The ethics of social learning and working out loud


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…






34 thoughts on “The ethics of social learning and working out loud

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  4. Wow – what a thought-provoking post. I retired fairly recently but I did work for several years with UK Y1 undergraduates on a module called Emerging Technologies that had a lacing of digital literacies as well as other practical elements that related to the role of digital within their degree subject areas. We did expose students to some theory and a broader range of examples within lectures. We also used teaching and assessment case studies to construct stories within which students could integrate knowledge and experience. Our approach to ‘working out loud’ was not to invade their online social spaces but to encourage students to work face to face in small groups to understand and possibly critique their online practices. So imagine a room with small groups of students clustered around a laptop, exploring eg each other’s visibility on FB from Google. This seemed like a safe setting to explore private/ public and other issues in an authentic context. Sometimes students edited their FB privacy settings within the session. Although the context was a UK university we were fortunate enough to have a fairly good mix of white working class, middle class, British Asian, other european and a few middle-eastern students. This mix enhanced the discussions.


  5. wow, love this post. Thanks for bringing up those questions. I have always had this niggling feeling that I need to be asking them but have never brought those thoughts to the surface as you have. I do know that colleagues who are not “open” educators and not as connected have them in mind much better than I, because they have those concerns over the vulnerability for themselves, even. Not just their students. I hope that we can raise the questions you ask during the connected courses MOOC starting next month. There is a week on trust, etc., and I think it’s important to bring in your viewpoint here about these issues. There are quite a few facilitators in that MOOC who might help


    • Thanks for taking time to comment Maha, it would be an interesting question to ask during your MOOC. I think there’s lots of creative & ethical work being done in the open space so it’s great to be having this discussion out there too.


  6. I want to add my thanks to you for raising these issues, which I think are important and relevant. In our enthusiasm for all things social it is good to think about the factors that may hold some people back from participating and may be real concerns.

    You got me thinking about the value of enabling people to test out Working Out Loud and collaborating socially in ‘safe’ environments such as in in-house learning networks and through networks associated with particular learning programmes eg via a VLE. Whilst this may lead to a reduction in the opportunities for wider networking and serendipity, it may give some an opportunity to test out these behaviours, work through the etiquette issues and perhaps later spread their wings.

    Another thought your post raised was the ethical issue of unwittingly exposing another person through sharing your own Working Out Loud, particularly when your work involves other people, rather than learning a skill such as cup-cake making. It is easy to avoid naming names, but harder sometimes to say something meaningful and relevant without the risks of sharing details of an interaction which may cause the other people involved to feel that their ‘information’ has been shared publicly.


    • Hi Rachel, thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, I’ve seen people who were vehemently opposed to ‘social’ ways of working turned round 360 degrees in the safe environments you mention so I totally agree. They went on to step confidently into a more public place when they were ready. It’s just being mindful isn’t it. Thanks again.


  7. Thought-provoking post, Kandy.
    You conclude that having an ethical conscience shouldn’t mean we stop using social learning approaches; I agree, but of course the reverse is also true. Enterprise social networking and working out loud need not violate anyone’s ethics either. In fact, the organisation’s code of conduct and other HR policies would (should?) go a long way to preventing that.
    Your observation about the vulnerability of learning is a timely reminder that yes, we in L&D are sometimes too quick to judge. I plead guilty!
    Having said that, I think there is a key difference in the corporate environment that has a bearing on this discussion. That is: the employee has an obligation to collaborate with his or her employees to achieve the business goals of the organisation. (This is my personal POV; others will not agree and may shout me down.) Obviously working out loud is a means of doing this.
    Picking up on Anne Marie’s point on walled gardens, can the question be flipped? Is it unethical for an employee *not* to work out loud?


    • Thanks for taking the time to read and comment Ryan. I think there is a difference between expecting staff to work out loud within a walled garden and in a public social media space and I agree that a decent orgl. framework should mitigate against ‘compelling’ someone to do the latter. I do think you can be collaborative within a team or project without necessarily working out loud to a wider audience. I’m not advocating that or suggesting that showing your work is a bad thing, I’m a strong advocate of it. I think if everyone practised a range of working out loud then most orgs would be better off so I certainly feel I should advocate for it & support others to find ways of doing that they be comfortable with. But I want to be mindful in doing that. I disagree respectfully with your last point but the world would be a less interesting one if we all agreed all the time!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have no problem with respectful disagreement :0)
        We certainly agree that no one should be compelled to do anything in the public arena. I also appreciate your advocacy of WOL and your very valid concerns with it.
        You’ve given me much to think about.


