Blogs. Wikis. Social Networks. Widgets. Mashups. Web 2.0. We hear about these technologies almost daily. Some of us have even used them. The question is, what do they have to do with e-Learning, and, as a learning professional, why should you care?
In this essay, we’ll explore how a new breed of technology tools, collectively referred to as social media or “Web 2.0,” has fueled an online culture of connection and contribution. We’ll show you how you can benefit by embracing these tools, and by leveraging them for e-Learning. We’ll share a few examples of how companies and organizations are already using the technologies, and we’ll review typical concerns about deploying social media in the enterprise. Finally, we’ll share why we believe that integration of these tools into traditional e-Learning is probably not a choice, but inevitability. As you’ll see, e-Learning 2.0 is already here, and is likely functioning within your organization.
The drive to e-Learning 2.0
When we first started using the Internet (what is now called Web 1.0), it was primarily a destination for finding content and completing basic transactions. Advanced skills were necessary to do anything other than view Web pages, shop online, or send e-mail. To operate even basic Web sites, organizations needed to make a significant investment in a team of IT staff, servers, and hosting infrastructure. While the Web was a good place to find information, it wasn’t where most of us could create things, or have much real interaction.
Starting in 2003, we began to see the rise of a new breed of technologies that turned the Web from strictly an information destination into a platform, a place to not only read or watch media, but to actually DO things. There are two critical facts about this stage. First is the simplification of what had previously been high-end specialized tools. Rather than needing a specially trained expert to get written information, photos, audio, and video online, now anyone can do it. Second is how these tools facilitate social connections. In Web 1.0, the focus was on connecting people to content. In Web 2.0, the focus is on connecting people to content AND to other people.
These shifts in technology fundamentally change the e-Learning experience. At a minimum, they encourage a level of sociability, sharing, and connection among learners we've not experienced before. Instead of inviting learners to be passive consumers of information, with interactions limited to those specified by the "learning professionals," social media tools empower learners to be much more actively involved in constructing their own learning. Social media tools also provide learners with avenues for connecting with a much broader network of people as part of their learning experience.
One company that understands the power of social media is GE. GE SupportCentral is their professional networking platform with over 400,000 global users in 6,000+ locations around the world. The system gets over 25 million Web hits a day. Users have created more than 50,000 communities; with over 100,000 experts signed up to answer questions and manage information. These experts are GE workers with full-time jobs who use the system because it helps them do their job better. Interestingly, GE, which is famous for its metric-driven culture, saves so many millions a year with SupportCentral that they don't require a Return on Investment (ROI) justification model for the system. As CIO Gary Reiner said in a recent Fortune interview, SupportCentral “is becoming … the heartbeat of the company.”
Now, of course, depending on your perspective, these kinds of changes can be exciting or daunting (or perhaps a little of both). That’s true of any change. We believe, however, that widespread adoption of e-Learning 2.0 tools and approaches is not a matter of "if" but "when." While the degree to which companies and organizations use social media in their daily work processes will probably vary, it's unlikely that any organization will be able to entirely escape the onslaught of social media. Whether blogs, wikis, and social networks are set up behind the firewall, or brought in through the internet cloud, these applications are finding their way into organizations everywhere. The challenge for e-Learning professionals will be to determine the best strategies for integrating them into more traditional on- and off-line learning practices.
Understanding the possibilities
Because of the rapid pace of information change and the competitive pressures of a global economy, it is no longer reasonable for learning to take place only through structured courses or e-Learning modules. By the time formal courses are developed much of the content is outdated, and most workers don’t have time for full courses, anyway. What employees really need is “bite-sized learning” to satisfy an immediate appetite and to be consumed on an as-needed basis. They also need access to a network of knowledgeable people who can answer questions and provide advice when they run into trouble – with persistent connections as well as asynchronous access on a global time clock. Learning isn’t just about content anymore; it’s also about having access to the right people at the right time.
This is the environment in which e-Learning 2.0 shines, as the experience of Serena, a $270 million software company, demonstrates. Frustrated with the quality of internal learning and knowledge sharing, as well as a lack of community, the company began encouraging its employees to use Web 2.0 tools, including social networks Facebook and LinkedIn, and video-sharing site YouTube. Within one month of deployment, 90% of Serena’s employees were on Facebook, able to connect with colleagues all over the world. This has provided not only the “social glue” to create smoother working relationships; it has also created a world wide community of practice for Serena employees to share ideas and expertise.
You can deploy social networks outside the firewall through tools like Facebook, or behind the firewall through “white label” social networking software such as Ning. As Serena’s experience illustrates, these networks allow people to form communities online based on shared interests, activities, locations, work units, etc. You can easily form subgroups, and individuals can belong to several groups at once, just as they would in the "real world." In large organizations, or ones made up of multiple locations, online social networks can be a key way for employees to find and connect to one another, and build the social capital necessary to make work flow smoothly. A network can also serve as a "hub" for blended learning events, and for follow-up after a training course.
Blogs are another key social media tool. They can be used for reflection as part of a course, or as an ongoing tool for reflecting on experience and sharing ideas. The ability to comment on one’s blogs means that this learning can be further enhanced by allowing others to comment on the content of posts, ask questions, and suggest resources. Commenters can interact with the blog author and/or with each other, which enriches the experience for all.
Wikis allow people to collaboratively create, edit, share, and comment on content. Privacy settings allow organizations to control levels of access. As part of a course, you can use a wiki as an online portfolio to demonstrate learning, or as a strategy for people to share resources and information as they move through the course. Trainers can also use wikis as "digital handouts," with links to documents, articles, videos, Podcasts, and photos. Many companies and organizations are also using wikis to document policies and procedures, to collaboratively develop meeting agendas and minutes, and to make content that is usually shared via e-mail more easily and readily accessible to anyone, at any time.
With social bookmarking tools like Delicious, individuals can categorize and organize useful information they find online. Through “tagging” (a form of categorization), you can then share these bookmarks with others in your organization, department, or unit. Social bookmarking sites can also serve as a resource for helping to find useful content and sift through the millions of pages of online content. This social aspect acts as a sort of "recommendation system," as the more people who bookmark a resource the more likely it is that the resource is considered high quality. Sites have essentially been “vetted” by colleagues, which means more accurate information and quick results.
Rating systems, video and photo-sharing sites, and Podcasting are also social media tools that offer plenty of opportunities for learning. Imagine — what if your LMS had an Amazon-like review system that let the best content and most compelling instructors bubble to the top? Or, imagine if you were able to make quick videos of a work process, and then easily upload and share those with the employees in your 20 locations worldwide.
If we treat the use of social media as an ongoing part of the work environment, then knowledgeable experts can monitor the use of these tools to identify misunderstandings, or places where information is incorrect. You can then develop learning interventions to address these issues. It is actually easier to monitor employee knowledge and understanding through social media tools, because work is more transparent and out in the open. With e-mail, private conversations, etc., it's easy for incorrect or inaccurate information to make the rounds "under the radar," where it's more difficult to identify and address potential issues.