As some learners seem surgically adhered to their Blackberries, others despair of the time wasted in social networking sites when classes – or work – beckon. Yes, networking can waste time – but only if you let it. As an adult learner you have three basic uses of social networking.
1. Problem solving
Quick questions can become very long questions in real-life queues. Twitter is one social networking tool that can be excellent for contacting people where mobile phones are banned but computers are not e.g. sitting in the library. The small size of the application and its ease of configuration for specific devices or lists make it both portable and attractive to people in all walks of life, not just those in academia. So, one message can reach work colleagues, classmates, friends and the wider public. A tweet is only 140 characters and it can save waiting for the overworked librarian or careers adviser to be free: someone else may have the answer.
Tentative steps into Facebook can leave people completely bemused about why lecturers want them to use YouTube, Slideshare and wikis. If your experience of Facebook is an endless set of messages from family playing Café World or Farmville, then you need to find out how to hide such updates (‘Unlike’ the game, not the person) and use Facebook as a quick project/assignment resource. Slideshare, based on powerpoint presentations and communities of interest, may seem less threatening but is often forgotten and that, if you are involved in detailed research, can be a pity as it is a good place to find work-in-progress from round the world. YouTube is not just a place for pop videos. It currently has 79,100 films tagged as lectures; plus many more that include expert knowledge.
Social networking tools also help you manage your research. Tools such as Delicious help you save and share your bookmarks. Importantly, you can see what others working in your field have bookmarked and add comments. The downside of this is that to get the best out of shared bookmarks, you do have to be rigorous about tagging.
More forgiving as a research management tool is the wiki; a tool often used in the classroom but frequently overlooked as something that individuals can set up with a group of like-minded friends. There are dozens of wiki programs from which to choose and many are free for educational purposes. (See Wikimatrix for an authoritative comparison chart.) Think of a wiki as flexible, editable filing system. Random ideas and solid essays alike can be stored by you alone or by you and others. You can add comments, insert pictures, embed your other social media as feeds to keep your relevant Twitter and Facebook updates in the same place, and much more besides.
One potentially useful tool that the time-poor and networking sceptic might wish to avoid for the moment, however, is GoogleWave. Still in development, I for one love it for what it could be rather than for what it is and it still crashes too often to be a core aid to learning.
3. Brand development
Some find it abhorrent to talk of personal branding in relation to learning but experts only get acknowledged as such if people know what they can do. If your purpose in gaining a qualification is to develop your professional career, then you will no doubt find some method of sharing your knowledge on a career-focused networking site such as LinkedIn. There you can use the status line to give your area of research, join groups of professionals with similar interests, seek job opportunities and share your expertise by answering questions. Using an account in your other social media (Twitter, Facebook, et al) just for learning and professional development rather than keeping track of the family is one way to get your voice heard – and the time taken in this investment need only be as great as you want it to be.