The Web is 25 years old today – so how has it changed the way we learn?

Updated: 26 August 2014

world-wide-web-146248_64025 years ago today, on 12 March 1989, the British scientist Tim Berners-Lee wrote a proposal to develop a distributed information system for CERN, and in doing so lay down the foundation for what was to become the World Wide Web. In the ensuing 25 years there can be few people whose lives haven’t been influenced by the Web in some way or other. But how has it changed the way we learn? 

My own research (particular involving my Top 100 Tools for Learning survey over the last 7 years) has shown that many us are now learning very differently, but the most striking thing is that we are taking control of our own learning in ways not possible before.

Although the Web has offered us the opportunity to participate in much wider open educational opportunities online, and in recent years the MOOC movement has meant that it is now very easy to sign up for an online course at a university or educational establishment anywhere in the world, the fact is, we now have easy access to all kinds of ways to help us to learn about almost anything. Many of these are not instructional courses but are resources in many different formats – videos, screencasts, podcasts, etc – which have often been created by individuals and shared freely and willingly on the Web.

But more than this many of us are using social networks like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+ to build a personal/professional  network of trusted friends and colleagues. These social networks have become an important part of our professional lives as they let us make global connections with other like-minded individuals. We often refer to our professional network as a Personal Learning Network (or PLN) because, in many cases, if we have a learning or performance problem we often turn first to our professional network for help. However, it is clear that we interact with our professional networks in a number of significant ways: to ask and answer questions; to exchange ideas, resources and experiences; and to learn from one another in many different ways – sometimes even without even realising it!

Ken Perlman writing in Forbes magazine believes a new era is emerging: the era of the knowledgeable networker – people who learn, think and work very differently. He says.

“Knowledgeable networkers are very good at what they do, and at the same time, do not pretend to know it all. They consider the entire puzzle, not just their own area of expertise. They’re integrative thinkers with broad interests and connections. They see how puzzles fit together without needing to know everything about each piece – instead, they KNOW A LOT OF PEOPLE and HAVE A LOT OF INFORMATION SOURCES ….”

And as Rob Cross and Andrew Parker explain in their book The Hidden Power of Social Networks

“We learned that individual expertise did not distinguish people as high performers. What distinguished high performers were larger and more diversified personal networks.

I talk a lot about the importance of professional social networking and usually mention how I couldn’t do my own work nowadays without Twitter, but there is usually someone who points out that you can’t learn to become a doctor using Twitter.  And of course this is true – but it’s actually missing the point. It’s not about using Twitter to learn how to becomea doctor, but about using Twitter to become a better doctor – or certainly a better-informed doctor, and keep up to date with what’s new in the medical profession. In fact back in September 2012, The Journal of Medical Internet Research reported that ..

“25% of doctors use social media daily to scan or explore new medical information. Social media never will replace traditional means of research and learning … it’s an additional — and valuable — channel that can add to a physician’s knowledge base.”

And of course this is how those working in other professions are using the Social Web. I usually describe this as  “learning the new” since it is as much about finding out about stuff that is new to the world as new to the individual, i.e. new ideas, new concepts, new thinking, new skills, new resources, etc. – things that have yet to become codified within existing or new bodies of knowledge. So learning the new is not about going to an annual conference or reading a few industry magazines, in addition to social networks, it includes using a variety of social tools and services to keep up to date – on a continuous basis – with what is happening in one’s industry or profession.

Many professionals recognise how vital it is to stay on top of all the new knowledge and skills relevant to today’s employment market place, for as John Seely Brown puts it  “in a world of increasingly rapid change, the half life of a given stock/skill is constantly shrinking“ – at around 5 years.

Learning the new is, however, a very different learning experience from learning in a traditional training (or e-learning) event – where the content has been organised, structured, and “packaged” up for delivery in a very prescribed way. Learning the new involves being in the flow of new ideas and “joining the dots” between unstructured pieces of knowledge that are encountered. So for those who have been using the Web – and particularly the Social Web for many years – learning will never be the same again.

