Observations from Bingham and Connor’s The New Social Learning

I am currently reading The New Social Learning by Tony Bingham and Marcia Connor. This book is about enabling, supporting, and boosting the learning that is going on via social means of an organization’s employees. Of course, I am more interested in doing all of this for the students in my class, but I am hopeful that I will be able to transfer some insights from one context to another. As I have started to read it, I’m getting so many ideas; in this post I list of the ones from just Chapter 1 that excite me most; the emphases below are mine. I assume that longer posts will follow on some of these individual ideas (and on some from later chapters). This is not meant to be a review or to capture the important points from the book — this is just a set of my reactions to some of their ideas at the beginning of the book.

A student’s roles in a class

From p5: “We encourage you to use this book to discover how social media tools facilitate learning, how they might be leveraged to extend and expand your interactions with colleagues, and how to use them to create something vibrant. As Chris Brogan, one of the top bloggers in the world, coauthor of Trust Agents, and author of Social Media 101 says, ‘Focus on connecting with the people, and the tools will all make sense.’ ” — When designing my upcoming class, I continue to look for tools that enable connections at the right time, but I’m also thinking of how I can get across the idea to the students that they are supposed to support each other, to teach each other, to share with each other. They have been programmed from at least elementary school (and certainly at Michigan Ross with our enforced curve) that school is a competitive experience, that if you do better, then someone else has to do worse. I will have a strong tide to swim against.

The social basis of knowledge

From p7: “At its most basic level, new social learning can result in people becoming more informed, gaining a wider perspective, and being able to make better decisions by engaging with others. It acknowledges that learning happens with and through other people, as a matter of participating in a community, not just by acquiring knowledge.” — It has only been in the last few years that I have come to know this! (I’m a little slow sometimes. Okay, a lot of the time.) I have come to know that knowledge is an extremely social construct, that knowing something in some sense means knowing how to work with and through other people to get something done, that if you don’t have that level of knowledge, then you don’t really know something. If it’s possible to teach a class in a way that supports a discovery of this truth, then I will be looking for that way.

Technology for social learning

Social learning isn’t new. It has been going on since humans have walked the planet. We have used technology to support the process for at least 50 years (even though that’t not what it was called at the time). — Personally, I tend to get somewhat swept up in the latest technology. (If you know me, you know that I just said the equivalent of “The sun is hot.”) But I have been around long enough to know that this is true…at some level. The technology might have supported this process before, but it was only for people with a certain skills set or for people who worked in a certain industry. The technology now seems to be available and useful to a much broader segment of the population doing a much broader range of tasks. Given this, it seems like it would be useful to get students some experience with these tools sooner rather than later.

Social learning for higher ed

Social learning technologies “move services, assets, smarts, and guidance closer to where they are needed — to people seeking answers, solving problems, overcoming uncertainty, and improving how they work.” — This captures why I think social learning technologies would be useful for my class. I am not going to have all the answers; I want students to take ownership of some of the material and learn to share their own expertise; I want students to learn to reach out to a community for answers instead of just the supposed expert (i.e., me), even though that is what they have been trained to do all of their academic lives. Once they get into the work world, they will have to learn to operate in this generally ambiguous fashion. I figure I can start the process early for them in order to give them a leg up once they get out into the real world.

Social learning in my class

On p9 the authors explain what social learning is not, and this helped me clarify my thinking related to how I would use these technologies in my class:

  • It’s not at odds with formal education. By setting the students up with twitter accounts (that is, those that don’t have one already), I can enable them to share and seek information formally and informally (if that distinction even makes sense any more).
  • It’s not a replacement for training… That’s good, because I was still planning on using training videos and in-person experiences and online exercises in the class.

Appropriate testing

On p11: “The 21st century mind is a collective mind where we access what we know in our friends’ and colleagues’ brains. Together we can be smarter and can address ever more challenging problems. What we store in our heads may not be as important as all that we can tap in our networks. Together we are better.” — Testing a student’s ability to recall facts just seems silly in today’s world. What we need to be testing is a student’s ability to solve a problem using appropriate methods. More and more, “appropriate methods” include usage of the student’s personal network. Why? Because that is how they will address problems for the rest of their lives. It is a social world, and no student will ever be an island. (Except, apparently, if they sit in a classroom.)

