Frances Bell recently posed the following question on her blog:

Frances Bell

Why would we assume that social media platforms are a given as learning locations?

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This is a really important question, and one with particular relevance to us at Rhizome Live: our approach began life on Twitter.

The question, as I understand it, is about the role that the medium through which learning takes place has on the learning itself - ‘the agency and motivation of platforms’, as Bell describes it. Social media platforms are designed to promote communication. But they also want to generate interaction with the platform itself in the form of clicks, likes, replies and retweets. Social media platforms are not neutral players.

This is something that Bell, along with Jenny Mackness and Marianne Funes, has researched with particular emphasis on Facebook. They found that Facebook’s algorithm, which promotes popular posts, shut down critical discussion by essentially rendering differing viewpoints invisible. On the other hand, Twitter can overwhelm the user with the sheer volume of replies on a popular thread.

In short, I do not think we should assume social media platforms are suitable learning locations. The problems are something that the Rhizome Live team faced early on; our platform was created in order to be able to facilitate learning in a, hopefully, more neutral environment.

Or rather, in an environment designed to support the intellectual openness necessary to encourage critical debate. After all, our platform was designed with an agenda too: to promote engaging learning. Just like any other online platform (and many offline too), our medium will have an effect on the message.

That said, I think it would be rash to suggest that social media has no role in learning at all. It can play host to communities of practice, such as the weekly #LDInsight chat on Twitter. The sheer volume of material available means that it does not take much searching for the user to be exposed to unfamiliar and stimulating material.

There, I think, is the heart of the matter. Social media can be a location for learning, but it requires that the user take responsibility for that learning. To avoid being caught in an echo chamber or inundated with unwanted content, the user has to take the initiative. By striking out on their own, rather than relying on algorithms or notifications to guide them, learners can and do use social media to good effect.

Perhaps, in the end, we should think of social media, just like any other potential learning environment, as a place where the learning experience is what the user makes of it. If the user is aware of its limitations, and willing to put the effort in, they can be places of learning.

Lizzie Evans - Learning Consultant, Rhizome Live

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