Learning in the workplace

But when we consider what effect the Web has had on workplace learning, things have changed very little over the last 25 years. For sure there has been a move from face-to-face training to e-learning, but individuals still  have very little autonomy in how to make use of a course. For example in a lot of online courses users are required to work through every action on a screen because it is assumed this means that learning has taken place. In addition, social activities are frequently “bolted on” and used as a means to enforce or reinforce learning, rather than offer a genuine opportunity to have an open discussion around a topic. And although there is growing interest in the current MOOC phenomenon for corporates, this is precisely because it perpetuates the same traditional training model – rather than changes things in any significant way.  Even recent talk of a move from “courses to resources” is still about designing and pushing-down content-centric materials.

Personal or professional learning is still too often seen as something of no relevance to the organisation. Professional networking is generally not viewed as important; in fact, in some organizations, access to the very networks that support professional networking is banned for purported “security” reasons or to “stop time-wasting” – although this is usually due to a desire to retain control of information, and be the gatekeeper to knowledge and learning. Having said that, many people just use their own devices to access these sites, so it is a pretty irrelevant practice nowadays.

But it’s  abundantly clear that organisations can’t possibly create everything their people will need to keep themselves up to date, so it is obvious that organisations need to encourage and support personal and professional learning – rather than obstruct it.  In fact in order to become an effective member of a work team individuals will need to be constantly “learning the new” so that they can feed what they learn into their teams; but more than this, for any organisation to remain competitive in their markets, it absolutely depends upon individual workers doing so.

For sure not everyone is a proficient user of the Social Web, so many will need help to develop the modern digital learning skills to become “knowledgeable workers” (as Ken Perlman called them) and “learn the new

The ability to share in organisations becoming especially important as we see the emergence of Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs), like Socialcast, Yammer, Smartforce Chatter, Socialtext and Jive, that are designed to foster collaboration, communication and knowledge sharing among employees. Many of the features of ESNs are very similar to public social networking tools, as at their core lies an activity stream that supports a constant stream or flow of real-time, threaded conversations through user updates and replies. In fact, the activity stream has now replaced the old-school discussion forum as the way in which people have conversations, and some believe that ESNs will ultimately replace email as the primary vehicle for employee communications.

Although many will be familiar with these new social technologies, others will need help to develop a range of new social workplace skills in order to make effective and productive use of them. In fact without taking time to build, encourage and support these new skills, organizations are likely to find their social initiatives less than successful.  So it is in the area of workforce collaboration where there are plenty of new opportunities for L&D to support work teams and groups. But since people learn from one another as a consequence of working together, it will be about helping teams work collaboratively and enable continuous learning to take place as part of that process, – rather than training them in the old ways.

For many in L&D it will be quite a big leap to work with teams, groups and individuals to help them learn continuously, autonomously, and  socially  as they carry out their daily work, so there is probably a place for new  learning” practices that bridge the gap between the directed, structured knowledge transfer (aka training or e-learning) that has been the way that L&D has traditionally operated and the unstructured, self-directed knowledge sharing that happens in work teams and groups in the flow of work as well on the Social Web.

The ESN is actually an ideal technological environment to host these new connected learning activities – things like backchannel learning, online social workshops, learning flows, etc – and it also means that individuals can learn with and from one another in the very the same way (and platform) that they do for collaborative working. The ESN also offers a big new opportunity for L&D, because by integrating their own learning initiatives in the very same platform that is being used to underpin work processes, they can now play a major part in inspiring, encouraging, supporting and embedding social learning, knowledge sharing and collaboration throughout the organisation. In fact if L&D are looking to support learning in wider, more relevant and more ways, an ESN offers a significant opportunity to have a bigger impact on organisational learning than ever before.

Maybe after 25 years, the Web is finally beginning to influence workplace learning.

This article has been adapted from content in Chapter 1 of my Social Learning Handbook 2014, where you can find out more about next generation workplace learning practices

One thought on “The Web is 25 years old today – so how has it changed the way we learn?

  1. John Star

    Impressive post and I think you have given us all something to think about. I can tell you put a lot of time and thought into researching what appears here!

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