Sharing expertise vs. enabling collaboration

On p19: “Learning can easily occur anytime, anywhere, and in a variety of formats. It always has, but now it’s codified and easy for others to see. These new social tools can enable organizations to strike a balance between surfacing the knowledge people need and giving them the ease and freedom to learn in a healthy and open way.” — Organizations have long worked to get employees to share their expertise so that others can build upon it. It seems to me that this new model of social learning has a bit different take on this. Efforts here are focused on getting employees to collaborate in problem solving, to draw them explicitly into the process so that their expertise can be used directly. The social tools should make it easier to reach out to these people, and to establish the true nature of the need for others to see (via an ongoing open, sharing practice).

Expanding the boundaries

On p20: “Learning is what makes us more vibrant participants in a world seeking fresh perspectives, novel insights, and first-hand experiences. When shared, what we have learned mixes with what others have learned, then ripples out, transforming organizations, enterprises, ecosystems, and the society around us.” — I want to make my class as valuable as possible. I want students to share what they have learned. I want people who are not in my class to be able to get a glimpse of the wonderful experiences we have shared in the class. I want students in my future classes to build upon the works and learning of my current class so that future students can go beyond where my current students are able to go. How? That’s a topic for a future post! But I think it’s a good goal, and one that is in reach.

How and when students learn

On p20: Some researchers in learning have found that “70 percent of learning and development takes place from real-life and on-the-job experiences, tasks, and problem solving; 20 percent of the time development comes from other people through informal or formal feedback, mentoring, or coaching; and 10 percent of learning and development comes from formal training.” — This might be true because formal training only takes place 10% of the time; mentoring 20% of the time, etc. Or it might be that formal training provides knowledge that is not measured by these statistics. Or, most disturbingly, it might be that formal training hasn’t been imparting knowledge that is in any way useful. That would not be a happy interpretation of the data from my perspective. My personal takeaway from this is that I try to provide students with many opportunities to create tasks that both are personally relevant to them and apply theories and frameworks from the class I am teaching. I also try to give personal feedback as much as possible and create opportunities for students to give and receive feedback among themselves (if possible for the class); I have found that both teaching other students and learning from other students also help students retain information.

Class as a context for experimenting

On p21: “The new social learning, which centers on information sharing, collaboration, and co-creation — not instruction — implies that the notion of training needs to expand.” — This is a good summary of my motivation for working on this class. It provides a context to test my theories of learning and teaching, to see which facets of these processes can work in a digital environment and which require a blended approach.

Application of knowledge as a means for remembering

On p22: “Knowledge acquired but never put to use is usually forgotten. We may act as if we care about learning something and go through the motions, but we will forget it unless it is something we want to learn and it fits how we work.” — As I have taught over the years, I have learned this again and again. (Have I mentioned that I have a thick skull?) The concept of “covering the material” is nearly a meaningless phrase. Unless a student interacts with the concept, makes it somehow personally meaningful, it will be forgotten. Just because the teacher says the words doesn’t mean that the student heard them, understood them, or will ever even remember that they were said. Design a course so that the student has time to apply the concepts in a meaningful context. It is best if the student can construct that context; otherwise, what is perceived as meaningful to the professor can end up being perceived as irrelevant or confusing by the student. Not good. The question for the professor becomes how to come up with a way of managing all these different contexts during the learning process. Again, another question for another blog post.


That’s it for now. (As if that wasn’t enough, huh?)

As I said, this post is in no way a summary of the book, or even of this chapter. I hope it does, in some way, encourage you to read this book for yourself; as you can tell, I feel it has been worth my time. I would love to hear your take on some of the points above. I’m struggling with a lot of concepts, and juggling lots of balls. I need some of you to help me think through all of this.

Questions related to coming changes in higher education

At the session “Public Online Social Learning Environments” led by Patricia Anderson (mind map for session at UMTTC), we discussed a mind-blowingly expansive set of alternative educational (or teaching or learning) models. Also recently, Alex Summers at Edudemic wrote a nice article titled “The 10 Biggest Trends in Online Education Right Now”. Below I briefly recount a few of the issues mentioned; however, I focus my writing on the questions raised for MRFIHL (major research-focused institutes of higher learning — e.g., the University of Michigan, where I work).

