I'm a voracious learner. In addition to reading magazines, books, blogs, tweets, and faces, I persistently look for patterns, connections, anomalies and what's new. I tolerated school only because it was where my friends were and because occasionally I could talk with adults who seemed to know a bit about topics that might someday matter.
The Internet's debut seemed better suited for my unmitigating curiosity. The sites I tunneled to represented people with knowledge and perspective I could learn from around the clock. My brainspan soared. Still, I knew there was more, locked inside people's heads, unfolding in the little moments between the times they took to post something profound.
Although my professional life often focuses on helping organizations understand learning across generations, my personal time is spent testing my theories in my own social environment, with my colleagues, with my family, and sometimes with those in line at the market or boarding a plane.
My real-world lab validates ample research people are learning from one another all the time. While we learn some details, theorems, and history from people who are school teachers, corporate trainers and college professors, more than 75% of what we learn comes from experiences outside of any formal education program and from people we know outside the walls of any class.
It was from this perspective I felt disoriented as a perspective client used Compete Inc.'s analysis of what people do on Facebook as proof (proof?) it's not a place where people learn. The manager was echoing nonsense I hear from educators and business people alike who argue social networking does not constitute learning and that a platform like Facebook is too immature to foster authentic education.
Is it even possible to look through a personal profile or status update and not at least learn something? Do people still believe only big heavy formal intentional topics count?
A highschool student sees what his friends did last weekend. A college student reads about and then signs on to a rebuilding trip in a hurricane-damaged city. A genNext employee discovers a conference where she can market the company. A boomer businessman finds a group of fellow entrepreneurial spirits. And a parent watches over her children without intruding into their lives. Each finds a place and a space on Facebook to learn.
Facebook provides a compelling outlet for people who enjoy learning, and it helps those seeking something else to accidentally and informally learn along the way.
As we build relationships with other people, we tap into their networks of knowledge and sense, creating learning webs, making our compound knowledge more valuable than compound interest.
If you're still of the mindset that social media doesn't foster deep or wide learning, consider Tom Kosnik, who teaches Global Entrepreneurial Marketing in the Stanford Technology Ventures Program and has given Facebook a pivotal place in his work on the Global Leaders, Entrepreneurs, and Altruists Network (GLEAN). Although the network was launched in 1993, not until Facebook was there an infrastructure to help team members across the globe work together for the common good.
Facebook has enabled:
1. Large numbers of members to meet one another individually.
2. Rapid survey research among the extended network.
3. Recent graduates to connect with employers looking for talent.
4. Organizing live learning events around the world.
Still not concrete enough for you? Medical Central is Elsevier's community of medical students, researchers and professionals who come together on Facebook to share resources and exchange ideas. Posting videos of surgical procedures and blogs with breaking medical news, participants also learn together using more traditional medical textbooks and medical journals in modern ways.
Or how about the work of Hal Richman, who started the Convergence of Social and Business Networking group on Facebook to explore the learning he was seeing all around him. Early on he conducted a survey and 81% of group members said they like to merge their social and business worlds and 93% said they expected or aspired to meet people they will network and collaborate in the future. One qualitative response captured the essence of many others with, "It is important that business contacts get to see the real you. In that way you present a more rounded and credible personality who is more likely to engage others." Discussion topics were thoughtful and revealing, helping me as a group member to learn about how others were grappling with important emergent themes.
When Kimberly Samaha of the Bordeaux Energy Colloquium launched the Facebook group Sustainable Energy Futures to promote energy advances in developing nations, she hoped to gain the same sort of momentum as the Convergence group, and as a member of it too, she linked the two. Using some of the native capabilities of Facebook she introduced us to innovations in solar, biomass and hydro energy, not something many of the people in our group would or could have easily done on their own.
Young people are making these leaps, too.
A study of kids 9-17 by Grunwald Associates showed those using social network sites like Facebook are using social tools collaboratively, creatively, with specific project outcomes in mind, and they develop more complex and learning-related skills as their purposes change.
That probably plays well at Amherst College where only 1% of first-year students have landlines, and 99% have Facebook accounts.
I'm not advocating Facebook be used as a full-fledged classroom replacement system (yet) with all the bells, whistles, distractions, and seclusion those spaces afford. I'm also not so certain I've seen any one of those garner the, "getting to know one another first" authenticity that fosters face-to-face-quality trust that mitigates posturing. I'll likely update my stance as new Facebook applications fill gaps and make the software a functional formal learning platform.
The power of the social graph (your social network and more) is that we observe people in new contexts, we reconnect in a visceral way with old friends and we see the potential for mobilizing like-minds for learning, amusement and even social good.
It's time educators and business people embrace Facebook as part of a larger learning ecosystem supporting distributed learning, in real-time, for real-life, and rather than continue to talk about all that it's not, consider all the advantages looking us in the face today.
Interested in learning more, visit my new group What are you learning on Facebook.