the platform.

Social or collaboration platforms can therefore be used to provide a social intranet that supports collaborative working and social learning across the organization as well as underpins all productivity and performance improvement and support needs of teams and groups They can even provide collaborative learning spaces for formal course/training groups. Once again social and collaboration platforms are available both as open source and commercial proprietary products, and are often available in both hosted and self-hosted options.  Examples include:

More social and collaboration platforms (both open source and proprietary) can be found on the Social networking and collaboration spaces [10] page of the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies’ Learning Tools Directory.

4 – Social Learning Management Systems

In most organizations formal (online) learning is “managed” by a Learning Management System (LMS).

Essentially a LMS is a database in which companies can add courses – either ones they have bought off-the-shelf or bespoke courses they have developed themselves or had developed for them. Individual users then register for courses and the system tracks their activity on the course and provides reports on both course activity (e.g. numbers of users taking and completing courses) as well as user activity (what individual users have been doing.).

In school and universities LMSs are usually referred to as course management systems (CMS) or even virtual learning environments – VLEs, in the UK.   CMSs provide the functionality for teachers and trainers to create course content which students can then access. Once again student activity can also be tracked and course statistics can be reported.

However, because they are focused on cohorts of learners in courses (rather than individuals as in the corporate LMS), CMSs generally also include social functionality (like discussion forums and real-time chat) for course communication purposes and often even blogs and wikis to foster a collaborative approach to formal learning.  It is only recently, however, that the LMS has begun to add in social and collaborative functionality, and are evolving into Social Learning Management Systems.

Examples of course and learning management systems (both open source and proprietary) can be found on the Instructional tools [11] page of the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies’ Learning Tools Directory.

But here, we need to consider what the role of the traditional learning management (LMS) is in this new world of social workplace learning we have been discussing.

As has been explained, the LMS is a “command and control” system, and even though many are evolving to include social functionality, their purpose is still primarily to monitor formal learning, rather than provide support for the very different types of “learning” we have described in the previous sections of this Handbook.

Although a LMS may still be required and desired by some organizations, particularly those that have a compliance and regulatory training requirement, these systems are not appropriate to support informal social (workflow) learning – where most of an individual’s learning takes place, and which is under their own control. Remember – “learning=working”! So learning needs to be integrated into the workflownotvice versa. Social (workflow) learning therefore needs to be underpinned by social and collaboration tools – which are under the control of the individuals themselves.

In the first section of this Handbook we compared learning a second language with workplace learning to show the difference between formal and informal learning.  The same blog posting explained how using an LMS might have a place in formal learning, but is really not suitable for social workflow learning.

“We didn’t have Learning Management or Course Management Systems in my day when I was at school!  But if we did, then it would probably have been used to try to manage what I was “learning”,  by that I mean recording my results in tests, etc which would have been used as an indication of how well I had learnt the rules of German grammar or the extent of my vocabulary.

But  even if a LMS had existed, it certainly is a ludicrous idea to think that it could have come with me to Germany to track all the conversations I had or overheard, all the TV programmes I watched, or all the magazine and newspaper articles I read.  And even if that HAD been a possibility, it certainly wouldn’t have provided any indication of what I had actually learnt, for as I mentioned earlier, much of the time even I was unaware of that myself.  But the evidence that I HAD LEARNT was clear enough – in my IMPROVING FLUENCY in the language.

In many organizations nowadays an LMS is used to track and monitor how much you know (or rather can remember) about the business rules you  have been taught, and in some it is also used to provide a record of any necessary compliance and regulatory training.

But just as it was ludicrous to  consider trying to track all my activity whilst I was in Germany, it is similarly nonsensical to consider trying to track all the activity and interactions that take place in the workplace in order to monitor  employees’ “learning”.  The only place where your learning is “managed” is in your own brain, and the only relevant evidence that learning has taken place is in your IMPROVING JOB PERFORMANCE.”

A number of organizations have already pushed their LMS to the side and restricted its use to tracking and managing regulatory courses.

