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Social Learning Platforms and Social Capital

Written by: Bill Sherman on Tuesday, 2 June 2009, 3:09 PM

Today, Mike Prokopeak, from Chief Learning Officer magazine, questioned  the value of social media and informal learning within training and development programs. RIght now, there’s a lot of buzz about using social media tools–Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, etc. to create social-media based learning communities. Mike asked “are training professionals behind the curve or ahead of it?”

Social media and social networking tools can provide a space for learning, but they themselves are only tools. People have to actually use the platforms (to find and answer questions . . . as well as participate in collaborative learning).

From what I’ve seen so far, many learning practitioners have launched a social media tool with a Field of Dreams mindset: “If I create this cool social media learning space, then my learners will find ways to learn together through it.” That approach glosses over fundamental instructional design issues.

Social media provides a platform, but the web-applications themselves shouldn’t be confused with true social capital–the ability to locate and mobilize resources within your network to achieve a goal.

The learners want to achieve goals–such as mastering a skill, solving a problem, or finding an on-demand answer.

Yes, social media can create a space where it will be possible to learn collaboratively. However, that learning doesn’t magically happen. There are several key criteria that must be met:

  • The answer (or help) must have already been created; OR
  • People must be available and willing to provide on-demand help.
If there are weak bonds between the learner and the other social media participants, the learner is unlikely to receive positive help. Everyone will find excuses, such as the following:
  • “Someone else will help”;
  • “I’m too busy”; or
  • “That’s not my concern”
If the group shares strong social bonds  (which creates a commitment to each other’s success in learning), then there will a significant social capital within the group. People will step in and help each other–and create a virtuous cycle. 
Learning practitioners who implement social media solutions without leveraging and nurturing social capital within the community create conditions for failure.

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