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Face to Facebook Learning

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.

Another Stanford professor BJ Fogg, from the Persuasive Technology Lab, teaches a course called The Psychology of Facebook where Facebook provides an integral part of the coursework itself.

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.


Marcia Conner >> >> @marciamarcia

Add New Comment


  • Jay Cross

    Kathy Gill sets up and attacks a straw man when she writes that “Facebook ...should be used for its strengths, as a complement to learning. Not a tool for the sake of the tool.” It seems to me that Marcia’s very point is that Facebook can be an ideal complement to learning, so why not open our minds to using it that way?

    As to the statement that “I don’t believe that online interaction can be an effective substitute for offline interaction,” no one is claiming otherwise. However, just because I don’t learn as much from reading a book as from talking with its author in person, I’m not going to give up on books. Online interaction is swell but it doesn’t scale, it’s extremely expensive, and it’s beyond the reach of most learners.

    By the way, no one’s claiming that training and learning are synonymous. Marcia’s first reference is to my book, Informal Learning: Rediscovering the Natural Pathways that Inspire Innovation and Performance. The book cites numerous studies that have found most workplace learning takes place outside of classrooms and formal events. Here’s a relevant excerpt.

  • kathy gill

    I have to argue -- or at last contextualize -- with this assertion: "...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."

    (1) The source cited (also written by the author) references a 1994 study that focuses *specifically* on job-related **training**. "Training" and "learning" are not synonymous. That said, the learning that takes place in the workplace is only one subset of all "learning". [Original study:]

    (2) Given that formal education accounts for less and less of one's life experience as one ages ... I'd certainly hope that non-formal education contributes more to "things learned" as we grow older! If it doesn't, then something's wrong.

    I teach. I teach university students how technology shapes society and how society in turn shapes technology. I help students manage their digital identities. I encourage them to use non-traditional methods of demonstrating learning (something other than a "research paper").

    But I don't believe that online interaction can be an effective substitute for offline interaction. Facebook is a tool. So is Twitter. So are mailing lists. So is Slashdot. So is WetPaint. Even though they are all communities of practice, they aren't the same kind of tool -- and each should be used for its strengths, as a complement to learning. Not a tool for the sake of the tool.

  • Tim Walker

    Good piece, Marcia. I'm reminded of something that Jaroslav Pelikan wrote -- before the Internet had swept through the halls of academia -- in "The Idea of the University." He said that undergrads learned from professors, peers, and books in roughly 1/3 increments.

    Seems to me that the 1/3 that traces to peers (plus some of the professor stuff, plus some of book stuff) translates beautifully to Facebook. And when we step *outside* the university setting . . . boom.

  • Michael Staton

    Hi Marcia,

    I've been thinking about this for some time, probably way more than most.

    A little over a year and a half ago, I sat down for dinner with Dave Morin, Platform Manager at Facebook, and told him I wanted to create tools for education on Platform. Since then, he and FB have been more than enthusiastic, they've been evangelists for what out company Inigral and what other companies and developers have been doing on Facebook towards education.

    Many people are prudent to think that Facebook is a social utility and not a learning utility. That's why we've created Schools on Facebook at Inigral as a private, secure application designed to accelerate and build reltionships in the academic context.

    There are more than several applications focused on managing learning content, including our Courses application, and I'm excited to watch them over the next few years.

    Be in touch.

    Michael Staton