Imagine a technology course that not only puts learners and collaboration rather than technology at its center, but also creates a potentially sustainable community of learners, and you’ll be well on the way to facilitating measurable learning successes. Case in point: Social Media Basics, a four-week online course for staff working in libraries in the United States and other countries at ALA (American Library Association) Editions.

The goals for this course were straightforward. My ALA Editions colleagues and I wanted to help learners with little or no experience using social media tools actively incorporate them into their day-to-day work. We also wanted to help learners create something sustainable, such as social media discussion groups that would continue to serve as learning resources and communities of learning for them long after the course ended.

Most important, we wanted to be able to show that what participants learned found its way into their workplaces in a meaningful way. Comments from some of the learners themselves suggest we hit our targets by building a course that modeled the behavior we were attempting to inspire.

Getting social with fellow learners

Although it will surprise no one that we had a high level of interactivity in this asynchronous course, it’s worth noting that our online exchanges were far from burdensome or pedantic. The tools facilitated communication and learning rather than serving as an impediment.

To show how easy it is to participate in productive online asynchronous exchanges, we started with a standard course bulletin board that encouraged the learners to help each other with learning challenges and to share online resources they discovered. Their discussions jumped from the formal course bulletin board into the other platforms week by week as we explored Twitter, then Facebook, then LinkedIn, and finally Google+ and Google+ Hangouts.

Learners worked together in Twitter by using a standard hashtag drawn from the name of the course. They moved some of those conversations into a private Facebook discussion group during the second week of the course, while retaining the course bulletin board as a common anchor for completing some of the course assignments and exploring issues of interest to all the learners. Discussions continued at a different level during the third week through postings in a LinkedIn discussion group that matched what was used in Facebook and Twitter. Their final social media explorations, within Google+ and Google+ Hangouts, continued the practice of using a branded group name that they incorporated into their Google+ circles.

Learners immediately connected what they were learning to what they were doing in their libraries. They forged connections by liking each other’s libraries within Facebook. They also used the course discussion board and the various social media tools to facilitate frank conversations about the advantages and disadvantages of using each social media tool at work. Throughout their time together, learners engaged in a level of reflective thinking that served both to deepen their understanding of how social media platforms function, as well as to engage in significant levels of weekly rather than solely end-of-course evaluations that produced minor course adjustments during the four weeks they worked together.

Their final activities of the course included postings about how their perceptions and misperceptions about social media had changed or remained the same, providing yet another opportunity for them to see that the tools were secondary to the results the learners produced while using those tools. Best of all was the report from one learner, less than 24 hours after the course had ended, that she had used one of the tools—a Google+ Hangout—to help an offsite colleague learn how to use Google+ Hangouts and Facebook at work. She noted that the 15-minute session was not only enjoyable, but also tremendously efficient; without that Hangout, she would have spent at least 15 minutes simply traveling from her library to her colleague’s library before beginning to help her colleague.

It is worth noting that the initial version of the entire four-week course was available to learners on the day the course formally opened. Discussions focused on their own learning needs and experiences, and they soon discovered that they were first-rate resources for each other in their learning process, as well as long-term resources for professional resource-sharing through the tools they were exploring.

Another important part of our approach is that I rarely took the role of being an advocate for social media tools. Instead, my role was as guide, helping them explore how the tools could serve them in their work. I took a light hand in facilitating their discussions, and happily watched as they adopted the tools that best supported their needs.

Finally, another critically important decision we made, in an effort to help learners create a cohesive online presence for themselves and the libraries they serve, was to encourage branding (using the same photograph, avatar, or icon in all social media accounts, and using a consistent group name for ourselves in the various social media platforms). Using a consistent course hashtag or group name that seamlessly crossed and connected platforms was part of the framework that created a bit of consistency in the otherwise often chaotic world of social media tools.

Collaborating with fellow designers

Every step of the design process was driven by a commitment to collaboration, accessibility, and sustainability—which are at the heart of all social media tools. My colleagues at ALA Editions and I, for example, collaborated throughout the writing of the course; the learners collaborated through their interactions with me and with each other, helping facilitate adjustments while the course was in progress. Indeed, the learners displayed a willingness to contribute substantial periods of time into their learning process.

In developing the course, ALA Editions Online Learning Manager Dan Freeman and I initially settled on a broad-based outline that included

  • course goals with measurable objectives
  • a commitment to using a variety of information resources (for example, typed lectures that learners could read and work with them on their own schedule,  with plenty of links to online resources, including videos and instruction sheets)
  • discussions and tweaking of ideas and materials that continued throughout the planning and delivery of the course.

