What Is Social Media?

Social media is typically defined as web-based tools that enable users to easily share information, collaborate, and communicate with one another. According to Patti Shank (2008), social media provide one or more of the following capabilities:

  • read/write web, which enables people to both read and provide content
  • microcontent, which focuses on providing small pieces of content rather than providing an entire webpage
  • web as a platform, in which one application is provided inside of another, such as the weather being provided on the home page of a newspaper or a Google map loading to the Directions page of a hotel’s website.

Several people, including ASTD President Tony Bingham and author Jane Bozarth among others, have proposed a link between social media and informal learning. But which social media tool can you specifically use—and what roles do they play in informal learning?

Five Social Tools You Are Probably Already Using

For most people the term social media usually brings to mind Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. But how can you use these for learning? Here are several classes of common social media tools and suggestions for how to use each with informal learning.

1. Blogs. Although originally conceived as a personal journal shared online, blogs (shortened form of web log) have evolved to become columns—or posts—as people call them—to which readers can post comments and the author(s) sometimes replies. These can range from topic-driven blogs, which focus on a single topic, or personality-driven blogs, which reflect the opinions of an individual.

Training and development (T&D) professionals can create blogs using publicly available software, like Blogger and Wordpress, or with blogging tools that are built into other software used in their organizations.

In terms of informal learning, blogs provide learners with content and opinion-based perspective.  Although these posts provide instructional material, the real discussion—and learning—often occurs in the comments that follow a blog entry. Bloggers (people who post to blogs) can determine whether people can provide comments anonymously or whether commenters must identify themselves (as is increasingly the custom).

2. Social networking refers to websites that enable users to publish content for others to view. Most social networks encourage users to publish information about their current activities. These networks also let users restrict who can view information to those allowed access to their personal networks, which consists of people the user has contacted and specifically invited to see their information (or who has received such an invitation from another user). Members included in a network can see one another’s profiles, which contains information about who they are, where they live, what type of work they do, what interests they have, and so forth. In addition, social networks let users create “groups,” which can allow people from outside a network share information with others who also share similar interests.

Training and development can use publicly available software like Facebook (typically associated with personal, private networking) and LinkedIn (typically associated with business networking) to form social networks. Another option is to create networks on proprietary software, such as software embedded in proprietary applications, like Lotus groupware. Many organizations prefer that employees use such private networks to prevent the leak of sensitive information.

In terms of informal learning, training and development professionals use social networks in ways similar to the discussion boards and lists that existed online before social networking evolved into what it is today. T&D can also use it as a means of sending announcements and similar types of communication, and to bring together people who might not otherwise meet. Organizations can also allow workers to set up their own networks, without the direct involvement (much less approval) of managers.

3. Microblogging refers to the 140-character messages that people post using Twitter, and status updates on social networking sites like LinkedIn and Facebook.  Because Twitter popularized microblogging and each posting is called a tweet, many people refer to the act of microblogging as tweeting.

Regardless of the service used, each provides a place to easily post updates. For example, Facebook asks users to post “What’s on your mind?”

In terms of informal learning, training and development professionals use microblogging to direct users to longer articles and blog posts of possible interest, as well as to discuss an event with others, usually while the event occurs.

4. Virtual worlds refers to software that provides a three-dimensional (3D) online environment that users can enter and interact in unscripted ways with other users who are online at the same time (The Horizon Report, 2007). The 3D environments can be designed to resemble real environments (like museums and businesses) or imaginary ones, and they can be public or private.

T&D professionals create these worlds using publicly available software like SecondLife, or specialized animation and simulation software. Note: Even when T&D practitioners use publicly available software to create a virtual world that meets the needs of the organization, they still often require additional custom programming not necessarily needed to use the other three types of applications mentioned so far.

In terms of informal learning, training and development professionals use virtual worlds to simulate complex environments, conduct online lectures and chats, and to allow users to interact with one another.

5. Photo and video sharing services refer to services that enable people to publish photos and videos in a central location in order to make them widely available to others.

Training and development professionals create the photos, videos, and similar graphic images using the same types of software used to create podcasts and vodcasts. They share the materials on picture and video sharing sites. T&D professionals can, with permission, use the images from the other learning materials they produce. In terms of informal learning, shared videos provide instruction on a number of common concepts and procedures.

Stay Tuned…

In the second post, we will cover some social media that may not be as familiar. In the final post, we will identify principles to consider when using social media for informal learning.

Please continue reading part 2 and part 3