eLearning Guild: Big Answers to “Social Media in Learning” Questions We Should Be Asking

September 14, 2012

There’s a marriage waiting to be made in heaven for trainer-teacher-learners reading learning technology innovator Ben Betts’ Social Learning: Answers to Eight Crucial Questions, published this week by the eLearning Guild.

In his concluding remarks within the 36-page document (available free of charge to paying members of the Guild), he reminds us that social learning “usually means a learner being more active in the [learning] experience, connecting, creating, and curating ideas.” He also suggests that our “role as learning professionals” may be undergoing a shift from “creating simple and accessible learning resources” to “curating content that already exists.”

It’s a theme that was discussed among colleagues a couple of years ago at an American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) conference—we were acknowledging the fact that we had created so much content that users were having trouble locating and accessing it. The theme is also an essential element in the shifting responsibilities colleagues are assuming in libraries all over the country. Which leads me to think that if members of library staff continue to more fully embrace lifelong learning as part of their natural responsibilities and services—it’s a commitment that already exists in the American Library Association (ALA) 2015 Strategic Plan, where the need “to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all”  is part of the organization’s mission statement, and in ASTD, where the mission is to “empower professionals to develop knowledge and skills successfully”—we could be looking at very effective partnerships between library staff and members of ASTD itself since we’re all working toward the same goal: meeting an overwhelming need for effective learning opportunities in an onsite-online world where those who stop learning will be left behind.

Betts, in Social Learning, does a fantastic job of helping us frame the discussion as to how we can better meet a tremendous need. The questions he asks focus on needs and results and set a positive context by beginning with the question “What Is Social Learning?”; continuing with questions about the benefits of social learning and business risks of leveraging social learning; and moving through a review of existing frameworks, ways to generate value from social learning, tools of social learning, measuring success in social learning, and our own roles in the field.

By the time we have completed this wonderfully inspiring and straightforward journey with him, we’re in a position to see that the instructional/learning and information-management skills required of workplace learning and performance (staff training) practitioners and library staff have never been more overlapping. It’s as if this need to combine learning, information sharing/literacy, and content curation is priming us for a merger of ASTD and ALA into an International Society for Training, Learning, Information Literacy, and Content Creation/Curation (although I have to admit that the acronym doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue—ASTLILCCC?—and may need a bit of work even as a Twitter hashtag).

Betts is very effective in helping us understand what already is in place—social learning (learning that is not entirely dependent on formal teacher-trainer-instructors) is hardly a new concept or practice—and what is changing (social learning, he suggests, has been co-opted by members of the e-learning industry to be about “how we learn from one another via digital devices”). But there’s no denying the positive role social learning plays whether we are discussing online, face-to-face, or blended learning. Collaborative/social learning clearly produces positive results for the learners and those they ultimately serve, as he consistently documents throughout his report, and social learning augments formal learning in addition to supporting professional learning and individual’s self-organized learning endeavors.

He reminds his readers that effective social learning, like any form of effective learning, starts with efforts to assure that “your approach makes sense” within the context in which we are designing and implementing it. He suggest that we pay equal attention to the people we are serving, the objectives we are establishing, the strategies we will use, and whatever technology will help us foster the social-learning endeavors we are implementing.

In attempting to generate value, we are encouraged by Betts to engage in instructional scaffolding—“creating a supporting framework for learners to gradually grow in confidence in a new area until they are fully able to support themselves.” And he reminds us that we are building toward success if we use social media tools our learners already use and like rather than trying to develop new tools that learners will only reluctantly embrace, if at all.

“Perhaps it should come as no surprise that workplace uptake of social technologies has been slow when most of us can’t use the tools we’d prefer,” he says near the end of the report, offering a learning nugget that ought to be plastered all over the physical and virtual walls of every trainer-teacher-learners’ workspace to help keep us on track toward fostering effective learning.

He brings us to a strong conclusion by suggesting that we engage in a collaborative learning cycle: design for performance improvement; support existing communities; create, source, and curate resources; leverage appropriate technologies; champion effective social learning; and measure and prove impact.

If those of us who are not already seamlessly moving between libraries and other learning organizations are inspired to reach across the aisle by what Betts writes, we may help bring to fruition the wonderful goal ASTD has so consistently proposed: “creating a world that works better.”


Our Brains on News and Learning

June 17, 2011

Jack Fuller, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune, proves with his book What Is Happening to News that all of us involved in workplace learning and performance need to read far beyond the artificial walls surrounding our field of play.