Themes related to coming changes

These themes kept popping up during her talk and our discussion (I can tell you right now that none of these have anything to do with visiting beautiful old buildings on beautiful campuses):

  • Personalization: How can teaching be personalized to the needs of each specific learner? How is the educational program, plan, or content be specialized to the needs of that learner? Students are far less interested in taking the standard class (sequence, or program) and much more interested in taking what, specifically, is best for the student at this particular time.
  • Social: How can students link what they’re doing to the rest of the people in their lives, or at least to the other people going through the same learning process?
  • Free: Lots of really great educational resources are available for free online, with many from reputable sources (many universities world-wide, TED conferences, community organizations; more on this in a future post). How can a university justify (and thereby enable it to pay my salary) charging students such high fees?
  • Localization: Why should students have to come to one specific room in one specific campus in order to learn some material? Why can’t they learn from wherever they happen to be?Lots of technologies are available that allow this type of geographic dispersion to work fairly well.
  • Asynchronous: Why should students have to come together at a specific time to learn the material? If it is just to hear a lecture and not to interact with the other people in the classroom or the professor at the front, then what’s the purpose?
  • Qualifiable: Is the “teacher” or “organizer” qualified to lead the class? How do you know? Maybe more importantly, how does your future employer know, and does he/she care?
  • Transferrable: How can you get credit for what you have learned at a place other than where you learned it?
  • Open: Can anyone have access to the materials (assignments, lectures, learning tools) for the class? Or is there an application mechanism?

Online education specifically

Rather than recount Alex’s list here, I’’ll focus on the questions posed by a subset of those for MRFIHL:

  • Online education becoming more valued by employers: The perception of online education is improving. The benefits of online education are real — it isn’t always better than in-person education, but it does have benefits. Why shouldn’t a MRFIHL provide some online education when it is appropriate?
  • Hybrid courses are becoming more available: Hybrid courses, those that are delivered with a mixture of in-person and online, can be seen in a few more traditional universities. Again, there are benefits here, both in efficiency to the professor and student and in increasing the types of material and collaborators that can be brought to class. Why not start exploring this space and sharing our successes and failures?
  • Remote collaboration is a key benefit (teaching): Experts live all around the world, both in academia and in the RL, and it should be considered possible that they may not want to travel to Ann Arbor in the depth of winter (from November-April). If we integrate remote technologies into our classes, we could then get more used to involving these experts in our classes, and not have it be some type of special occasion. In theory this should raise the quality of the classes.
  • Remote collaboration is a key benefit (learning): Students come from all around the world. Technologies enabling remote collaboration have come a long way in the last few years, getting to the point where they are even non-remarkable (Skype, Google Docs, Google Hangout). Use of these tools should enable students to live anywhere where a reasonable telecommunications infrastructure exists and effectively participate in classes back at the MRFIHL. Why shouldn’t we use these technologies to reach out to this far-flung audience?
  • Digital content distribution is easily done: In contrast to paper- or book-based distribution, digital distribution is quite straight-forward. A whole industry and set of technologies exist to simplify this process (ebooks, PDFs, Kindles, LMSs, etc.). All of this allows students to access and interact with that content wherever they might be, as long as they are near a phone, tablet, or computer. And what student doesn’t have his or her phone nearby? So far, the reason that this isn’t done more frequently is that students still have work habits that are better supported with paper. If the benefits of electronic distribution were better taken advantage of, analog distribution would disappear quickly. What student wants to carry around a huge backpack of books?
  • Online education encompasses lots of choices: This isn’t just ebooks or a talking head in a video. As Summers points out, “These days students have a wide variety of tools at their disposal, including text chat, immersive multimedia, virtual classrooms, and digital whiteboards.” Why not experiment with these different delivery mechanisms and see what we learn about them? We may find that we enjoy using them; we may find that students appreciate the options and variety it gives them; we may actually find out that students learn just as well with these tools as with in-person classrooms.
  • Social media can be integral to online education: Students are certainly active with social media. Well, it turns out that social media (at least Twitter, blogging, Google Hangouts, and Pinterest) can be quite supportive of the educational process, too. Why wouldn’t a professor want students to be interacting with the course material at many touch-points throughout their lives instead of just in a textbook or during a lecture? Why not facilitate many types of discussions in many contexts in order to show the variety of ways that the class material can affect the student?


So, what does this mean to me? Well, that will have to wait for a future post. This one is long enough (ummm, maybe it’t too long, Scott). For now, I would love to hear how you and/or your organization is addressing this. Are you using one-off experiments with individual faculty members simply doing it and asking for forgiveness rather than permission? Or is there an organizational push to get faculty to do this? I would love to hear your responses!