Online Social Learning Communities: Necessary but not Sufficient

As the Digital Era progresses, professionals at all levels and career stages need to develop and maintain a core set of digital competencies. These competencies can be developed informally, through online social learning communities, but they must also be developed through formal education and training programs. Academic and other organizational leaders must recognize that it is in their own best interests to make bridging the new (and expanding) digital divide a strategic and tactical priority.

In 5 Ways Social Learning Communities Transform Culture and Leadership, Meghan Biro asserts that "we are seeing the beginnings of an online social movement which will enhance traditional classroom education and breathe new life into the world of work" and describes some of the shifts behind this movement:

  1. Online learning communities are challenging the value of academic ‘brands’.
  2. Online learning communities have leveled the financial playing field and advantaged learners, not purveyors of degrees.
  3. Online learners are empowered, and they will change your culture.
  4. Leaders are born and made.
  5. Online social learning communities are changing the value of employer brands.

I love the term "online social learning communities," which aptly describes the focus of the two digital communities I have founded: Social Media in Organizations (SMinOrgs) and the Global Center for Digital Era Leadership (GCDEL). Like many early adopters, my knowledge of new technologies was informally acquired, through my own efforts - and mostly through cyberspace. As I've learned, I've shared that knowledge and expertise with others and have facilitated their ability to share as well. But as valuable as my informal learning has been, I know it's not for everyone. In fact, it's not for most people. I deal with digital rookies all the time, and I can personally attest to how challenging it is for them to develop and execute a self-directed learning plan. Many of them don't even know where to start. I've explored the new Digital Divide and the need for Digital Era competencies, and I don't believe we have the luxury of time for people to be self taught. The situation is becoming too urgent.

I've recently started talking about the flaws in our LIY (learn it yourself) approach to skill development. As Meghan notes, organizations are reluctant to invest in training and developing their staffs - and when it comes to digital skills in particular, there's a prevailing assumption that people can figure things out on their own. They can't - and they don't - which creates tremendous inefficiencies and diminished effectiveness. This is as true for so-called Digital Natives as it is for Digital Immigrants.

Many early adopters and social technology mavens scoff at the notion of formal education and training in maximizing the use of new technologies. I've addressed that issue too, arguing that though formal learning is not a substitute for experience, it does lay an effective foundation that enables people to climb their learning curves faster and better.

The bottom line, as Meghan alludes to, is balance. We need both formal and informal learning, in whatever combination makes the most sense for an individual and an organization. The key, though, is to recognize and respect that learning MUST be a priority. If nothing else, enlightened self-interest should compel leaders to make it an operational priority.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

- Courtney Shelton Hunt, PhD


Related Resources

The New Digital Divide: Thoughts for Leaders and Laggards

Digital Era Competencies: How Do You Stack Up?

Social Media Education and Training: Pro or Con? Please Discuss…

Social Media Education & Training: Where We Are. Where We’re Go...

A Master’s Degree Specialization in Social Media & Online Commu...

What's Your Social Media Sophistication? The SMQ (version III)

For even more resources, check out slides 35-42 from my closing Impact99 keynote, The Road Forward: Striving for Balance. More recent pieces can be found in the November and December blog archives.

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