  8. Very much enjoyed the blog. I am at an early stage of working out loud and embedding it into my own working practice. And stumbling across the personal challenges of which draft to I post the first or the one most people have bought into? When I have posted that it! Work out loud means mistakes out loud! Positive feedback in front of an audience is great. Corrective feedback is much harder! Thanks for giving me a window into what I need to consider as I embed into my development programmes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And thanks for taking time to read and comment Jeremy, I think we all have to adjust to the new contours of open ways of learning & not forget the leaps we might be asking of our colleagues. Good luck with your journey. Working out loud and as you say showing both the positive & less succesful elements is so the opposite of many work cultures but it can be hugely effective to have senior staff role model that, good luck.


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  10. Kandy, this takes me right back to basics, to the ‘good’ old days of IT training in a classroom (what I would call the original social learning). I always tried to make my sessions interactive and engaging, inviting discovery and comment from everyone. But even then, there were some learners who just didn’t want to ‘show up’ in that space, who just wanted to work on their computer and not engage in discussion, quizzes, Q&A sessions. For them, the old model of ‘being told and doing’ worked just fine. They were the ones tho’, who needed and responded best to one-to-one attention from the trainer whilst the rest of the class got on with an exercise, or who held back with a question at break time. I learned to recognise and create the space and opportunity for those people to work in their way and still achieve the outcomes that were relevant and useful.
    Fast forward to virtual classrooms and the challenges for people like that when we almost force group participation upon them, via polls, mark-ups, chat panels, aural interactions etc, without the added perspective of being able to read their non-verbal communication which may be displaying discomfort or revealing diversity-type issues about which we are totally unaware (I blogged about this in one of my early blogs in 2011 – ) and I hope that we have managed to keep everyone on side accordingly. One way, of course, is to ensure that as much learning as possible is available in as many different modalities as possible, giving people the opportunity to select and work within the format that suits them best. We must not just deliver one-size-fits-all solutions.
    As we develop more virtual, online and social learning programmes, and especially as we ramp-up our Diversity Awareness and Training Programme at work, I am reminded by your post to keep that in mind and to ensure that my colleagues and team remember it also. Thanks.


    • Thanks for this thoughtful reply Niall, yes I’m not sure anything is new here in the sense that we’ve always had diverse groups who respond with different levels of enthusiasm to different modalities. And you’re right if we build in diversity in our strategies & remain alert then we should be able to manage vulnerability gently and carefully. Where I really worry is when we move people out into the public sphere too quickly with too little attention to how they might experience that. It’s not that learning vulnerability isn’t there in the ‘classroom’ virtual or not but it feels different when it really is out there in the open for all to see. Not that I don’t think we should be doing it just doing it with a healthy dose of care and attention.


  11. I have been thinking about the issues you raise here ever since reading this yesterday evening. It’s definitely the blog that has stimulated me the most recently.
    Going back to basics somewhat, it got me thinking about Honey and Mumford’s Learning Styles axis, and whether 4 points adequately describe the range of different ways of learning now available to us. Or maybe being an open or social learner is a sub set of reflection? Or maybe theorists enjoy the possibility of collaboration on line versus reading books and articles? There must be some research on this that I have not caught up with yet?
    Then I started thinking about personality types. Is there any research indicating preferences for use of open social media for learning according to preferences for introversion or extroversion? Does a feeling type feel angst when no one comments on the blog they have put together so carefully? I should probably know this and will be looking it up if I am to remain an up to date MBTI practitioner. (Possibly made myself vulnerable there!)
    Finally, I thought about organizational culture, like one of your previous commentators. For instance, in government organizations, there can be many restrictions on what is shared in the public domain. This has led some bloggers and tweeters to share information and invite comments under pseudonyms. For some people taking the risk of sharing thoughts and ideas can simply be too risky, and leave them exposed to more than just feeling a bit vulnerable that an idea they had turned out to not be so good, or attracted lots of negative feedback.
    So many strands raised in one blog, Kandy. I will be following up the links you and other commentators have made.
    Thank you.


    • Hi Annette thanks for taking the time to reply and think about the blog. I’m sure there is lots of research on online learner styles and know there’s loads of typologising of social media users but I’m not sure it gets us anywhere helpful in thinking about designing social learning. Just like in less social types of learning activity we have to create a diverse geography of approaches, I’m a classic introvert on any scale but am probably just as comfortable learning out loud as reading a book. I think we need to think about building baby steps and safe social learning spaces where people can experiment without feeling the full gaze on them. I’m guessing from responses so far that many of us are doing this already. Totally with you on the second point, we have to take organisational cultures into account and they might not be universally held either. Our experience was that we found less hesitance in certain parts of the business than others, no clear patterning to it. Great thoughts thanks for sharing them.