While the book ostensibly leads us through the well-documented crisis and evolution of contemporary journalism, its focus on how our brains absorb and cause us to react to all the stimulus we encounter is perfect reading for anyone involved in training-teaching-learning.

As James Zull (The Art of Changing the Mind) and many others have already done, Fuller starts off with explorations of how our brains actually learn. His third chapter, “Models of the Mind,” is particularly helpful both in its brief survey and its description of the physiological reasons why practice makes perfect: “the connection between neurons strengthens through the coincidence of their mutual firing. As the neuroscience slogan has it, ‘Cells that fire together wire together.’ The more frequent the coincidence, the stronger the connection” (p. 34). For Fuller, that helps explain why repetition of statements through the  media we use has a long-term impact on how we perceive the world; for trainer-teacher-learners, it’s a first-rate reminder that being aware of how our brains work puts us in a position to be more effective in fostering the sort of learning experiences that produce positive effects among our learners and all they serve.

Fuller again, within the context of a discussion about contemporary journalism, reminds us that much of what we are facing is far from new: “We are not the first era to sense that distraction has altered our ability to think,” he observes as he notes that one of our seminal journalists, Walter Lippmann, documented the same effect in 1921 (pp.57-58).

And when he moves into a section on “the inundated brain,” he offers a thought worth quoting not only to those interested in why news reporting focuses so much on negative stories but also to those of us interested in knowing what happens to learners who are attempting to do too many things at one time: “Time  pressure alone also increases cognitive challenge and emotional response. Some studies have shown that when given tasks under severe deadlines, people use  more negative information—which suggests that negative emotions are in play—than when doing the same task without being time pressured. Multitasking and information overload, too, increase the challenge to the brain’s processing resources. And when a person’s information processing capacity is stressed through information overload or multitasking, she is more likely to rely on emotional cues and use social stereotypes in making decisions about another person” (p. 61).

Where Fuller’s analysis of our approach to the news really comes to life for trainer-teacher-learners is in his exploration of how we have moved from a dispassionate to an extremely passionate or emotional approach to journalism, as any of us recognize when we think of the difference between classroom lectures and highly interactive, skillfully facilitated learning opportunities: “The curve has shifted toward emotional presentation,” Fuller notes in exploring how news is commonly presented now. “The fact that you can’t find a new Walter Cronkite on television today is no fluke. The dispassionate approach embodied by Cronkite does not attract the audience that it used to. Walter Cronkite was lucky to have worked when he did… Today he would be cancelled. So, by the way, would Walter Lippmann” (p. 72).

And so, I would suggest, would any of us who insist on approaching learning as a one-way instructor-to-learner enterprise when our communication tools and our expectations are all directed toward the collaborative experiential approaches that social learning environments and tools along with social learning itself inspire us to seek.


Innovations in Social Learning: From Print-based to Digital Environments

May 2, 2011

When a classmate introduced me to Michael Wesch’s 4.5-minute video The Machine Is Us/ing Us on YouTube a few years ago, I sat in stunned silence for quite a while. Because it introduced me to Web 2.0 in a uniquely visceral way. Showed me that the world had changed significantly while I had been asleep intellectually and socially. And because I knew I would be working through the thoughts inspired by that brief video for months, if not years, to come.

I had the same reaction two nights ago when I finally made the time to watch the online archived version of the MacArthur Foundation’s 100-minute Panel Discussion on Re-Imagining Learning in the 21st Century and immediately followed a link to see Digital Media: New Learners of the 21st Century,  the 50-minute PBS program which is at the heart of the Panel Discussion program.

To say that all trainer-teacher-learners should watch, think about, and discuss how the content of these two beautifully interwoven presentations is already affecting what we do is to underplay the significance of programs’ content.

Both presentations are forward-looking, as suggested by inclusion of John Dewey’s reminder that “If we teach today’s students as we did yesterday’s, we are robbing them of tomorrow.” And both shows document the growing impact of what Karen Cator, Director of the office of Educational Technology in the U.S. Department of Education, calls the transition from print-based classroom learning to a digital learning environment in one of her contributions to Panel Discussion.

While the focus of both programs is on education for students not yet in college, the message for all of us is: if we don’t learn from how these students—members of our future workplace learning and performance audience—are learning and if we don’t effectively apply those social learning techniques to what we are offering our adult learners, we’re going to become obsolete as learning leaders.

