Social Media, self-directed learning, MOOCs and other new methods of instruction are here to stay, but the real question is: Are they effective?  Many isolated examples claim great success with these new mediums, but I have not seen them take off on a large scale, especially within commercial industries.

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As an industry, we are making the same mistake we have made hundreds of times before, but we’re failing to recognize it: We’re trying to use a new technology within the existing paradigm.

Learning/training will become a self-directed process in which the student is allowed to pick and choose whatever material and methods they wish to study, so we must rethink our entire process of determining if an individual is capable of something. The current model lets companies select individuals based on academic achievements, job, training, and other factors.  Throughout the process individuals are assigned, enrolled, presented, tested and eventually achieve some level of completion that is meaningful to the hiring company or organization.

This entire paradigm must change if individuals become responsible for determining their own curriculum. There should be a verifiable set of criteria that learners must achieve, but how they get there is up to them.

What do I need to learn?

Currently, both academic institutions and corporate training organizations define a set of curricula for individuals to achieve a particular level of proficiency. Ironically the student often does not know what is expected of them until the first day on the job. Instead they receive a huge amount of information to consume that they will hopefully remember and be able to apply once they start their job.

A social paradigm would have organizations clearly define learning objectives and how individual should apply them. Otherwise learners are left to their own devices, often resulting in ineffective guessing or a trial and error. Discovering what you don’t know on the job is almost always as a result of a mistake, which hurts the individual’s confidence and costs the company time and money.

Where is the material?

Ever since the explosion of how-to videos on YouTube, I have been skeptical about people becoming self-taught experts. The problem is that not every individual can determine whether or not the information is correct. Tasking an individual to discover good sources of material is a great exercise in theory, but in reality does not always achieve the key objectives: learning quickly and using time efficiently.

Under a social paradigm, learning/training organizations should supply the core training material. This could include existing e-learning, MOOCs and classroom offerings. However, as part of this offering the organization must identify the objectives and/or skills that each piece of material addresses. Otherwise individuals will fumble their way through a potentially endless amount of material to find the right answer. Social paradigms don’t tell the learner to study something in particular; the organization makes it easy to identify which material relates to what the learner must know.

The second half of the equation — where to find learning material — is impacted by how we use social media for learning. Social media is where you go to exchange ideas and information. E-learning, classrooms, etc. are where you go to learn content. You can learn using social media, but it isn’t the best format for training.

For example, training material in a blog eventually gets buried under newer posts, making it difficult to find. YouTube is slightly better, but it’s tough to find accurate material — and video is not the best medium for many types of training. So Facebook, wikis, Q&A’s and blogs are effective communication, discussion and reference tools. Organizations should leverage them in everyday use, but not as a primary delivery mechanism for training.

Validating the learner

Many companies and organizations take a leap of faith when it comes to the results of their learning/training programs.  They run students through the defined process/curriculum and believe that when they finish the student has a core set of knowledge and capability. This has sufficed for generations, but in today’s learning environment, it is not the optimal way of educating or training someone — and certainly does not guarantee success.

Under the social paradigm, learners understand upfront what they are expected to know and do before they start the process. This approach allows learners to create their own curriculum and make their learning experience more self-directed and rewarding. However, this does not necessarily improve the odds that individuals would perform better than they would have otherwise. At least under the old model you knew what material the learner had taken. The answer to this problem is in how and what we test. Too many exams test individuals on content — not on the job or application of the knowledge. The assumption is that if you knew the material, you would be able to apply that information to the job.

This is where the social paradigm really changes for the company or organization. For example, instead of giving an equation to solve, give a problem that is a combination of subjects. The same approach would be true for any given work scenario. Instead of asking the learner if something is a sexual harassment violation, you could show a number of work related videos and have them take the correct action or actions for each video. A single video may contain multiple situations in a single segment that the individual must respond to. For example, combining a scenario that teaches a procedure as well as containing an instance of sexual harassment.

Recruiting and Succession Planning

Companies go through great pains and expense to identify specific individuals to fill different roles. The system isn’t perfect, but it has worked for generations, and companies account for the flaws in the process by accepting high attrition rates. Applying a social paradigm to recruiting and succession planning could offer a much lower rate and higher employee satisfaction with less overall cost.

Organizations currently seek individuals after a need arises. A social paradigm model lets as many individuals as possible study and show their ability to successfully fill a job, and then the company selects from the pool. All of the learning/training is self-directed and the applicant demonstrates that they are self-motivated to fill the position. The end result is a pool of candidates that have all met the same criteria for the job position of the existing employee.

Process and Tools

Learning management systems, authoring tools and testing tools all do a great job within the current paradigm. However, if we are truly going to embrace a social paradigm for learning/training, then all three of these need to be redesigned to support a new method of learning management and instructional design. At a very high level, I would expect to see these products change their capability in the following ways:

  • Learning management goes from a tool for managing a process to a tool that manages pools of candidates passing through different levels of capability. It would also closely match instructional material with exams, job requirements and individuals.
  • Authoring tools increase their capability to replicate job functions. These are not necessarily simulations, but interactions that closely represent skills that individuals use on the job. I would also expect them to support both synchronous and asynchronous forms of learning to more closely replicate a work/team environment.
  • Testing tools need to evolve beyond question types. Recognizing a situation is almost as important as knowing what to do in a situation. That is a capability our tools need to have.

Moving forward

Again, the mistake we are making with this new technology is the same mistake we have made with many others.  We’re trying to apply social media in a way it wasn’t intended to be used, making it awkward and ineffective. If we are serious about using social media for learning and training, we need to step back and see how it occurs in the wild. Our industry goes from manufacturing individuals with certain capabilities to one where we guide individuals to achieve certain goals and fill jobs. The only real question is whether or not individuals are truly self-motivated to fill every job out there.

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1 Comment

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  1. Rob Makinson

    Thanks Edward.

    Love the thinking and potential

    As a Learning though leader once told me “the technology is not the most important bit, but rather the promotion and overall learning environment (and facilitation) to support informal learning”


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