Opinion: Social learning in the 21st century

Development Policy04 Nov 2009Richard Lalleman

Whether you like it or not, social media technology is increasingly shaping our daily life as a way to share and create new knowledge; the knowledge we are craving for to make sense of and decide over new situations. Therefore, this opinion article will describe why institutes should adopt social media tools to create a social learning environment. Please feel free to comment.

Richard Lalleman works as an independent consultant in learning, innovation and knowledge sharing and is coordinator for the Focuss.Info Initiative.

The ‘learning organization’ is a concept that received a lot of interest from organizations in the mid 1990s. These organizations were being confronted with an ageing workforce. As a result, they started asking themselves how they could avoid the younger workforce reinventing the wheel, because the ageing workforce was soon to be leaving with retirement. At the same time, the organizations were increasingly being exposed by, on one hand, highly competitive environments originating from globalization and, on the other hand, fast-changing environments that mostly originated from advancements in technology. While the high competition and fast changes could be seen as threats to organizations, I believe that the causes of the threats (globalization and advancements in technology) are business opportunities. And, of course, these business opportunities also apply to the institutes working in global development cooperation.

However, it is a no-brainer to understand that, for a long time already, institutes within global development cooperation are fully aware of the opportunities within globalization. Without global collaboration in local, regional, national and international initiatives, the developed and underdeveloped countries cannot agree on a universally acceptable way for the development of a greater quality of life for humans. Nevertheless, it is less obvious what the opportunity is when institutes start incorporating the advancements in technology.

Social learning = open, informal, direct and easy

Learning through social media tools is open, informal, direct and easy. Open, because everybody – or perhaps a preselected group of people – can follow what you are doing. On Twitter, we can read more about everything you thought worth sharing with the world, and others can tap into these pieces of knowledge when they feel like. On Delicious, we can see which websites are important to you and perhaps others can learn from them too.

Informal, because by starting a social networking profile, through Facebook for example, you can mix personal and professional roles and lower the threshold for others to connect with and learn from you.

Direct, because people can connect to you, through Skype or the live-chat function of Facebook, whenever they want, as long as you are connected to the Internet (and this is quite often).

Finally, easy, because new technologies – such as smartphones – are making it easier to stay connected to your social media tools and update them wherever you are and whenever you want.

Social learning = fragmented and messy

As you can see, there are many different social media tools, which have all been designed for saving and sharing different types of knowledge. As a user of all these different social media tools, you will probably know how and where to relocate your knowledge. However, the people who should learn from what you are saving in the social media tools only see snippets of your knowledge. This is called ‘fragmented knowledge’. Additionally, the more people you follow through social media tools, the more ‘noise’ (information overload) you get. So why should organizations embrace social media tools when these tools generate fragmented knowledge and an overload of information?

Information overload and fragmented knowledge are more useful than useless. Firstly, because they result in unexpected opportunities. They create less limited boundaries to the scope of your view and, as a result, make it more likely that you may find things you did not even think to look for.

Secondly, because they result in future needs. It is one thing to find something you did not know you needed right away; it is a whole other skill to be able to recall knowledge that seemed marginally useful at best in the past, but crucial in the future. By using social media tools, it is relatively easy to recall this knowledge.

Thirdly, because it maximizes recall. Scientists argue that it is not necessarily the case that an overload of information will lead to not remembering very much of it. On the contrary, people make decisions based on their long-term patterns of fragmented knowledge. As a result, social media tools move learning to a co-evolutional process.

Social learning = demolish fences and build watchtowers

Social media tools are a part of information sharing and collaboration technologies. As a result, most organizations request their IT departments to adopt these technologies. However, Dave Snowden argues that most IT departments over-constrain the systems to retain control of an environment which needs to be evolutionary (as indicated earlier). What the IT department should do is open up the IT architecture so that multiple social media tools can become part of the daily work of staff members, and so that the knowledge within these different tools can be mixed together. This means that IT departments should stop building high fences around one particular tool.

The IT department should focus more on building and using watchtowers, from where they monitor whether staff members are following the cultural and behavioural requirements for using social media tools (such as which, how and when to use the different social media tools). Therefore, organizations should continuously roll out training and mentoring programmes to make sure staff members are not too loosely coupled with the cultural and behavioural requirements. However, by using social media tools, people are automatically becoming a part of socially constructed networks, where unpleasant behaviour can easily be corrected by the members of that particular network.

A practical social learning example: building personal learning environments

Many organizations are enhancing learning by maintaining Intranets. In most cases, these Intranets show selected information for – in the worst cases – the whole organization, or for every specific department. This means that the information is being targeted for many people. But what about all the information, which is out there, that could also be interesting, but is not or cann0ot be published on an Intranet?

I believe that if organizations are letting staff members use social media tools, Intranets should move to learning platforms like iGoogle. iGoogle is a personal learning environment. In such an environment, every person can decide what kind of information should be published on their starting page. The information originates from the different social media tools which the staff member likes best. As a result, every staff member has its own personal web portal and, therefore, he or she has access to different information to their colleagues. Eventually, because social media tools are also collaboration tools, every staff member can easily push valuable information from their own personal learning environment to other staff members who are part of the same social network via Twitter, Facebook, Delicious and so on.

A practical social learning example: Focuss.Info as collaborative web portal to information and knowledge

The Focuss.Info Initiative is a web portal in the domain of global development cooperation and is remixing different social media tools. Students, researchers and individuals practitioners are being asked to use Delicious to save their favourite e-resources in their specific domain. By using Delicious, the collections of e-resources are available on the Internet rather than locally on computers. Additionally, these individual collections are being indexed by a Google CSE search engine. This search engine is made available for free by Google. Focuss.Info has embedded this search engine into its website and is now only indexing the selected Delicious collections from peers. Consequently, Focuss.Info shows search results that have been selected by peers from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. This means that peers from more local areas in Senegal,for example, can make their domain-specific e-resources better visible to the big research centers in Europe and North America. This is a big step forward in sharing information and knowledge, because how often do you find valuable websites in global development cooperation from Senegal when searching with Bing, Google or Yahoo?

Thus, by merely maintaining a personal collection of favourite e-resources on the Internet, it is possible to share it with other peers. Furthermore, initiatives like Focuss.Info add value to existing information by reusing and remixing it with other social media tools (In this example, the information stored in the individual Delicious collection combined with the Google CSE search engine). As a result, Focuss.Info is an alternative web portal for information and knowledge in global development cooperation, sitting beside the more classic and generic search engines such as Bing, Google and Yahoo.


I hope that this weblog post has sparked interest in what the learning opportunities are for social media tools. There is a reason why I focused less on the application of social media tools in global development cooperation (even though I finished with the Focuss.Info Initiative as practical example) and more on a discussion on a strategic management level. This is – and I hope I made it clear in the weblog post – that adopting social media tools is more than just saying: ‘As from now, people can use Twitter’. In order to enhance learning, organizations need to be aware that self-regulated learning and information literacy are the cornerstones of being innovative. Therefore, the first big step in using social media tools as bricks for the learning environment is to focus on the cultural and behavioural parameters for staff members.