Social Media and Learning – what’s really going on?

by Robin on April 11, 2014

This blog first appeared on the Kogan Page website – April 2014.

My daughter called the other day.  Her smartphone was broken and she was in the supermarket on her old, basic handset – you know, the ones you can use to call people.  She was in a minor turmoil.  Planning a recipe she needed to know how to convert millilitres into grams. “I haven’t got google on this!” she said, plaintively.

I understood her plight.  We have become so used to accessing instant facts on our smartphones, tablets and PCs that we are unable to recall basic information from schooldays – or at least unwilling to trust our memories.  Looking things up has never been easier.

The 25 years of the World Wide Web and its sites, apps and platforms has been, on balance, positive.  There is nothing wrong with having an unimaginably thorough encyclopaedia at our fingertips (or eye lashes or wherever the next generation of devices will be located).   Giving each and every one of us the capability to publish our thoughts, opinions and theories and to share what we find with friends and family is great. The whole idea of a web which no longer restricts our roles to those of consumer but enables each of us to be writer, photographer, journalist or film maker seems generally positive. That said; I could live without the cute videos of kittens in boxes. Every advance has its price.

The platforms which open up the world of publishing, sharing and collaboration increasingly are described as learning tools.  Social media are regarded as enabling a seamless integration with the workplace, bringing previously unachievable lifelong learning within grasp.  But can we really reach out and touch this brave new world?  I’m not so sure.

Last December, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) published a survey of 2000 employees about social media use at work[i].  It found that over 76% use social media in their personal lives.  Despite almost two-thirds having a laptop, smartphone or tablet which they used at work, only 26% of respondents use social media in their job. Only 18% felt that social media was ‘important’ for their work.

No one would call this an overwhelming level of social media use. Yet in a survey of the top learning tools carried out by the Centre for Learning and Performance Technologies, top spot in 2012 and 2013 was held by Twitter.

Why the disconnect?  The CIPD report has a view: “The relative lack of interest in using social media for work can be taken in two ways: employees have yet to understand its value, or the advocates have overestimated its value.”  They go on: “claims made by social media advocates who predicted widespread transformation appear exaggerated”.

Two groups do use social media disproportionately – freelancers and senior managers.  Given that the training industry has more than its fair share of freelancers, perhaps this explains Twitter’s importance as a ‘learning technology’.  Freelancers using Twitter to reduce their isolation is hardly surprising.  The use of social media by senior managers may be more unexpected until you think about it.  The junior employee may feel less free to ask questions, make comments or publish their views than people further up the hierarchy.  The same CIPD survey found that 29% of employers have dismissed or disciplined an employee as a result of their social media indiscretions in the past year.

The collaboration which is at the heart of the so-called social learning revolution is also pretty limited.  Of those using social media at work only 38% were collaborating externally and only 29% internally.  Remember, these are percentages of the quarter of workers using social media at work.  Of the total workforce this represents only 9% and 7% respectively.  Online collaboration has some way to go.

In 2014, a further study[ii] tested how well those connected to social networks performed in cognitive reasoning tests. One group answered the questions alone, unconnected to anyone else.  They became the baseline.  Thereafter, groups were asked questions individually and then given access to the answers of others in an online network.

On the second attempt, after seeing the answers of others, people were more likely to get the answer right.  Social learning appears to work.

But on subsequent, similar questions, the answers given in advance of checking across the network were no better than those of the baseline group.  While performance had improved, through copying the answer, the ability to think independently and to avoid previous mistakes remained unchanged.  As the authors of the study noted:  “the unreflective copying bias can alone explain why increased connectivity may eventually make us stupid by making us smarter first.”

I am not without hope for the use of social media and user generated content as a route to learning.  There are opportunities to harness individuals’ engagement with web 2.0 technologies to accelerate learning. But it will need more than those who used to contribute to well-structured eLearning programmes – the freelance trainers and managers – self-publishing on the cheap.  This improves nothing.

It will require learners to think independently, however well and frequently they are connected. By using these new tools to articulate what they have discovered their learning will be strengthened.

Increased peer-to-peer collaboration as an adjunct to learning will require a range of joined up activities.  I believe these activities will be led by first class trainers and educators who recognise that their role extends beyond the classroom and involves every aspect of modern employment.

We will need to trust our memories.  The conversion rate for millilitres to grams is one to one, a relationship taught in primary school.  Breaking free from the safety net of google and liberating ourselves from a reliance on copying the answers of others will ensure that the World Wide Web and social media doesn’t make us more stupid.

© Robin Hoyle, March 2014

Do you agree?  Is social media and the use of social media in learning more widespread than these studies suggest and does it do more than simply encourage copying? Join the debate by adding a comment.

Robin is a trainer, learning designer and the author of Complete Training published by Kogan Page.

Complete Training is a practical, comprehensive guide to implementing effective learning throughout an organization catering to the needs of every employee from recruitment to retirement.

To claim your 20% discount simply click here and enter the code M4W2 when prompted at the checkout. Offer includes free P&P within the UK.



[i] Gifford, J; Social technology, social business? 2013, CIPD

[ii] Rahwan I, Krasnoshtan D, Shariff A, Bonnefon J-F. 2014 Analytical reasoning task reveals limits of social learning in networks. J. R. Soc. Interface 11: 20131211.

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