Extend Learning with Social Media

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the use of social media tools to extend and expand a given learning experience.  Because I work primarily with adult learners these days – continuing medical education, management training – I’m experimenting with various models to gain perspective on what works best for them. These motivated learners have typically come for one event – a seminar or a workshop – and the challenge is to encourage reflection and application beyond the boundary of the one instance. To tap into their stong relevancy orientation and to honor their significant life experience in the bargain. These are factors that seem ripe for social media.

The challenges are the usual suspects…not enough time, unfamiliar with the tools, how to keep the motivation going as you move away from the high-impact event.

Martin Luther Nailing his "95 Theses" to the door at Wittenberg

Looking for inspiration, I came across a wonderful article in the December Economist called How Luther Went Viral.  In this well written piece, the author talks about the Reformation, nearly 500 years ago, when Martin Luther used the media of his day to spread the word about religious reform (his 1517 nailing to the door of “95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences“).  Scholars have long debated the relative contributions of the printing press (a new technology at the time, allowing the mass circulation of pamphlets), versus getting the word out from the pulpit, in the oral tradition. While these tools were important, the article argues that the underlying critical factor at work was the system of media sharing along social networks that allowed the spread of these new ideas – what we refer to today in new media parlance as “the network effect”.

It turns out that Luther was pretty darned good at this. For instance, he opted to write in German (as opposed to the more scholarly Latin), he avoided regional vocabulary to ensure that his message had impact in wider geographical circles, he made full use of all the media of his day (woodcuts and songs as well as the pamphlets), and he recognized (and leveraged!) the way his media passed from one person to another which added up quickly to a wider audience than he originally expected.

The article goes on to explain that modern media theorists refer to participants in such a situation as the “networked public”, rather than an “audience”.  The distinction being that the people hearing Luther’s message were doing far more than just listening. This 16th century networked public discussed, participated, amplified and extended the message. So that each time the word passed along, it grew bigger and more impactful.

Bingo. That seems to me to be the key – reframe our instructional design so that we think of our learners as a “networked public” and create environments where they can do so much more than consume information.

Can I suggest a few actionable principles (and please, add your thoughts for more!):

– A regular schedule. The most effective social media-connected groups include a regular, heartbeat ritual to them – a weekly gathering, a daily post, or a regularly scheduled webinar – the instance is created to fit the needs of the group but the consistency is vital.
– Set intentions. Just as with any collaborating group, it’s critical to set out a clear intention for the group – what is it that we hope to achieve? – and then inform our design with those goals.
– Amplify the message. Seed and encourage plenty of opportunities for the networked participants to participate, discuss, dissect, share, apply and spread what is learned.
– The importance of facilitation. These experiments require a strong facilitator to urge everyone along, make connections, moderate discussion, and provide tactical support when needed.
– The importance of strong and weak ties. The most effective groups (whether in person or connected from a distance via social media) are those that consist of people with strong ties (those who know each other well and have worked together before) and weak ties (people new to the group).
– A combination of synchronous and asynchronous work.  It works well for the learners to have some opportunities to extend their learning right along with their peers, all together – and some opportunities to do so on their own time, when it’s convenient.  A healthy mix of both.
– The tools don’t matter.  Tools change – but the principles are the same.  While we’ll need to use and understand the tools in order to use them well, we want to keep our eye trained on what they allow us to do (the affordance).
What else?

1 Comment

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One response to “Extend Learning with Social Media

  1. Neil Heyden

    Letting go or at least loosening seems important. Luther not only reached more people than he expected, he reached more than he could ever imagine by letting others play “telephone” with his message. Similarly, to exploit the network effect you have to accept your message will change as it is understood, interpreted, and translated (evolves?) with others.

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