A Social Learning Practitioner is a learning professional who encourages, enables and supports knowledge sharing and collaboration across their organisation – not just in training. He/she is a role model, leading the way by showing the business what it is to be social, and modelling the new knowledge sharing and collaboration practices that are required for the modern business to operate effectively in the modern world. Jane Hart
I’m a huge fan of social learning, working out loud, connecting with people on Twitter and other public social media platforms to share ideas and insights. But something has been niggling away at me since I happened across a post by Martin Weller on Friday. Martin is a professor in educational technology at the Open University and author of the Digital Scholar (one of the first texts to look at how digital technology might transform the practice of academics) in this post he discusses the ethics of digital scholarship (you can see the slideshare here). He focuses on practice in higher education but what he discusses has relevance for anyone working in learning and development who sees social learning having a greater role in the future of learning at work.
Martin writes of digital scholarship:
Like much of educational technology or open education, the tendency is often to promote it as an unqualified good, but, inevitably, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
He points out that well-rehearsed benefits of digital scholarship (greater collaboration, stronger and wider networks, equipping students with much-needed digital skills… ) have tended to overshadow some real ethical questions about expecting learners (in his scenario university students, in workplace learning our colleagues) to work out loud, to push themselves increasingly into the public sphere when learning.
Learning can be an intensely vulnerable process, where individuals confront their own abilities and learn new or different ways of doing things, sometimes failing or falling along the way. Forcing this process into the open enhances the vulnerability of our learners, is that ethical? What responsiblity do we have as ethical practitioners to ensure that social learning does not heighten vulnerability, leaving participants exposed and at risk? When we plan online communities, working out loud weeks or start using social media in development initiatives how many of us stop and think about the ethics of doing so? Or do we get so caught up in the process and our own love for that way of learning that we forget that not all of our audience might have the heart or resilience for it?
If we start building more and more open and public learning into workplace development activities (and to the workflow itself) how much leeway do we really leave people who don’t want to have a presence on social media, who might for a range of reasons be placing themselves at risk of harm from working out loud? Martin points to this post by George Siemens where Siemens describes that vulnerability beautifully:
Learning is vulnerability. When we learn, we make ourselves vulnerable. When we engage in learning, we communicate that we want to grow, to become better, to improve ourselves. When I first started blogging, I had a sense of fear with every post (“did that sound stupid?”), loss of sleep soul-searching when a critical comment was posted, and envy when peers posted something brilliant (“wow, why didn’t I think of that?”). When a student posts an opinion in a discussion forum or when someone offers a controversial opinion – these are vulnerability-inducing expressions. On a smaller scale, posting a tweet, sharing an image, or speaking into the void can be intimidating for a new user…While the learning process can’t be short-circuited, and the ambiguity and messiness can’t be eliminated, it is helpful for educators to recognize the social, identity, and emotional factors that influence learners.
I think the reason this post struck such a chord with me, and (honestly) left me slapping myself on the forehead, was that I spend a great deal of time and energy thinking about the ethics of social media in the context of research. Here we have been bemoaning the lack of strong ethical frameworks to protect research participants and researchers from the potential harm of their social media activity and engagement being used for research purpose or in the research process. We are developing frameworks which ask critical questions about informed consent, risk and rights to confidentiality and anonymity.
Where are those discussions in social learning or working out loud? That is an honest question because I can Google with the best of them and I haven’t found much yet. I have found discussions of the importance of trust in building communities of practice and of creating supportive organisational contexts for working out loud but I haven’t seen anything about the impact on the individual learner and our ethical responsibilities to each of them. I’m really hoping you’re going to prove me wrong, by commenting on this post and providing lots of links to where the L&D professsion is discussing this issue.
We have well-developed ethical frameworks for establishing coaching relationships, contracting is a common feature of action & peer learning sets as are community rules around behaviour and confidentiality for online communities of practice. But when we build a Yammer activity into a programme of development at work or ask people to blog about their learning where is the contracting and consent? Do we do assess the risk of the vulnerabilities this might cause? And whilst we say to people (or at least I hope we do) this aspect is voluntary (especially where it involves being active in public social media networks) how voluntary is it really?
Playing devil’s advocate, when we talk about selling the benefits of social learning, or creating a cultural shift, a critical mass, are we really just creating a huge amount of peer pressure on people to learn in a certain way, in an open space? If we’re making it part of our workplace learning activities what are the risks to colleagues of being seen not to participate? Whilst we work hard to be more social are we taking time to discuss the implications of being present in different digital domains? Trolling is rarely out of the news these days, do we support our learners to understand safe digital practices? These are issues highlighted in a recent report by Helen Beetham & David White about student expectations and experience of the digital environment in universities:
A related concern students have is being pushed too fast towards the public spaces of the open web, in the name of borderless classrooms or third space learning. They understand that this is somewhere they need to develop a presence, but they also see university as safe space where they can play and fail, try out new ways of expressing themselves and new identities.
I don’t have all the answers by any means but one thing I do know is that as a practitioner I have professional responsibility to start thinking more about this. And just like in social media research there will be things we can do, frameworks we can develop, practices we can support which will minimise risks to participants and create safe digitial spaces and behaviours. In fact, as I’ve found with our network of researchers using social media, there is probably already loads of excellent ethical practice out there. But I think much of it is implicit in the way we work with others and design programmes or initiatives and I think we need to start having that discussion explicitly.
Having an ethical conscience shouldn’t mean we stop being social or using social learning approaches but it should mean we are able to have that conversation out loud. So I’m starting one here, tell me how you’ve managed the ethics of social learning and working out loud, when you wanted to equip your colleagues with digital skills how did you negotiate the ethical risks of learning in the open, let’s see what we come up with…