Social Media as a Learning Environment

Social media is essentially an interactive technology that supports two learning dynamics: learning from and learning with.  The general view of it as a communication tool that lets us add to and listen to the global, unstructured data stream emphasizes the “learning from” dynamic:

  • When you read a blog entry that tells about an experience someone had with your company or industry, you learn something from that entry,
  • When you read a Facebook wall, you learn something from it,
  • When you read the twitter stream, you learn something from it, and
  • When you post to these media, people learn something from your post.

The environmental movement can teach us something about data streams.  If they’re polluted with hostility toward your products you can’t have a lasting effect by cleaning them up as they flow by.  You need to get to their source.  And if a data stream sparkles with good impressions of your brand, you can’t maintain that purity unless you protect the source.

That source is the deeper personal convictions and sensibilities that are built over time as people construct meaning from their experiences.

“Learning with” environments create and change those perceptions from the inside out because they “empower learners to design their own representations of knowledge rather than absorbing representations preconceived by others.” (

In a paper (ibid) associated with his keynote address at the 1999 ED-MEDIA conference, Thomas Reeves of the University of Georgia discussed learning “from” computers as instructors and learning “with” computers to construct knowledge:

“research indicates that various interactive technologies are effective … to learn both ‘from’ and ‘with.’ … Preliminary findings suggest that in the long run, constructivist approaches may have more potential to enhance …learning than instructivist models (Jonassen & Reeves, 1996). In other words, the real power … may only be realized when people actively use computers as cognitive tools rather than simply interact with them as tutors or data repositories.”

(Cognitive tools are “artificial devices that maintain, display, or operate upon information in order to serve a representational function and that affect human cognitive performance.” (

Because social media can function as cognitive tools, they can “support the deep reflective thinking that is necessary for meaningful learning.” (ibid)

“Learning with” social media is more demanding and complex than “learning from” social media. It would be great if a system of bots that monitors and reacts to the twitter stream, Facebook walls and the Blogosphere could actually change deep seated beliefs about your company and give you true insights into your customers and other stakeholders.

Unfortunately, educational theory and practice don’t support that fantasy.  “Learning from” can reconfigure weak connections into opportunities but is powerless to effect lasting change because it operates on the surface of consciousness.

Only an environment in which everyone learns with mutual curiosity and wonder can create the shared knowledge which is an essential basis for the compromises and adjustments that form the foundation of strong and lasting relationships.

A complete social media strategy should combine “learning from” components that harvest the weak connections from the data stream and “learning with” components that construct the robust connections that form a shared understanding at the deeper source.  Here are some guidelines for developing and implementing such a strategy:

  • Your “Learning with” component should involve everyone because:
    • Participation is the only way to stay engaged, and
    • It’s not about you learning from them or them learning from you.  It’s about building a cognitive common ground that includes new, different and deeper knowledge than either of you had about yourselves and each otherYour “learning from” component should monetize the meaningful relationships and deep connections you develop by “learning with.”  People who are listening for you and receptive to your message are the low hanging fruit who need to learn about opportunities that resonate with them.
  • You may “learn with” a different group than you learn “from.”  For instance, you might focus on developing deep and meaningful connections with thought leaders because they can leverage what they “learn with” you into the market.
  • “Learning with” and “learning from” require different metrics.  Subjective, social metrics are more appropriate ways to evaluate the former and objective, financial metrics are more appropriate for the latter.
  • Construct your social media environment from the bottom up, not the top down because “The source of the tasks or problems to which cognitive tools are applied should be learners, guided by … other resources”  See my separate blog post “Use social media to plan your social media strategy”

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