The clusterfuck known as social learning

February 25, 2010

Sorry for the vulgarity in the title but I read a whopper of a quote from my always thought-provoking colleague, Gary Woodill, and what ensued in my mind was nothing more than a clusterfuck. (My definition of clusterfuck is complicated confusion and chaos.) Anyway, here’s the quote:

“learning through the use of social media is a set of implicit assumptions that if people are using something called “social media”, then “social learning” must be taking place. This is a confusion of the means with the ends.”

Think about it. I did.

When you Google “social learning” you’ll notice that “social learning theory” is returned first. The “social learning” hits that follow are primarily bloggers. Bloggers like me. And then there are theorists like Etienne Wenger talking about social learning and social learning systems in theย  context of communities or practice and stewarding technology for communities. I love that stuff.

You can see that “social learning,” as a term, appeared enough to make Google’s trend chart in 2006 and has gone up-and-down since. From the end of 2008 and on, it really grew some legs. A trend term. Vogue. Maybe rogue. Definitely ill-defined. Often misused. Tossed around without much serious inquiry into its meaning.

In fact, it’s aย  clusterfuck of meaning. As much so as ‘learning’ itself is. Ponies and unicorns.

I guess what I’m saying here is that there’s not enough push-back on the term. Is it harmful? Effective? What’s the theory behind it? Were Bandura and Vygotsky full of shit? Lave and Wenger? What do we need to be thinking about?

I think, when it comes to the new social learning crowd, we’ve got us a case of groupthink. I’ll be the first to say I’ve been part of the problem. However, I think we’ve got to slow down before we flood search engines with models that are not models and definitions grounded in little more than what someone else said.

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  • Simon Bostock

    Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. I love you,

    Oddly enough, I was at this very second pasting a picture of a vomiting unicorn into a PowerPoint slide thinking along similar lines.

    But Tweetdeck telling me you used the word 'clusterfuck' is easily the most distracting thing that's happened to me today.

  • foveros

    Love this post! let's fight back against obfuscating jargon and get down to the theory behind it all ๐Ÿ™‚

  • jeannefarrington

    Ah, so maybe some of the “social learning” enthusiasts are making stuff up? Perhaps throwing out (or ignoring or never knowing about or perhaps not really understanding) “old” theories and practices in favor of excitement about a new delivery system/methods that will “change learning forever”? Perhaps much of what is written is basically self-referential within the social media/social learning crowd? There's a concept. Kudos to you for mentioning it. Publicly. (It's usually an innocent child who points out “Emperor. Clothes. Not.”)

    This same phenomenon has been repeated, repeatedly, at least since the advent of the Army's adoption of the overhead projector in 1945. Every new delivery system inspires a new group of evangelists. Slide-tape programs. TV. Video. Interactive Level III video. HyperCard! CBT. E-learning. Social learning. Enthusiasm is good. Throwing out the baby with the bathwater… or raising the baby based on urban (or social) legends is not so good (but it's common).

    Much is known (& much is still not known) about how people learn and what motivates them. Making stuff up about it is just not all that helpful. Ignoring what we already know instead of building on it just wastes a lot of time. Perhaps it's time to slow down to go faster.

    I really enjoyed your post.

  • janebozarth

    I don't know that I want to be considered part of the Cult of Social Learning (no, the training departments are not going to shut down anytime soon), but I do see new technologies enabling people to connect and at least talk to one another in new ways (and we can't deny that they “learn” that way). The problem with so much of the old thinking about learning is that so much of it hinged on control– by management, by old-school trainers/SMEs with slides, by systems that “tracked” learning. Social media, and workers armed with web-enabled phones, lets employees circumvent old structures and get what they need from each other in a less formal, regimented, silo'd way. Make sense?

  • Dan Pontefract

    Provocative enough title to get me thinking, and ultimately posting a comment. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Nonetheless, what I believe we're essentially referring to is the delta between what is known as formal learning (ILT, eLearning, etc.) and non-Formal learning (coaches, mentors, communities, shadowing, rotations, discussion forums, wikis, blogs, YouTube, comments, ranking, etc.) NOTE: Marcia has been at this for years –

    But specific to Social Learning? Personally, I use it to break the non-Formal learning into two camps: learning that can happen via Social Media and Social Networking … and learning that happens without it, but not in a formal class or formal eLearning course.