  12. Excellent, thoughtful and thought-provoking post – thanks for providing a counterpoint to the push for open, social, visible learning. You make some excellent points and a lot worth thinking about. There are certainly inherent values embedded in social, open learning practices. And, taking Sukh’s point, these are values held as desirable from a Western US-Anglo centric from a cultural perspective. Aside from the ethical considerations you raise in your post, there are, as Sukh suggests, cultural (as well as other diversity/inclusion) issues to consider.
    Not all cultures value open expression, critical reflection, and questioning as desirable traits. I read a paper recently Egege, S., & Kutieleh, S. (2004) which discussed how, for many international (and in particular, South East Asian) students at Australian universities, critical thinking is a new and challenging skill that they need to be supported to develop, since it’s not something fostered or valued in the Asian school system. Whereas, we simply expect that students to be able to think critically at university level, debate & discuss issues openly, and much of the teaching and assessments assume this without accounting for such cultural differences.
    Your post also made me think of Susan Cain’s ted talk on introverts where she discusses how extrovert behaviours – being social, outspoken, bold, assertive tend to be valued more in our (Western) culture and society and how institutions – schools, workplaces end up being unconsciously biased against more introverted behaviours.
    Ultimately it’s important to take a considered approach when we frame any learning experiences or environments and consider the values we’re promoting, how these might exclude certain groups (even if unintentionally), and ways we might be able to make them more inclusive. Thanks again for the thoughtful post!


    • Thanks for commenting & sharing Tanya, lots of sense in what you say here and as you know I’m a great supporter of the ‘social’ life in learning and otherwise but at the end of the day it’s really important that we adjust and target our approaches within the frame of a critical reflection on the cultures in which we’re operating & the values we’re supporting. Good practitioners will do that implicitly I think I’m just arguing for us all to do it a little more explicitly and share that as a community to help us all improve our practice. Interestingly, I was having similar discussions to those you describe with a network of lecturers this year in the UK who whilst trying to engage students were facing very different reactions to less formal, lecture based university teaching so not just in Australia and the students resisting more social forms of learning were from the UK & elsewhere. I think we ‘teach’ the social out of children by the time they leave school, and even really digitally savvy students can be fearful of using social media for anything other than communicating with each other. Gosh there’s loads in this isn’t there 🙂

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  13. Thanks for a thought provoking post Kandy. You’re right to say that Learning and Development professionals (or whoever is considering social learning solutions) to be mindful of its application without directly impacting those learning. I believe it’s up to us to advise everyone of the etiquette, behaviour but also the pros and cons of the medium and encourage them to learn in whatever format or medium is best for them. Personally, in a corporate context, I’m really interested in the “power” relationship especially between those who share openly in the social space and those who don’t – and then those who directly use this as a means to gain control, kudos, or use this against them.

    Working out loud will work when everyone does the same and the culture is such that it is all embracing, open, and accepting. I have been in situations where people feared using social tools simply because they didn’t trust their management and leadership to see this of value and were fearful of losing their jobs or being downgraded on their performance reports.

    My first rethinking of social learning (around bringing in personal learning networks into the work environment) came about from a Personal Learning Network cMOOC I completed and where I came across this reference which opened my eyes to understanding the intent.

    Thanks again for a powerful and thought provoking post.

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  14. Wow thanks for this top bit of thinking, Kandy.

    In a recent post I wrote, Meg Peppin caused me to reflect on how the use of social collaborative tools in a learning context may be a barrier to effective learning due to a range of unexpected Diversity and Inclusion considerations.

    I think the ethics of encouraging social usage falls in a similar category.

    I think you’re right to say there is implicit ethcial behaviour that surrounds online participation, and there will be a good many who rail against frameworks and guidelines and the such like.

    Really got me thinking in this one, thanks.

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    • Hey Sukh thanks for commenting, I read your blog & Meg’s comments and agreed with a lot of her thoughts. We should be mindful of the political with a small p, cultural and other contexts to our learning activities. Like you I’m still mulling, rigid frameworks or guidelines don’t always create more ethical behaviour, what does in my experience is developing critical thinking about what we do, how we do it and the implications for others. The thinking continues!


  15. Aha! Thank you for your thoughtful post. I had to search back through my own blog to find this post ‘in praise of the walled garden’ from 2009.
    5 years later and I am still cautious. I would never force a student to be public but I am interested in helping them to be so if they choose.

    And before that I am still on a mission to encourage my educator colleagues to be public- in part because I think we can learn so much from each other, and in part because I think we should know what it feels like. We need to experience the vulnerability so that we can better mentor and coach our learners. Never ask (or encourage) them to do something we wouldn’t do ourselves.

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    • Thanks for commenting Anne Marie, I like the cautiousness coupled with a strong commitment to helping others to experiment with engaging in the open which can be positive and beneficial. If we keep our own memories of vulnerability in learning fresh by trying new things we will hopefully not become complacent with how that feels for our students, colleagues & peers.


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