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Wow. What a firestorm! You'd think the U.S. Government was going to go into default or something. Popular Science decides to get rid of its comments–fearing that good science was being misperceived because of online comments.

Here are just a few of the many articles/blogs on the controversy:

I few quick comments (before I've read the actual science that Popular Science cites and other related research, which, I must add, I find a fascintating topic):

1.
If Popular Science is using only one or two studies to draw conclusions, they don't understand social science. Specifically, they don't understand that social science research generally requires–at a minimum–dozens of studies to draw firm conclusions, fence of boundaries, and discover contingencies. Not always, but usually.

2.
I agree that society today is getting more and more anti-science, anti-evidence, and anti-wisdom.

3.
I agree that there is justification for worrying about the effect of social-media pollution. As a guy who reads over 200 articles from scientific refereed journals on learning, memory, and instruction each year–and thus who probably knows more than the average bear in my field–I've seen lots of categorically-wrong information floated in social-media comments in our field. Of course, I am not infallible, all-knowing, nor omnicient. Anyone who reads the research knows how little of the whole he/she can possibly know. But still, I do know enough to know when some notions of learning are fundamentally flawed. AND in the workplace learning-and-performance field, there is much that is foolhardy, misinformed, and harmful–and social media has not stopped this from happening.

4.
There are some victories, however, even if they are not complete. For example, social-media and the internet have made it less likely that people in our field are spouting off about people learning 10% of what they see, etc. Maybe I have made a difference.

5.
I know that comments have been helpful to me personally in other contexts. For example, the New York Times comments have been very helpful to me in seeing the strengths and weaknesses of the original article.

6.
I got rid of unmoderated comments on my blog purely due to the large amount of spam that was being posted. Most commenters here have helpful things to say.

6.
Popular Science argued specifically that people in general are misinformed about science, lending credence to the idea that comments on vetted scientific articles for a popular audience may be a special case.

7.
Popular Science also argued (see the NPR interview) that they made the decision because they would rather put their resources into creating good articles in the first place rather than moderating their comment sections.

8.
I wish someone who studies this issue intensively would create a rubric, helping us understand when and how comments can be valuable–and when they cause more harm then good. It can't be black and white–comments are good, comments are bad. Most things in human nature don't work like that.

9.
For the workplace learning-and-performance field, my recommendation to you is: Don't assume that comments are good or comments are bad. Do assume however, that you may need a way to regulate, monitor, or control comments to make them helpful. I'll never forget the time that I was arguing with a social-media evangelist who was claiming that social media was always corrective in time. A member of the audience interrupted with the story of how social media killed a couple of soldiers when they used information from social-media to attempt to deal with an improvised explosive device.

 

Some previous posts on social media:

Social Media is hot, but it is not clear how well we are measuring social media.

A couple of years ago I wrote an article for the eLearning Guild about measuring social media. But it's not clear that we've got this nailed yet.

With this worry in mind, I've created a research survey to begin a process to see how best social-media (of the kind we might use to bolster workplace learning-and-performance) can be measured.

Here's the survey link. Please take the survey yourself. You don't have to be an expert to take it.

Here's my thinking so far on this. Please send wisdom if I've missed something.

  1. We can think about measuring social media the same way we measure any learning intervention.
  2. We can also create a list of all the proposed benefits for social media, and the proposed costs, and all the proposed harms, and we can see how people are measuring these now. The survey will help us with this second approach.

Note: Survey results will be made available for free. If you take the survey, you'll get early releases of the survey results and recommendations.

Also, this is not the kind of survey that needs good representative sampling, so feel free to share this far and wide.

Here is the direct link to the survey:   http://tinyurl.com/4tlslol

Here is the direct link to this blog post:   http://tinyurl.com/465ekpa

At the recent eLearning Guild conference in Orlando, I was asked to lead an Espresso Cafe roundtable discussion on a topic of interest.

My topic: The Pluses and Minuses of Social Media and User-generated Content.