    Therefore, I break learning into 3 camps: formal, informal and social. This works well inside of an organization because a) everyone is so used to the “Kirkpatrick” way of formal learning b) utilizing the term 'social' provides a purposeful 'learning' connection to all things 'social' these days and c) it allows for an easier understanding of the entire learning spectrum of offerings.

    Although I might concur somewhat about the groupthink comment/musing, introducing the array (formal, informal and social) helps our executives understand that there are in fact different ways in which to learn, and it doesn't always have to be in a classroom. (that actually is something the employee population is 'learning' as well)

  • Richard Millwood

    It amuses me to find Dave Snowden's blog… at the same sitting as this from you – the picture/map seems to give a visual dimension to the syndrome.

  • jclarey

    what is it with unicorns?

  • jclarey

    Thanks for you thoughtful comments Jeanne. A wrinkle to all of this is the public aspect of writing you mentioned. I enjoy (and others I'm sure) exchanging ideas publicly with people and that includes working through some half-baked idea. In short, learning by writing and discussing. This is, of course, different than making things up. I think there's some of that going on. More likely the never knowing…not really understanding.thing is what's happening. Slow down to go faster. You might like the post I wrote about yesterday –

  • jclarey

    I don't consider you part of any cult of social learning. You've influenced me and made me think of communities in different ways. Clearly you know theory. You've touched on another big issue though – control. Re: “we can't deny that they “learn” that way”….but how much? is it efficient? is it effective? is it harmful?

  • janebozarth

    Well, but that begs the question: Is what we've BEEN doing (theory based though our good intentions mean it to be) efficient, effective, and not harmful? How much “learning” happens via traditional workplace training?

  • jclarey

    That's a great mess of a visual.

  • jclarey

    We've been trying to measure that FOREVER haven't we? Generally – it's the method that matters don't you find?

  • jclarey

    Love what you're saying here. I wonder though how useful the word 'social' is in an organization. Social brings to mind Woodstock (Andrew McAfee brought up at a keynote I heard).

    I'm trying to get my head around how you're defining things: formal by delivery channel, non-formal by method and delivery channel and then breaking non-formal into the use of or lack of use of social media (delivery channel). I'm not sure that puts the focus where it needs to be – how does the learner use it vs. how does the organization use it?

  • Sarah Bartlett

    A brave and commendable post. Self-congratulatory “open” communities can be remarkably closed to healthy criticism.

  • jclarey


  • twerner

    Hi Janet, I agree with you and Gary about the loose use of 'social learning' as a term. I can think of several ways that 'social learning' has been used over the years.

    One was Bandura's social learning/modeling. I see you using MiracleGro on your flowerbeds, you have great flowers, so I use MiracleGro.

    Another was the mindset, coming from Knowles' adult-learning theory and the corporate-trainer craft, that learners need to process and debrief with each other to learn. This “learning is social” doctrine was an argument against asynchronous e-learning and an argument for blended learning.

    My guess is that the current term “social learning” is a way for our training/learning profession to accept “social media.” We simply like to put “learning” after things! It brings things into our comfort zone. The term “media” in “social media” has a bit of communication/information flavor to it, and we don't really have many mental hooks for communications or information.

    (I'm surprised that we haven't come up with “search learning” as a way to explain all the Googling…)

    I wish that we as a profession could accept more easily that there's an information-instruction continuum, that it's OK for information (or “media”) to just be information.

  • jclarey

    A 12-step program. 1st step…repeat after me…”There's an information-instruction continuum and it's OK for information (“media”) to be just information.” : )

    I thought I saw 'search learning' mentioned before. Elliot Masie I think. Can't find it now though.

  • tomhaskins

    Thanks for this screed Janet. Your Google Trends graph rocked my world. All those blips with such steep upsides and downsides is a perfect picture of high churn fanfare. Hype is usually a closed system, echo chamber and proud sponsor of groupthink. As soon as empirically validated crap detectors call it's bluff (nice job BTW!) the bubble gets burst again The fanfare dies off rather than integrating the much-needed evidence based practices, actionable heuristics or proven design patterns.