Personally, I was online at least twice each day on weekdays to answer questions and facilitate conversations within the course bulletin boards, as well as within the other social media discussion groups. I also checked in on weekends as time allowed. The result, as expected, was not only a high level of engagement among the learners, but also positive comments from those who had approached their first online learning experience with the apprehension (and misperceptions) that it would somehow be much less fun and rewarding than their best face-to-face learning experiences had been. 

As someone who consistently draws upon ADDIE (Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation) and other models to produce transformative learning experiences designed to serve learners, organizations, and customers equally, I value the results produced through collaboration at all levels. Working with colleagues at ALA Editions to design and deliver courses, including Social Media Basics, is consistently as much a learning experience as it is an opportunity to push the limits of what we usually find in online courses.

Indeed, continual just-in-time learning was one of the key elements to our successes. There was never a moment when learning stopped for any of us, and there was never a moment when we completely locked the course down. [The course bulletin board forums and other content remain available as resources to the learners.]

For instance, we made a major adjustment in terms of content halfway through the initial writing of the course, which meant I had to learn and become comfortable with a social media tool I hadn’t previously used. Furthermore, during the second week of the course, I returned to one of the tools—Facebook—and expanded the use of our private discussion group to invite a few colleagues into the discussion, thereby, offering learners the unexpected opportunity to discuss course readings and videos with the very people who had written, produced, and posted them online in various places. That, more than anything else, seemed to be the moment when several of the learners realized how effectively social media tools can facilitate professional connections with an immediacy and ease of use unimaginable even a few years ago.

Embracing flexibility and spontaneity

Because I’m a firm believer that spontaneity is equally important in learning and in the use of social media tools, I watched for opportunities to bring this idea viscerally to the attention of the learners throughout the course.

  • When we explored Twitter, we took advantage of existing online groups including #lrnchat (for those involved in workplace learning and performance) as well as #libchat (a discussion group for anyone working in libraries, as all of our Social Media Basics learners do).
  • When we explored Facebook, we created and used that invitation-only discussion group that allowed learners to interact with each other and with those colleagues whose work we were absorbing through blog postings, YouTube videos, and articles they had posted online.
  • When we explored LinkedIn, we worked with a newly-created discussion group so learners could see the differences between a closed (Facebook) group and a semi-public forum along the lines of what LinkedIn provides. 
  • When we reached those Google+ Hangouts, at least a few of the learners attempted to move their conversations into that platform—both to continue discussions begun in the other platforms and, in one of the finest examples of quick transition between classroom learning and actual workplace application, to use a Google+ Hangout as the delivery vehicle for workplace learning reaching people who had not taken the course.

The course, for all its flexibility, also offered a clear structure—the opportunity to explore one tool each week in depth; to use that tool to communicate with other learners in the course; and to look for ways to apply the lessons to the learners’ workplaces. It also allowed each learner to focus on what that individual deemed most important. Not every learner explored or used every tool with equal levels of engagement, However, the act of reaching colleagues via a course bulletin board provided everyone with a common learning sandbox where they could file away ideas for continuing explorations long after the course ended—with the knowledge that classmates would remain informally available to each other through the accounts and forums we established within the various social media tools.

Understanding lessons learned 

In a social media course, expect to rewrite and update materials up to the last possible moment. It is simply the nature of the content. For example, in our case, Facebook was replacing its Wall with its Timeline as the course was being written, so we had to scramble a bit to keep the online lectures up to date. Likewise, Google+ also went through a minor change—days before the course began—in the way information was displayed. The good news was that by adopting a commitment to transparency (and letting learners see that even their instructor had to scramble a bit to keep up) gave all of us a good up-close opportunity to see some of the challenges we all face in learning, using, and showing others how to use tools that can quickly and with little advance notice change from one moment to the next. 

As if to prove that those of us facilitating learning are often the greatest learners, I walked away with an insight one of the learners provided in her final reflections on what the course provided: “Trained as an anthropologist, I see your role as someone who not only explores new tools, but expands their use, and shares that knowledge with others in a creative way. What a great thing to do!” 

If that helps all of us as trainer-teacher-learners to see yet another important aspect to what we so often provide, then “Social Media Basics” will have produced far more than any of us anticipated when the course was in its earliest stages of development.