Informal technology: social learning

Those who know me well are familiar with my tendency to anthropomorphise technology, to assign it with traits and personality: my car has a name and distinctly mischievous identity. Some technology is ‘friendly‘, whilst other is far more formal. Even if you don’t go as far as naming your car (i may be in a minority, but I’m not alone), we do tend to view some technology as ‘social‘ and other, ‘serious‘. We ‘put away our laptop’ to symbolise going offline on a friday night (although we may remain connected on a phone).

Partly it’s about usability, partly design, partly purpose. My Dell laptop is solidly built, used exclusively for work and decidedly unfriendly: my iPad is cool, used creatively and very social. It’s social in terms of how i use it: to share photos, to collaborate, to create. Like many people, i have a ‘work‘ phone and a ‘personal‘ one. I even speak to the same people on both devices: dependant upon what we are talking about. Maybe it’s just an attempt to maintain some distinction between ‘work‘ and ‘social‘ in a world where the distinction is increasingly blurred? The ‘work‘ or ‘social‘ nature of a call may be determined by device or topic.

I have separate email accounts too: work, personal, and i use different language in both, different stances. Technology divides into formal and social, and we sometimes differentiate behaviours accordingly. It’s not necessarily a strict divide: my car i use for work and play, but some things are clearly divided, such as my use of laptop (work), iMac (creative) and Xbox (play!).

As learning becomes more mobile and more social, it tends to creep across devices and spaces. Whilst i used to have to actively choose to reach out and access the formal work network, increasingly it reaches out to me with push notifications, emails and social media ‘shout outs‘. The occasional lack of clarity as to whether one is having a formal or informal encounter, a social or work conversation or interaction, can be challenging. The tendency of social media to aggregate and reuse content can also be an issue: yesterday i found myself moderating a witty comment i was going to post on Yammer, in response to a friend. I realised that, within the internal coherence of our relationship it was amusing, but Yammer would aggregate it into an email to all registered users, many of whom wouldn’t get the joke.

My social comment would have become a formal communication.

I do believe that there is value in maintaining a divide between formal and social: i still keep Facebook as my firmly social channel and have separate Twitter accounts. I don’t want the line to blur too far.

So there are formal and social technologies, or the same technology can slip between formal and social depending upon context. There are formal and social relationships, although relationships can flip between the two, and there are risks when communications or interactions cross over: formal to social, work to personal. It’s not that it’s always bad, just that it can embarrass or alarm us, worst case, harm us.

As we increasingly use social technologies and spaces in learning, redefining he notions of ‘work‘ and ‘office‘, not to mention the meaning of community and collaboration, we must ensure that this is a conversation, not a monologue.

It’s ok for people to choose to engage in the social space, but it must be on their terms. We can’t impose formal conversations in informal spaces, even though the technology allows us to do that. It’s ok that I can’t update the Flash player on my work laptop without help from an admin support: i don’t take it personally, i just adapt and use a more social and sociable technology instead. I take a social solution to a formal problem: it’s not me that wanted to be in that formal space anyway.

Engagement in social learning spaces must be on technologies that are social and for conversations that are semi formal. That’s not to say that we have to get people to name their phone, but it does mean that it must be accessible on a social device, not just the work PC. Just yesterday i tried to access some content, produced by a marketing team for sharing, but hidden behind a decidedly formal security layer. No chance of that going viral!

So, social learning should be founded upon informal technologies or, at the very least, accessible on them. Conversations should be semi formal, and aligned to the channel. We can’t subsume semi formal channels for formal messaging: that will just drive the real conversations elsewhere.

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About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
This entry was posted in Accessibility, Collaboration, Community, Conformity, Connections, Control, Creative, Facebook, Formal Learning Spaces, Informal Learning Spaces, Informal Spaces, Social Learning, Social Networking, Spaces, Yammer and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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