Cator—just one of several first-rate and thoughtful Panel Discussion presenters—overtly reminds us that “We have an incredible opportunity to transform learning into a deeply social experience, one that can leverage mobile technologies, social networking, and digital content. We can leverage the long tail of interest and design education environments that include prior experience, outside-of-school experience, multiple languages, families, the community, all the places that students live and breathe…”

It’s a change many of us are noticing as we acknowledge and attempt to foster the growth of new onsite and online spaces in our lives—social learning centers (also referred to as learning environments). And both programs—the Panel Discussion and Learners of the 21st Century—provide plenty of encouragement for those efforts by showcasing five innovative programs and projects.

There’s Quest to Learn, a school for digital kids. The Digital Youth Network and its fabulous YOUMedia collaboration for teens with the Chicago Public Library. The Smithsonian Institute’s digital scavenger hunt. Middleton Alternative Senior High’s augmented reality project in Middleton, Wisconsin. And the Science Leadership Academy sponsored by Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute.

And there are the voices of the students themselves. Engaged. Confident. More articulate and innovative than many people twice or three times their age. And the sort of people all of us should very much look forward to working with very soon in our own workplaces and learning environments.


When Trainers Lead: Drawing From the Past to Build the Future

August 19, 2010

A magnificent—and not unexpected—success story is continuing to develop for the trainers-as-leaders at the ASTD Mt. Diablo Chapter in San Francisco’s East Bay Area: long-missing colleagues, including former members of the Chapter Board, are continuing to return to the organization after months or years of absence. More importantly, they are quickly becoming re-engaged in the organization’s growth and sustainability and are offering much needed skills.

Some are becoming formal business partners. Others are considering new volunteer non-Board roles in support of initiatives like special interest groups to serve members’ and prospective members’ professional development and workplace learning and performance needs. And still others are simply being drawn back to the Chapter’s monthly meetings because of the learning opportunities offered by guest speakers at those events.

As noted in earlier articles, this 80-person chapter of the 40,000-member national/international organization (the American Society for Training & Development) with more than 130 chapters in the United States and more than 30 international partners, was near collapse three years ago. A few dedicated Board and non-Board members refused to let it go under, and their (our) efforts have helped to bring it back to its position as a well focused, structurally sound, vital, vibrant, and sustainable community of learners in a heavily populated part of the San Francisco Bay Area.

The rewards to the Chapter and its supporters are obvious. Our members go far beyond the usual pay-your-dues-and-run sort of relationship often maintained within organizations. They bring a level of engagement which shapes and nurtures the sort of third place—community meeting place—described by Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place and the complementary fourth place—a community gathering place for social learning—that several of us are just beginning to define and promote.

Our still-evolving vision of business partners through our Chapter Community Involvement process builds upon existing strengths instead of attempting to create something from scratch through cold calls with those who are completely unfamiliar with what we do and offer. Those business partnerships are a real point of pride for us and serve as an easy model for others to pursue. They begin with us looking at resources far-too-long ignored: Diane Fleck, a former Chapter Board president who became inactive in the Chapter after successfully establishing a business through the contacts she developed via ASTD—not her fault that she fell away, mind you; it happened because the Chapter no longer worked to be an important part of what she needed. That’s a chilling warning for those who don’t know that they’ve got till it’s gone.

Lynda McDaniel, our second business partner, came as naturally as the first: she is a Chapter member with tremendous writing and outreach skills—which she is willing to use on our behalf in exchange for the additional visibility it creates for her. Again, everyone wins. And our latest partners, Steven “Shags” Shagrin and Thornton Prayer through The Networking Lounge, are two consultants who have offered invaluable pro bono organizational development support at critical times in the Chapter’s growth; by acknowledging what they have done in ways that bring them visibility, we’ve nurtured another important relationship while gaining additional resources—including free meeting space—at a time when the number of activities we are scheduling is increasing and free meeting space will be critically important to the success of those events.

So here we are, a small and growing community of learners creating a fourth place for those who want and need it. And all that is needed—how strange and encouraging that what once seemed so daunting now is almost casually dismissed with the phrase “all that is needed”—by anyone wanting to build from this example is a core group of dedicated members who would not and will not give up something that they value; a shared vision which evolves to meet the community’s needs; and a willingness to cherish past resources in ways that re-engage them in the present and the future.


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