    I see the fanfare through a developmental lens. Hype springs up like weeds that never become forests. But weeds can decay in a form of “topsoil” that supports next generation growth. After hype comes pragmatists seeking valid tools, useful solutions and access to reliable results. The welcomed development of pragmatic interests replaces the high churn fanfare with more robust forms of practice.

    I find kinds of learning (social, informal, generative, P2P, etc) to be especially prone to so much flatulence — judging from my own attempts to say something worthwhile on my blog about learning. I suspect our talk of “learning” amounts to “misplaced concreteness”. We're making “a thing” of nothing other than elusive processes, emergent phenomena and complex interactions.

  • Dick Carlson

    Late to the party, as usual — I'd just like to point out that “social learning” (well, any kind of learning) can happen and it isn't necessarily the learning that we intended.

    Ten minutes into a webcast, I may learn that you are an idiot who has delusions of grandeur and only wants to make boring speeches.

    After reading three of your tweets, I may learn that you are able of contributing absolutely zero to the topic at hand.

    Within five minutes of arriving at your beautiful forum site, I may learn that the way you have arranged the information on your topic is completely useless to me (taxonomy, tagging, layout, categorization) and run screaming in the other direction.

    But I may also learn that @MKnowles posts some really interesting comments, and do a little searching to find out what he thinks on the topic. So I end up doing some “social learning” that you never, ever intended.

  • J-M. Guillemette

    I very much agree with Gary's quote. What we're seeing recently with new media such as social networking tools is essentially the same phenomena we saw at different times in the past when new communication technologies were introduced. First came radio, then television, then video, etc. Each time the new technology was touted as the next best thing for learning. While we should have learned from those experiences, we doggedly continue searching for (and apparently finding – e.g. G. Siemens theory of connectivism) the Holy Grail. In reality, we know far less about links between learning and new technology than we boast. Things will hopefully improve when we get over the fun of playing with new toys but meanwhile I'm afraid we'll have to weave through a great deal of clutter and downright non sense before getting the point. Please understand that this is not a rant against technology – I've been working with technology to faciliate learning for quite some time now – but instead a reminder that all that glitters isn't gold.

  • jclarey

    Well said (as always).

  • jclarey

    What we intended or what a designer intended. I hope 'you' is not may very well be though.

  • jclarey

    Yes. Perhaps it's an issue of not seeing media on a continuum (blackboard, printing press, broadcast, etc.) and of not looking at things historically. Not shiny and new but just different.

  • johnstearns

    Right on Janet. Clusterfuck. Group Grope. Girl, dont you know careers are being built on this BS? (ok, I'm out of the closet, but you knew all along what I thought.) The deal is, when nobody has any idea what everybody else is talking about, it's better to congratulate each other on such insightfulness than admit it's a …well, clusterfuck. Congratulations on advancing the disucssion. Really.

  • jclarey

    Dude. You need to blog.

  • Ener Hax

    hey! what is that pink haired girl doing!

    great, their goes my wholesome image . . . =D

  • jclarey

    hmmm…that's something I didn't notice. now it's not just the title that's vulgar.

  • tomhaskins

    As far as I can tell from the rear camera angle, the girl with the pink hair is engaged in facial learning. All it takes is to learn whatever is in your face. Most graduates of classroom schooling are far more up-skilled in facial learning than social learning. perhaps the correct syntax for sequel post is The clustersuck known as facial learning.

  • jclarey

    f-learning ; )

  • jclarey

    BTW…I took that image off. Can't believe I didn't notice the f-learning when I posted it. A porn and learning blog all rolled into one. AWESOME!

  • jclarey

    BTW…removed that image…didn't want to offend the pink haired girls of the world.

  • jclarey

    Never mind…she's hugging someone not doing someone.

  • Ener Hax

    oh no offense at all, all publicity is good publicity

    “raising” awareness for eLearning comes in many forms and humour is an often overlooked (and challenging to do well internationally)

    this is a fabulous image and even better title (kudos Janet)

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  • Ener Hax

    the pink haired girl is Julianna Rose Mauriello

  • Janet

    Really. How did you find that out? Intrigued.

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