What’s ‘New’ About Social Media and Social Learning?

Over the last few weeks I have had the opportunity to speak at ASTD chapter events in New York City, Long Island, and just outside Boston.  While each of the discussions had a dedicated topic, the central theme of all three was social media and it’s usages in employee learning.
What surprised me during these sessions was the discussion that took place in all three presentations related to the new social media technologies and the new concept of social learning.  I found this thought process somewhat confusing, because as much as these terms are ‘hot’ right now, neither concept is new. This blog post summarizes the themes of the discussions.
Social Media is not new. 
Wikipedia defines Social Media as “media for social interaction, using highly accessible and scalable communication techniques. Social media is the use of web-based and mobile technologies to turn communication into interactive dialogue.”
I’m not sure I completely agree with that definition.  It’s fine for a current definition, but implies that there was no social media before the internet.  I don’t think that is true.  Social Media isn’t new, and I don’t mean that in the context of 5-10 years ago with the launches of MySpace or Friendster. There was social media before that too. 
Think about the fax machine. It’s an archaic piece of technology by today’s standards.  Yet in it’s time, it was amazing.  I could put in a piece of paper, have it scanned in just about two excruciatingly long minutes, and across the country another fax machine would ring.  After a minute or so of god-awful screeching, the machine would start printing. After another painful two minutes, you had a grainy copy of the paper scanned by the sender.
At the time this technology was introduced, this was amazing.  It enabled colleagues from across the globe to be on the phone, discussing the document you are both looking at. 
In this 1980s scenario, the phone and the fax machine were examples of social media in action.  You can of course go back further in time and find additional examples of ‘social media’. It’s not the concept of Social Media that’s new; it’s the technology.
Social Learning is not new
‘Social Learning’ is one of the hottest phrases in the learning profession today.  Social learning is not defined by the social media tools that it leverages.  In fact, social learning does not require social media tools at all.  Social learning implies, at its most basic level, ‘learning through social interaction’.
This type of learning happens all day, every day.  It may not be structured, designed, or even planned, but it happens.  If two people are interacting and exposing each other to new knowledge, ideas and skills, social learning is taking place.
Social learning has been around since the first two cavemen were grunting at each other as they tried to make a fire together.  In fact, social learning goes back even further, unless we look through the eyes of someone limiting social learning to a human concept, which it’s not.  On some level, all animals with cognizant thought  learn from each other, share knowledge, and enhance skills through their interaction.
Social Learning in employee learning is not a new concept either.  It’s something that has been going on in training classrooms for decades.  Role plays, discussions, peer reviews, and other activities have always supported social learning, despite not leveraging what is commonly defined as social media tools today.  It’s still social learning.  In fact, everything we do is social learning.
Well… MOST everything we do is social learning.  There are a few examples of non-social learning I can think of, most of which fall under the general heading of ‘bad training’.  Straight lecture, self-paced e-learning with no peer interactions, and reading without peer reflection are a couple of examples.  These are the exception to the rule though; social learning, in general, is the norm.  It’s just a question of how well we manage support it.
So what IS new?
What’s new is the unique moment in time we are living in.  Social media technology has advanced to a point where it not only is no longer a barrier to social learning, it can be used as an enhancer.  Let’s revisit the example of a fax machine.  That is a form of social media.  However, if learning professionals had to use that tool for learning programs, it would be a barrier to learning.  Simply put, fax machine technology did not move at the speed of social learning. 
That’s not the case anymore.  New technologies have made it not only possible, but also easy, to enhance social learning. 
One of the current shifts in employee learning is moving away from event-based learning, and looking at learning and performance programs as part of a continuing process.  While the discussion around ‘we need to move away from event-based training models’ is frequent, what is rarely explored is the question “Why have we, as a profession, found ourselves defaulting to this model?”
Much has been written and discussed that places the blame on inertia and the ‘that’s how it is done here’ mentality. But again, that begs the question of WHY would we just accept that, especially if we have grown to realize that it is not the most effective method.
I think part of the reason for allowing the event-based model to proliferate was that breaking through its walls was not easy.  There were options there, but they were either expensive, labor intensive, or a combination of the two. 
That has changed.  Social media tools are free, or low-cost if you need customization.  Better yet, they are highly intuitive, accessible, and learner-directed. Learning professionals can easily create the structure of a community that supports both pre-and-post event learning.  Once built, it becomes a matter of supporting and feeding the community, which is considerably less labor intensive then designing and delivering a follow-up in-person workshop or e-learning module.
It’s an exciting time to be working as a learning professional, as technology has finally caught up to how people learn: Through community, through interacting, through sharing, and through doing.
Learning Professionals have one additional need for their learning: Participate.  I don’t list that as part of the learner experience because I think different learners will define participation in different ways.  For the learning professional though, participation is a prerequisite.  If you are going to be responsible for supporting and possibly building social media communities for learning, you need to know what it is to exist in one of those communities yourself.