Mirjam Neelen & Paul A. Kirschner
Many learning professionals are convinced that social networking sites – and especially Twitter® and Facebook® – are great for managing personal knowledge to support an individual’s learning process, however, the basis for this claim is unclear.
The suggestion to use social media for managing your personal knowledge to support your learning and professional development fits the idea known in the trades as personal knowledge management (PKM). PKM is known as “an evolving set of understandings, skills and abilities that allow an individual to survive and prosper in complex and changing organisational and social environments (Ismail et al., 2013).” In other words, professionals or experts have an individual responsibility for managing
…new information, integrate it, and enrich their individual knowledge database in an effective manner; doing this successfully will empower each individual to easily apply their own personal knowledge to deal with new and old problems, to learn from new experiences, and to create new knowledge… (Cheong & Tsui, p. 175).
The key is in the ‘doing this successfully’, but the question is: When are you doing PKM successfully in the process of learning? What does learning mean in that context? And what role can be attributed to Twitter or Facebook?
When looking at the arguments given on why Twitter or Facebook are great for supporting learning, it’s obvious that they (implicitly) involve various ‘levels’ of learning. For example, sharing information, discussions, or curation. And yes, we all know that there is a difference in ‘depth of learning’ between, for example, memorising something or analysing something.
However, when we look at the examples in more depth, they actually sound more as could be a potential for learning than anything else (all examples below more or less come from Jane Hart’s compilation top 100 tools for learning which lists Twitter as number 1 and Facebook as number 7). Two examples to start with: “access to smart people” and “sharing links and information”. So far so good but: how are these learning? Is learning like osmosis? Will rubbing up against “smart people” in some way magically transfer their knowledge to you? And furthermore, you could even argue that you can learn quite a bit from a ‘dumb’ person as from a ‘smart’ person. For example, there are enough links and information shared between anti-vaxxers and that doesn’t make their “knowledge” any more reliable than it isn’t! Other examples seem to make more sense, such as “building social networks between learners is critical”, as in creating an opportunity for learning. “Real-time chats” and “informal discussion” could lead to learning but not necessarily so. They could just as well be a waste of time, as in any event with respect to learning. “Curation” – the selection, preservation, maintenance, collection and archiving of digital assets – is mentioned as well. This is an excellent activity that could really help learning, but it takes place usually after using social media. Twitter or Facebook might be used to collect information and after that, it can be analysed and curated.
First, claiming that social media are great for PKM and learning because they give access to information and make it possible to easily share information is questionable because (A) information is not the same as knowledge and (B) the enormous sea of data that social media tools provide us with, means that we need to ‘listen’ to a lot of noise before we can ‘hear’ the information that is of value (also see our blog Lost in the Information Jungle). It is one of the big challenges in PKM (Cheong & Tsui, 2011). This doesn’t mean that Twitter or Facebook can’t be useful when trying to find specific information; for example, one can ask their community for answers on specific questions. However, we need to see that the learner needs to be skilled and focussed to be able to find specific information or the right people efficiently. It also doesn’t mean that there can’t be any accidental or serendipitous learning when browsing through your hopefully well-selected network. However, the time spent/win ratio is and will probably remain unknown.
Kirschner (2015) outlines a couple of reasons why Facebook might not be an ideal tool for discussion and knowledge construction and his arguments are as true for Twitter. First, people’s networks on Facebook have a tendency to consist of like-minded people, while to be able to argue and discuss, one needs contrasting opinions and points of view. The same goes for Twitter as you pick the people that you wish to follow. It is more likely that you decide to follow the people that you are impressed with or that you agree with than that you prefer to follow people that you strongly disagree with or are even annoyed with.
Also, Facebook only offers a ‘flat-structured’ discussion board. That is, they are not hierarchically organised. Kirschner explains that that is an issue because “…flat structured discussions require participants to read all postings to promote meta-cognition and self-regulated skills to achieve higher learning (p. 622).” This is probably even worse on Twitter because in real time it’s already hard work to follow a discussion (lots of scrolling, cognitive overload!) and afterwards it is not easy to go back to a discussion “thread” at all. In order to find the full discussion, you need to know the hashtag and that then needs to be specific enough so that you’ll only see the discussion thread and not all kinds of related topics.
Kirschner makes another point; a critical one to keep in mind for professionals. A big risk in using social media is that it can narrow the information vista instead of broadening it. This is essential to be aware of, especially as a professional. What you like and dislike can influence your self-created filter bubble; that is you are at risk of creating your own “unique universe of information” p. 623). And with that comes the risk of groupthink. So, instead of supporting professionals in their independent thinking and growth, social media might actually narrow and bias them.
Perhaps on Facebook or Twitter you could decide to refresh or reset the personal network once every so often, just like the recommendation to do so for an investment portfolio. Throw out the ones that gave you loads of profit and spread the risk by choosing new connections that might have a totally different opinion than your previous friend.
We are only half kidding. Of course a personal network is critical for many reasons. Trust is a big driver in keeping and nourishing professional connections. However, if it’s about true learning it is critical to challenge and to be willing to be challenged at all times. The last thing you need if your goal is to learn and grow is an army of “tagalongs”. Just look at Justin Bieber to see what an army of heel-lickers can do to your head.
Are we suggesting that Twitter and Facebook are useless in personal knowledge management? Or that you always need to formally instruct and assess learning in order to say that you have learned? Definitely not. Are we just curmudgeons trying to wipe all positivity and enthusiasm about Twitter and Facebook as both knowledge management and learning tools off the table? Not at all. We’re just critical of this hype and are trying to dig deeper and extract some real meaning from the crowd’s cheering (and also to temper that cheering a bit). And by the way, we happily use Twitter and Facebook as learning professionals ourselves. We often crowd-source to find information that we need and expand our horizons based upon the tweets and posts of people inside and outside of our networks. How they contribute to our PKM and how exactly they support our learning? We’re not sure. At least we feel confident that we are pretty far off from a crowd of Bieber-like lickspittles; far enough to keep us sane.
Cheong, R.K.F., & Tsui, E., (2011). From Skills and Competencies to Outcome-based Collaborative Work: Tracking a Decade’s Development of Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) Models. Knowledge and Process Management, 18, 175-193.
Ismail, S., Mohammed, Z., Nur Waheda, Y., & Ahmad, M.S., (2013). Personal Knowledge Management among Adult Learners: Behind the Scene of Social Network. International Journal of Social, Behavioral, Educational, Economic, Business and Industrial Engineering, 7, 302-308.
Kirschner, P., (2015). Facebook as a learning platform: Argumentation superhighway or dead-end street? Computers in Human Behavior, 53, 621-625.