Reflections on #lrnchat: Misconceptions About Learning Through Social Media

Image use courtesy of lrnchat and Kevin Thorn (@LearnNuggets)

Each week that I am able to participate in #lrnchat discussion I post a summary of the discussion to my blog. I do this both for my personal development as well as sharing with the Learning and Development Profession at large. This summary is based on my own interpretations of the chat; others who participated may have differing opinions or interpretations of the discussion. I welcome those that do to add your ideas to the comments.
The topic of this week’s #lrnchat session was “Misconceptions about learning through social media”. 
I always find looking at the questions that are used to loosely guide the chat as a nice way to see the overall theme of the chat. Here are the discussion questions that were presented to the group:
Q1) What misconceptions drive you crazy about social media in general? The big and the little peeves.
Q2) How do you address those misconceptions about social media?
Q3) What misconceptions you hear about learning with social media (aka social learning) make you crazy?
Q4) How do you address misconceptions about social learning?
Q5) What are a couple of things you wish everyone knew about learning through social media?

For decades the Leaning and Performance profession has been researching and discovering new ways to design and implement programs in a way that encourage learners to participate in their learning.  Recognizing that the traditional methods of lecture, testing, and event-based training have marginal effect on actual performance, learning professionals have strived to design programs that focus less delivering content, and more on having learners learn via experiencing the content.  In order for that to happen, the learners must be actively involved.
The pursuit of the involved or to use the more commonly used term, engaged learner, has been a goal of the learning professional for years.  Gains have been made in this area in all learning arenas, from classrooms to virtual environments.  In most cases though, the gains have struggled to reach a critical milestone: Self Direction.  Getting the learner to participate, or better yet, getting them to want to participate is one thing. Eliminating the ‘Getting them to’ part of the equation is what really defines this growing concept of the Self-Directed Learner.
Enter Social Media. This ‘new’ media has tapped into the very basic human desires of community, connectedness, and participation in ways we could not have dreamed of a decade ago.  For ages the learning profession has been trying to find the ideal environment in which we can ‘Get learners to’ participate.  Suddenly, not only was such an environment dropped into our laps, but better still, most learners were already participating and contributing to these new online communities.
The paradigm has quickly shifted. Creating the right environment is no longer the primary focus; now the focus is on nurturing the community within the environment technology has handed us.  Social media, and its tremendous potential for leaning and performance, has arrived.
Or has it?
While the audience that is likely to read this post would probably agree with the overall theme (if not all the details) of the picture I’ve painted about social media, our community has largely adopted and actively uses social media.  We live it, breathe it, and have come to respect its power and potential. 
Many other people are slow to jump on this train, and in fact may outright refuse to.  In most cases, this reluctance is likely based on ignorance.  Consider this statement:
Twitter is stupid! I have absolutely no interest in hearing about what Ashton Kutcher had for breakfast.
We’ve all someone say this, or some version of it, many times before.  If you’re like me, chances are you’ve said something like this yourself before you discovered the value that social media can provide. 
For those that have not taken this journey, misconceptions about what social media is – and isn’t – are very common.  As this new iteration* of social learning continues to gain momentum, more and more learning professionals will be encountering stakeholders who hold these misconceptions.  This week’s #lrnchat explored what these misconceptions are, and how we might be able to overcome them with our stakeholders.
*I call this a ‘new iteration’ because Social Learning has been around since the first two cavemen tried to build a fire together, and probably even before that. Social Learning has always existed – we’re just introducing new technologies and frameworks into the existing dynamic.
The discussion started by exploring the misconceptions that drive us crazy about social media.  One of the common themes of responses was that social media is just for celebrities.  That’s a popular barrier because most of the exposure social media gets in the news relates to celebrities, and it’s usually not painting social media in a good light.
Imagine you’re a learning professional who has finally gotten the opportunity to pitch using social media tools in your learning programs.  You deliver an excellent and compelling proposal, one that the senior manager is considering despite his or her reservations.  As the senior manager is relaxing that evening, the news announces that Charlie Sheen, who has been the human equivalent of a train wreck over the past week, has set the Guinness Record for fastest time to reach one million followers on Twitter.  That’s like throwing gasoline on the pilot light of misconception.  It may not completely derail your proposal, but it certainly won’t help your cause.
Another common theme was the extremes of social media misconceptions.  Some people see social media as a gaping hole in the security of their organization, while others look at it as the Holy Grail for the future.  Either it’s going to suck the organization into a never ending pit of despair, or it’s going to cure the organization of all its ills, just by flipping the social media switch to the ON position. 