One of the high profile examples cited, earlier, is TELUS, a Canadian telecommunications company which is using SharePoint as its enterprise collaboration system.  Dan Pontefract, Senior Director of  Learning & Development at TELUS, who was responsible for introducing this new enterprise system, wrotein a blog posting, The stand alone LMS is dead [12], about the need for new approaches and systems.

“Those organizations (and frankly public learning institutions) that are clinging to their standalone learning management systems as a way in which to serve up formal ILT course schedules and eLearning are absolutely missing the big picture. Sadly, there are too many organizations like this out there.

The LMS should no longer be thought of as a destination for the learner. This is the nuclear fault of the LMS itself and of antiquated thinking from our learning leaders; it encourages standalone learning by driving people to register for an event … be it an ILT class or an eLearning module … Blow up your LMS. Find a way to integrate it into your collaboration platform.”

Dan also added in a comment:

“Whether you’re in a private or public organization … start first with a ‘collaboration’ system rather than a ‘learning’ system, and build out from there.”

If you want to read more about the pros and cons of the LMS in today’s modern workplace, you can read the blog postings made by the Internet Time Alliance, as well as others, in The Great LMS Debate [12].

Putting the social media pieces together

If we look at Fig 9 (below) which shows the differences between social training and social workflow learning, the social tools that can support these areas have now been mapped onto it. Whereas there might be a case for the use of a stand-alone LMS (social or otherwise) to support formal learning in the organization, social workflow learning needs to be underpinned by other social and collaboration tools. Although some organizations might be happy to rely on the tools they can find on the pubic Social Web, other organizations might find value in an enterprise social backbone, that might be provided by

  • a thin micro-sharing layer – which could sit on top of an existing collaboration platform/intranet; and/or
  • a  social collaboration platform – with deeper collaboration functionality

But in all cases workers will still need access to the Social Web for professional and organizational activities.

Fig 9: Summary of social technologies and their application in the workplace

A model for the future of enterprise social tools

A good model is the way that the micro-sharing service, Yammer is developing.

It is a public, social media tool that offers the ability to build a private, secure in-company network with both secure, dedicated in-house groups, but also communities which are spin-off networks to communicate with others, e.g. customers or partners outside the organization.

It also integrates with other enterprise tools like MS SharePoint and email, as well as public social tools like Google Reader and Twitter, and of course it is accessible via a multitude of desktop and mobile devices.

This type of approach seems to offer the best of both worlds, a secure in-house system, but one that supports access to and integration with other existing enterprise and public social media tools.

Operating on a SaaS (Software as a Service) basis, it provides a quick, easy and cost-effective way to get started and move forward, and doesn’t require a heavy investment in a sophisticated platform which may take time and effort to implement.

Organizations need agile and flexible systems as the world is changing under their feet.

Next Chapter: Social Learning Strategies


1 – bit.ly/fvPk3j Top 10 reasons to ban social media, Jane Hart, C4LPT blog, 3 August 2010
2 – bit.ly/eD4INF  The myth of control in new media, Brian Solis, 25 January 2010
3 – bit.ly/fcUOoP Using Social Media-Like Strategies In Employee Engagement, Drew Hawkins, Social Media Today, 22 July 2010
4 –  bit.ly/fgwLgc  10 reasons NOT to ban social media in the organization, Jane Hart and other contributors, Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies, November 2010
5 – bit.ly/gqz9Lq The social media cigarette break, Clark Quinn, Learnlets, 6 July 2010
6 –bit.ly/haDXV0 Are “Consumer” Collaboration Tools Good Enough for the Enterprise? Simon Mackie, GigaOm, 9 September 2009
7 – bit.ly/dULWL7 Directory of Learning Tools, Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies
8 – bit.ly/gbs8F0 Open-source software, Wikipedia
9 – anse.rs/hQNjho Difference between Proprietary Software and Open source Software?WikiAnswers
10 – bit.ly/eAaVML Social networking and collaboration spaces, Directory of Learning Tools, Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies
11 – bit.ly/hxKnMz  Instructional tools, Directory of Learning Tools, Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies
12 – bit.ly/hI8MxS The stand alone LMS is dead, Dan Pontefract, trainingwreck, 24 October 2009
13 – bit.ly/gpQjNB  The Great LMS Debate, Internet Time Alliance