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Social Media and online learning – is it such an obvious marriage?

Published on 17 April 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

It seems a no-brainer: learning is social, online media are social, ergo social media and learning are made for each other. It’s not quite so easy, I believe. I was asked to participate in Diplo Foundation’s recent Online Learning Day, which was organised in an ‘Oxford debate’ format – speakers for and against followed by discussions and final words from the speakers. And though I am an avid user and advocate for online media I have also learnt a lot about its limitations and weaknesses so I agreed to argue against the case, ‘Social media can enrich online learning’.

I cheated a bit by excluding collaborative tools, like Google docs and wikis, as well as online conferencing tools such as Google Hangouts (which we used for the event) and Skype. That is because they they are simply a public version of digital tools which have been used in organisations for years. I focused on the headliners – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc – the connecting, chatting kind.

I have been involved in education and training for over 40 years, mainly working with adults. So I have a thorough understanding of the many ways people learn, and the essentially social nature of effective learning. Yet social media is not a synonym for social learning. There are other ways to learn ‘socially’ – without using social media. Many simple and familiar methods are already in use in online education: discussion forums, chats, wikis (and Diplo’s own interactive hypertext). A danger of focusing on social media is assuming that they will provide the social aspect of learning, which does not happen automatically.

The essence of the social media space is the multiplicity of platforms and the value – and need – to explore many of them to be connected and effective. That requires a kind of interaction and engagement which is the opposite of the kind of reflective, often deep and personal nature of real learning. Daniel Kahneman’s wonderful book – Thinking Fast Thinking Slow – explores what he calls System One and System Two thinking: one is autonomic, automatic, good at speedy decisions (is that waving grass an animal or the wind) and mostly, generally accurate: but it is biased by a massive range of influences to do with our own experience. System Two is deep thinking – what is 409 divided by 23 – which actually slows down our system: we burn more calories, our blood pressure rises, our pupils contract, and we can’t do other things like drive effectively, for example. Social media is quintessentially System One thinking – fast, broad, plausible and often generally accurate, but distracting and not to be entirely trusted.  Kahnemann talks about how we avoid System Two thinking, since it is so resource intensive. We prefer to cruise along in System One, surfing the social web. Social media are time- consuming, seductive and addictive, the ideal tool for procrastination: productivity goes down.

John Naughton’s latest broadside on Facebook highlighted the issue of bandwidth. To paraphrase him, if Socrates was alive now and published some comments in Facebook, what would his friends and followers be able to do – like it? Maybe add a short comment on the wall – LOL? Social media are narrow bandwidth, excellent channels for fast exchange of news, gossip, photos: for gathering support in campaigns. They are less good for extended, reflective conversations and focused discussions of the kind that I think typify the learning process. 

Then there are the issues of openness, privacy and trustworthiness. Social Media do not provide a safe environment for professionals to learn by exploring, making mistakes and interacting freely with others. Everything one publishes on social media is open for all world to see, and that includes one’s boss and colleagues. Most professional environments today are simply not tolerant enough for such approach. Just remember the many recent headlines that mention who lost their job because of a wrong tweet. And a lot of social media content is of low quality, often deliberately trivial. Unless the learner already has very good skills to evaluate the quality of the content or a particular platform has a well developed process (such as Wikipedia), an inexperienced learner can’t rely on the social media content, as illustrated in this instant analysis of Twitter comment on the atrocity of the Boston Marathon bombings.

I lost the argument , according to the vote – I am contesting it, and my followers will be out on the streets, banging pots and pans. But the general principle I think should be discussed – that we are taken with the hype, that the platforms are designed – and evolve – to make themselves enticing (as they would, their owners/builders are all seeking fortunes) and that we have got to the stage where we need to be deliberate and discriminating in choosing the tools we need for different tasks.

What are your ideas? Are you leaving Facebook, or any other platforms? Let us know.

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