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Social Learning – a review of the review

One of this week’s social learning questions of the day (SLQOTD) on twitter was to post our thoughts on Richard Bacal’s controversial review of ASTD president, Tony Bingham’s article on social learning (Learning Gets Social).

When I initially read the question I was curious as to how controversial one could be when discussion social learning. We’ve been doing it for centuries after all.

Was I ever wrong.

In an effort to be fair, I attempted to read both the original article and the critique. However after about 15 minutes trying to access the ASTD article, and refusing to pay for the membership, I gave up. It could be user error, but I simply could not access the content without a membership (as an aside, I had already registered at ASTD.org and had a customer number, but that did not appear to be sufficient).

In the end I only read Bacal’s review of the article. I tend to agree with a two of his key points and disagree with a third.

The first point I agree with, we don’t define the terminology. Social learning, informal learning, formal learning, etc. are tossed about as though they are common language. The concept is old, but how we use them now is new. Quite frankly I agree, define your terminology up front or in an appendix so both you and your readers are on a level playing field. This applies to everyone, not just Bingham.

To drink my own champagne here… For me, personally, social learning is the increase in knowledge or skills obtained from others (online or in person) by leveraging their experiences (context) or joint experiences. Informal learning is the ad-hoc learning that takes place on the job, in response to an immediate need for knowledge/skills. Obviously these definitions apply to workplace learning and may change over time.

Next, I’d also agree that we’ve stopped referencing reliable, verifiable data. I feel like the “learning profession” has taken on a mob mentality with respect to social learning. We’re all shouting about how great it is and how you’ll be left behind if you don’t jump on the bandwagon immediately. Whether or not that’s true, how do you make a business case to engage a consultant or internal staff to address this apparent gaping hole in your learning strategy without information on potential results. Now, I’m not a measurement “expert”, but I can appreciate why “social learning” seems a bit woolly to some.

Do I have the data? No… I don’t, I have anecdotal evidence from my own experience and the experience of my peers. Is that enough? Maybe to start implementing these solutions within my own team, but I’m not sure my clients are going to buy in to it very easily.

The one area that I don’t agree wholeheartedly with is that social learning and informal learning aren’t new and shouldn’t require so much emphasis. While the concept and the actual actions associated with social learning and informal learning have been around for years (and years and years) the tools that we’re using are different – microblogging, social networking sites, blogging, shared bookmarks, peer-to-peer learning, wikis, etc. do change how you interact. And while I will likely google the answer to my next “must know now” question, I will also post it on twitter to see what I can find out from others. I might get the answer in an hour or in a week, but the information is still welcome and likely from someone I might not be able to pick up the phone and call.

Ultimately, Bacal raises some valid points in his critique. However, the harshness of his words and the tone of his post make it challenging to find agreeable points in his rant. I’m looking forward to the third part of his critique to see where he takes it.

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