If you think Facebook is a waste of time and LinkedIn is only for selling your products, you may have it all wrong. In fact, all forms of social media can be the most amazingly effective venue for informal learning to come along in many generations. As more and more people exchange tips and tricks and watch the borders of geography crumble to a global conversation, the impact can be far-reaching and significant.
Just participating in sites like Facebook, LinkedIn or Instagram help people learn basic technological and social skills outside of a formal classroom environment. Both of these skill areas are useful in helping people gain jobs and participate fully in a productive life. When people get involved in discussion groups on line, they have access to a great deal of information that would normally be beyond their reach.
In fact, one study at the University of Central Florida suggests social media avenues that allow students to connect to educational information in new ways outside of the traditional classroom bring society closer to erasing the barrier between formal and informal learning.
Baiyun Chen and Thomas Bryer’s study, “Investigating instructional strategies for using social media in formal and informal learning”1 noted that third-party social media tools like LinkedIn, Wikipedia and WordPress manage to include members from outside the class and beyond a one-semester time duration. Because of that, they connect learners with broader communities including experts in a field and peers from throughout the world.
Because social media by its nature encourages people to be involved and to create content, they end up being more involved in the learning process that comes via this avenue. People are encouraged to work on real-life situations through an informal sharing process on social media sites.
Social media sites also give students access to more information and experiences than would not be possible if their learning experience was restricted to a formal closed classroom environment.
In a second study, “Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of findings from the Digital Youth Project,” author Ito Mizuko, Heather Horst et al praised the value of using social media as a tool to facilitate informal discussions that promote informal learning. Mizuko and Horst explain that it works because the focus of social media postings is on what the learner is particularly interested in or prefers, not on what is dictated by an instructor as it is in a formal learning environment.
What other ways can we use social media to create informal learning environments?
Saul Carliner, director of the Education Doctoral Program and an associate professor at Concordia University in Montreal, suggests in a blog posting that one way is to use tools like LinkedIn and Facebook to pump up your content development. Use designated “volunteers” who are well-versed on certain topics to share that knowledge with others. Carliner wrote that the volunteers can answer questions posed to a group, supply articles for online encyclopedias or just informally share their knowledge and insight when topics arise.
Some training and development professionals believe that social media is the future of informal learning. No trend comes completely recommended however. There is always an issue that content created and made available to others via social media has not be reviewed by others or it may not be based on fact. If we continue to use social media avenues to promote informal learning, we must find ways to ensure that the learners are aware of this weakness and able to discern the difference between opinion and fact.
But then, hasn’t that always been the issue at the water cooler?
1. Chen, Baiyun and Bryer, Thomas. Investigating instructional strategies for using social media in formal and informal learning, January, 2012. http://www.irrodl.org/index/php/irrodl/article/view/1027/2073
2. Ito, Mizuka, Horst, Heather et all. Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project. http://digitalyouth.ischool.berkeley-edu/files/report/digitalyouth-WhitePaper.pdf
3. Hommes, J., Rienties, B., de Grave, W., Bos, G., Schuwirth, L., & Scherpbier, A. (2012). Visualising the invisible: a network approach to reveal the informal social side of student learning. Advances in Health Sciences Education, 17(5), 743-757. doi: 10.1007/s10459-012-9349-0
4. Carliner, Saul. “Social Media for Informal Learning, Part 3. https://www.td.org/Publications/Blogs/Learning-Technologies-Blog/2012/12/Social-Media-for-Informal-Learning-Part-3