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Wormholes Across the Universes: Experiential Learning Through, for and About Social Networks

Despite the billions spent by the Coalition and the previous government on school building programmes, research published this month by the British Educational Suppliers Association (Besa) has found that only 22% of English secondary schools have wi-fi access in most or all of their classrooms. Commenting on the BBC website Valerie Thompson, the CEO of the E-Learning Foundation, stated that full web access is "vital to a 21st Century learning environment."

But is this merely a question of further investment in infrastructure? A TES Scotland (TESS) school survey published August 2012 suggests not: "The tone of replies to the survey was often resolute: an emphatic 'no' to use of Facebook or file-sharing websites", with one respondent commenting,"What appears to be the case in some authorities is that policymakers and those policing it have little or no understanding of 21st-century tech, its benefits or what skills employers need and pupils require." TESS observed that schools appeared to be deliberately preventing pupils learning about technology they "have at their fingertips outside the school gates."

It all looks to add weight to the claim made by McKinsey at the back end of 2012 that "employers, education providers, and youth live in parallel universes."

We might be forgiven for supposing that employers would be falling over themselves to embrace online technologies and employees keen and able to use them. That appears not to be the case, though, at the Department for Work and Pensions, where in January of this year 16 civil servants were sacked for using social media, joining the ranks of 105 DWP colleagues disciplined since 2009 for blogging and social networking while at work.

Hmmm, schools, Whitehall: maybe this resistance to cyberspace is a public sector thing? Yet no: some of the concerns voiced by private sector employers sound much like those coming out of our schools, where there are worries about the distraction factor and bandwidth capacity. For instance a GFI whitepaper from 2011, Social networking at work: thanks, but no thanks? cautions:

"If every employee in a 50-employee company spent 30 minutes on social networking every day of a working week, that would total a cumulative productivity loss of 6,500 hours in one year. Now when you factor in how much each hour costs in salaries, you get a better and convincing picture."

And a November 2012 report in the New York Times, which noted that "most financial firms ban Facebook, Twitter and Gmail, and block most music and video streaming sites," listed bandwidth consumption as a key deterrent.

But things are changing, and the NYT piece goes on to suggest that by 2014 over 70% of large organisations around the globe will have ceased blocking employee access to social media. They may as well, too, because just as pupils will find ways to access the web beneath the desk, employees will find ways of circumventing company barriers. As Flip Filipowski of SilkRoad Technology puts it:

"Employees will use social media during the workday .... companies can either find ways to use social media to achieve measureable business results, or they can ignore it at their own peril."

What is apparent is that organisations and their people - pupils and employees alike - need to develop shared understandings of and commitments to protocols around their use of social media. It is not greater access to the web which is the real threat, but inappropriate, ill-informed or careless behaviour when using it. The SilkRoad Social Media & Workplace Collaboration report of 2012 is right to stress that:

"a company's approach to social media must match the goals, culture, and business of (the) organization"

But it is also true that social media may in turn begin to shape the culture and the business of the organisation. The more prescient businesses grasp this fact and are doing something about it.

Last year one of the UK's largest financial services companies, Legal & General, launched a project to discover what opportunities and threats 'digital' posed to their company. They did this not via surveys or focus groups, but by inviting sixty 14 -15 year-olds to work as "Young Consultants" in their Cardiff and Surrey locations for a week. Over the week these young people interrogated evidence from the company's Digital Board and online experts, and conducted primary research by interviewing a diverse cross-section of employees. Working in teams of 5, they were managed by 12 Legal & General employees who had been released from their normal duties for the specific purposes of the project. For the employees, most of whom were not ardent users of social media, it was a formal experiential learning opportunity to practise and develop leadership skills aligned to their company's recently introduced behaviour framework. It also provided both these employees and the Digital Board, to whom the young consultants presented their recommendations, with authentic insights into how tomorrow's colleagues and customers might like to see Legal and General make use of digital technology; a small, but for Legal and General, significant wormhole between the universe of their business and that of young people.

And for the young people themselves? For a week they experienced working on a genuine business problem for a FTSE 50 company, gained Legal & General's Level 2 Young Consultant's award, and returned to school with greater awareness of what C21st century skills might mean. Perhaps it's less a matter of more infrastructure, and more a case for a little more creative thinking.

You can check out the Legal and General project here:

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