In the midst of the Digital Age, we have instant access to knowledge that was once difficult or impossible to find. “Just Google it”: a modern day mantra. Social media discussions have become a common way to obtain information. Relying on listservs to share information among a community of practitioners has evolved into launching social media networks. Educators, however, would argue that “informal learning”, although important, has several missing components that will ensure social media platforms remain the domain of the member services/free benefits department, while formal education efforts remain the domain of the association education directors; and a source of non-dues revenue.  A post by Ellen Behrens on the aLearning Blog inspired me to share the importance of formal education in an association’s mission to teach. Creating a learning environment that fosters instructional education by providing learning activities and resources that go beyond the information you can simply “Google” or find on a discussion platform is vital to a quality learning experience. She quotes Elliott Masie, internationally-recognized elearning futurist, analyst, and researcher, who said, “It’s not the information, but our ability to use or apply the information, that truly counts.”  I might add that it is also the credential attained by achieving certain formal educational milestones that truly counts towards a member’s career.  I.e. resume contains completed formal learning achievements vs. I learned how to manage a team via posts found on the XYZ member’s social media platform.

What is the role of social media in education?

It could be argued that any member of an association could be just as qualified to teach and recommend industry best practices as the association-ordained “subject matter expert”  and that they should have a platform on which to do so. That perhaps the best way to get information now is to have all the members in a forum post out a thread and gather all the collective knowledge and allow members to decide on the best and most applicable information. That peer to peer connection is the best form of informally acquiring meaningful and actionable knowledge.  Generally, however, these volunteer member experts have the time to only briefly answer a question or suggest a resource.

No question, interaction on social media sites have their place. Listservs have been a popular and valued tool of communities of practice for decades.  Members connecting with members is a way to gain knowledge; they can function as a collective group of teachers or mentors. And discussion chatter like the chat string connected to a webinar is great to have as an additional educational tool. That said, this current fade towards installing white label social media platforms will not replace an association’s well-planned educational offerings anymore than YouTube will replace the community college.  I do not think more members are participating in association discussions just because they are posted on the association’s members only site as compared to participation on the good 0ld fashion listserv.  Participation is mostly motivated by a personal need to know or current policy issue basis.  Most importantly, there is a difference between the value of collected information in a discussion thread and planned instructional activities, testing and the resulting diploma, certificate, designation or credential.

Is this information really education?

As explained by Behrens, the difference between information and informational training is that information is the content basis for informational training. A manual of best practices for her hypothetical Association of Campground Owners and Managers (ACOM) is just information until it is incorporated into a training manual that not only provides best practices, but interactive, step-by-step instructions that help the learner come to a conclusion on how to incorporate those best practices recommendations into their own work. The same explanation can be applied to the collective knowledge acquired through discussion threads. There is value in members sharing information among a group of similar practitioners, but its true value does not come to life until it is incorporated into a formal educational endeavor moderated by an educator with learning objectives and grading rubric in hand.

What is a good educational experience?

In my view, education is about a formal effort to engage a learner in an exercise of intellectual strength training. In other words, “information” is like playing a round of golf and thinking you got some exercise, while formal instruction is the equivalentof an intense cardio workout. Time and effort is the main difference.

Associations should promote these educational workouts that ensure teaching and learning are taking place. This happens in the eLearning space with the help of a learning management system and well designed learning activities that equal in Behrens words “informational training.” All the better if the course offered online is led by an instructor that is fully utilizing the features of the learning management system. And yes, this includes the guided use of the good old-fashioned discussion thread. Social media platform not required (Full disclosure: My company offers a learning management system for associations called CourseStage).

Providing more than information requires that instructional designers assemble strong online learning activities. Remember the challenges involved in designing a good live workshop? Today’s challenge is to build online learning activities that encourage learners to connect the new knowledge they are acquiring with what they do on the job. Increasing levels of interactivity have a direct, correlative relationship with higher levels of learning. This is to say that designing a course that challenges the learner to interact and connect segments of information improves learning effectiveness far better than information memorization. It moves the learner up into the higher levels of critical thinking as described in Bloom’s Taxonomy such as analysis, synthesis and evaluation.  This  begins with the creation of lesson learning objectives and test questions.  It ends with finding ways to get learners to apply what they are learning to their careers and to their on the job, day to day activities.  The primary goal is to motivate learners with a strong product and a compelling “carrot and stick”.  It is also important that communities of practice communicate expected core competencies and provide the products to achieve competency.

Having an up to date Learning Management System is a mandatory component of offering formal education to members. Assuming that association education directors are investing in interactive online activities that stand alone, the learning management system can also provide quick, formal activities that enhance strong learner involvement. In fulfilling an association’s mission to teach, a learning management system should be able to provide learning paths, adaptive learning, tests, content related surveys and a learning journal that together create a substantial, formal, educational product that members are willing to pay for.

While social media can function as a component of an association’s communication and information transfer, it should not over shadow or replace the role of formal educational products.