Social Vs Formal Learning, From a Certain Point of View…

In the Star Wars film, Return of the Jedi, there is a classic scene in which Luke Skywalker asks Obi-Wan Kenobi why he told him that Darth Vader killed his father, when in fact Darth Vader was in fact, Luke’s father.  Obi-Wan does some verbal tap-dancing to get himself out of what was – in this fan’s opinion – a bold-faced lie, ending with a popular Star Wars quote:

“So what I told you is true… from a certain point of view.”
I find myself thinking of that quote a lot lately, and how it applies to learning, and the learning profession.  Too often we see things as black and white, when in reality the truth lies somewhere in the gray.  One area I see this ‘certain point of view’ idea very prevalent is in the current discussions around ‘Social Learning’.  There’s some great discussions taking place online on this topic that I think all learning professionals would do well to read.  (links shared at the end)
‘Social Learning’ is a term that needs to be refined.  As I and others much smarter than me have pointed out – Social Learning is not new.  People have been learning socially for ages.  When a group of cavemen stared blankly at a flame and one reached out and touched it, the others quickly learned ‘Hey, let’s not do that’.  They may not have had language yet, but you can bet that the ‘don’t stick your hand in the fire’ message spread among the tribe pretty quick.  They learned the lesson through their social sharing.
The current discussion about social learning is less about social learning and more about social media – specifically the fact that social media technology has advanced to the point that it now moves at the speed of learning.  People use it to communicate and share in ways that have never been possible before and the possible applications for learning are truly exciting.
And that’s where the debates start.
Some proponents of ‘social learning’ present the ‘certain point of view’ that what has been done in the past is no longer relevant, and is being replaced by social learning.  Humans tend to resist change, especially when it is conveyed in a ‘What you’ve been doing is wrong’ format. Focusing more on social learning and using social media technology in performance improvement programs is a substantial shift for many learning professionals.  When the message of the shift is packaged with a message of formal training’s demise, many people naturally resist.

So here’s my two cents on the topic… slightly adapted from a comment I left on Clive Shepherd’s blog.

Most learning professionals agree that making learning part of the work (instead of removing people from work for learning) is usually more effective. Advancements in social media technology give us opportunities to exist in the workplace that were previously impossible.  The more we can leverage social media as a tool to make learning as part of the work, the less we need to depend on formal training programs.

That’s not a statement against formal training. There is and likely always will be a need for it. Every situation is different, and every performance improvement need should be addressed using the most effective tools for that specific situation.

Keep in mind, this is not the first time we’re having this discussion.  It’s no different than when computer-based learning first became available. We were wondering then too if it would reduce our reliance on classroom-based training methods – and it did.

In any task, you are always best to use the most appropriate tool for the job. Social media tech has advanced to the point that it is now an excellent tool for learning and performance. Does it replace all other types of training, formal or otherwise? No. Do social media tools occupy an increasingly larger piece of the overall pie? Yes, and that subsequently makes the traditional formal training piece of the pie smaller.

And what I’m telling you here is true… from a certain point of view – mine.  Your point of view may be different, and that’s OK.  Hopefully as we continue having these discussions, we can find the common ground.

To me that’s the main benefit to discussions like this.  Looking at both sides of an argument gives us all a better understanding and helps us meet somewhere in the middle, in the gray.

I definitely recommend further reading and participation in some of the discussions currently taking place regarding social learning’s impact on more traditional learning programs.  Here are a few links to get you started:

The e-Learning Debate: Summer 2011 – in this posting, learning professionals vote and debate on the following motion: The house believes that as social learning grows, so the requirement for traditional training departments shrinks.

Clive Shepherd’s blog post: Give Cruella a Chance – Clive Shepherd was one of the speakers participating in the e-Learning Debate mentioned above.  In this blog post, he goes into greater detail about why he is against the motion.

Be sure to check out the comments added on both pages, where the outstanding discussions are taking shape.

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