That leads me to one of the misconceptions about social media that is high on my personal pet-peeve list: Looking at social media as a solution.  Social media is a tool.  Putting social media in play at an organization is no more a solution than putting a hammer into a carpenter’s hand is.  The tool is an instrument that only works if it is implemented with some degree of a plan.  Social media is not a solution, but it can be an excellent tool to use – when appropriate – in implementing a solution.
Another misconception that is high on my list deals with risk.  I’m not referring to opening the doors to social media being a risk; I actually believe there is some truth to that.  Logically speaking, if employees are engaging in social media, their actions in that community are indirectly a reflection on their organization to anyone who knows they work there.  It’s that scenario that scares many organizations.
The misconception that I’m speaking of isn’t that scenario; it’s the default way of responding to the risk of that scenario: CONTROL.  “We need to block all social media sites!  We need to install a Social Media policy that makes employees aware that they can be held accountable for their online interactions!”
Responding to the ‘risk’ of social media by trying to control it is a complete waste of time.  As Jane Bozarth said best during the chat, “Dear Organization. You blocked Facebook? Oh look, I have an iPhone. 
There is risk associated with employees engaging in social media.  Like many fears, the weight of this risk is magnified by ignorance of social media.  You don’t mitigate the risk with control; you mitigate it with education and by fostering a community.
The discussion then moved towards how we overcome the misconceptions of social media.  Most of the responses here focused on overcoming misconceptions about social media related to learning, which I address a little later in this post.
For me though, addressing the misconceptions about social media comes down to a very simple but applicable cliché: Don’t knock it till you tried it.
The discussion then shifted towards the misconceptions that drive us crazy about social learning.  The common theme here related to talking about social learning without really understanding what it is and how it works.  I would agree; here are a few examples that I often see.
Misconception #1: That it’s about a tool. 
Picking the right tool to foster social learning is important, but it’s still secondary.  It’s more about creating a culture of sharing and a fostering a community. If the culture does not support usage, the capabilities of the tool become meaningless.
Misconception #2: The either/or concept.
First, we’re already doing social learning; what we’re really talking about here is leveraging social media technology in learning programs. Social media doesn’t replace anything anymore than e-learning ‘replaced’ the classroom.  Social media adds a new tool to our belt that we can utilize in the right situations.  The percentages of usage may shift over time, but social media is nothing more than a new tool that will enable us to enhance the work we do.
Misconception #3: That Social Learning needs to be launched.
The reality is that we don’t implement social learning.  It happens organically, whether we are involved or not.  Social learning is like a flowing river – it’s always been there and will likely always be there.  Building a social learning program is like building a water wheel to harness the power of the river that’s already there.
From there the discussion moved towards how we go about addressing the common concerns regarding social learning.  The responses made me realize that in many ways, the way we overcome the misconceptions of social media in learning actually have very little to do with social media.  Consider these common and often retweeted responses:
Don’t talk about Learning; Talk about the business.
Explain how a specific tool can be used to solve a problem.
Share business cases and examples of success.
You’ll notice that the words ‘Social Media’ are not used.  This is the way Learning Professionals operate daily to support and become part of the business.  It’s what we do to overcome the popular misconceptions of Learning and Development in general.  Discussing Social Media fits right into that existing dialog format.
Eventually, you will get down to the detail level where you will be discussing a specific social media tool.  I think it’s incredibly important that you have an example that can be shown during this discussion.  Describing something to someone, no matter how well you paint the picture, is a poor substitute for seeing and experiencing it.  The best example of this is my iPad.  I’ve described how cool it is to people numerous times, but it doesn’t compare to that Keanu Reeves-like ‘Woah…’ moment most people get when they first put their fingers to the screen and play with it.
That’s why participating in social media communities outside the organization is critical.  First, it gives you real experience and knowledge about the tool.  It changes your personal work implications from “This tool might be appropriate, we should try it…” to “This is a great tool for this program”.  It also adds immediate credibility to your ‘selling’ of the tool to the organization.  Participating in social media communities outside the organization gives you a great example to use to demonstrate the tool and its benefits to your stakeholder.
The discussion concluded by asking what we wish everyone knew about learning through social media.  I wish that people could focus on the potential of social learning, instead of its potential risks.  Moreover, as Clark Quinn mentioned during the chat, organizations should be aware of the high risks of inaction as it applies to social media. 
For me, social media today is very much like the internet a decade or so ago.  The internet has fundamentally changed the world.  Through the virtual pathways rapidly creating connections on the web, our world of opportunities has expanded exponentially; yet at the same time, the world is getting smaller every day as the barriers of physical distance are eliminated.
That’s exactly what social media does, only instead of doing it with machines; it does it with human beings.  The potential of that, and in turn, the potential for enhanced social learning, is impossible to ignore.
Until next week #lrnchat-ers!

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