I promised folks from my three sessions that I'd post all the results. Here they are:

Plusses:

  1. Users engaged.
  2. Relevant to the users.
  3. Not-distracting, real-world.
  4. Enables learning when training experts not available.
  5. Can augment online courses.
  6. Can capture water-cooler talk (that would have happened anyway).
  7. Opportunity to debunk inaccuracies.
  8. Capture institutional knowledge.
  9. Enables the use of internal experts for informal learning.
  10. Because informal, can be more comfortable to use for people of different languages and/or cultures. Or different socio-economic groups as well.
  11. More of an equal exchange. Leveling the playing field. Creating more democratic or egalitarian organizations.
  12. Novel, interesting.
  13. Quick feedback on what doesn't work.
  14. Not corporate-down, so more likely to be attended to without skepticism, jadedness, etc.
  15. Opportunity to connect with customers.
  16. Keep up with younger workers coming in.
  17. Headquarters experts may not be as trusted as those who work on the ground.
  18. Timely, instant updates.
  19. Get details from someone who actually does the job.
  20. Emotional connection.
  21. Convenience.
  22. No geographic boundaries.
  23. RSS feeds enables more targeted info.
  24. Employees may be able to affect policy.
  25. Could make us improve our policies for fear of law suits. (Like this: stuff that's posted can be used in court. Organization then has impetus to make changes quickly).
  26. Questions coming first is a good learning design.
  27. Can give organization more of a sense of what's going on in the field.
  28. Cheap.
  29. Builds community if people are tackling serious issues together.
  30. Feeling engaged.
  31. Employees have instant access to experts.
  32. Another data source.
  33. Develop connections. Know who knows who AND who knows what.
  34. Enables virtual relationships.
  35. More reflective–learners have to reflect to write, to learn deeper.
  36. Wisdom of the crowd.
  37. Opens up links to other things. Sets agenda, letting people know that there are other things.
  38. Generate buzz.
  39. Smile sheets shared. (Rate my teacher. Rate my professor).
  40. Best practices are distributed.
  41. Will make things easier. Info at fingertips.

Minuses:

  1. Might have to get used to it.
  2. How do you make it usable?
  3. Duplicate information.
  4. How to make pertinent information instantly accessible.
  5. Opening up floodgates.
  6. Cultural hurdles and disconnects.
  7. Competes with other channels of information.
  8. Perhaps top-level buy-in is required.
  9. A big distraction. Time user.
  10. Productivity drain.
  11. One more thing to do.
  12. We are still learning how to utilize wisely.
  13. May need support, maintenance, and the resources thereof.
  14. Information may not translate to behavior without directed support.
  15. How to confirm validity of content.
  16. Info can be used in lawsuits.
  17. Is the time beneficial?
  18. Danger of noise. Hard to get to best information.
  19. Time to create.
  20. Hard to measure. Maybe we're fooling ourselves.
  21. Could be incorrect/bad information.
  22. Could be offensive information.
  23. Must bring people up-to-speed on technology.
  24. Can create cliques.
  25. Time suck–filling up on candy.
  26. Dangers of giving censors power.
  27. Do these media self-select different types of people, biasing information gathered?
  28. Time is our most limited resource. The key organizational-productivity leverage point.
  29. Often implemented without planning, no marketing, no preparation, etc.
  30. Sometimes systems have no purpose. So costs/time not parlayed to maximum effect.
  31. Unnatural groups may not work, may have difficulties.
  32. One or a few can take over.
  33. Example: General in military told story of how soldiers posted how to defuse an IED. Info was wrong. 2 died. Enemies can use information too.
  34. Many see this as the be-all end-all, creating big blind spots, overzealous implementation, poor planning, poor focus.
  35. Potential permanence of information and/or systems.
  36. Personal vs. work issues may arise.

Thanks to all the folks who contributed to my discussions. It was kind of hard to hear, but here are the names to thank: Nancy, Leslie, Terra, Pat, Sonya, Betsy, Michael, David, David, Ann, Joyce, Nancy, Chris, Chris, Richard, John, Susan, Paula, John.

The Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) is now famously known for making seriously contaminated products, killing 9 since September 2008 and sickening almost 700 others.

You all know that. What you may not know is that PCA was inspected by the leading certifying agency in the food industry on multiple occasions and was given glowing reviews.

Here is what the Washington Post reports:

David Mackay, Kellogg's chief executive, said his company trusted
audits performed by the American Institute of Baking International, the
biggest food-inspection firm in the country. The institute conducted
scheduled inspections of PCA's facilities and never flagged serious
problems. It issued a "certificate of achievement" and a "superior"
rating last August, when PCA was getting results from internal
laboratory tests that revealed a salmonella problem in its plant in
Blakely, Ga., congressional investigators said.

Many well-known companies (including Kellogg) trusted outside food auditing firms to test the ingredients they were sourcing for their own products. Others, like Nestle, sent their own auditors and rejected PCA products after finding rat droppings, beetles, and other detritus in PCA's products.

Not surprisingly, PCA paid American Institute of Baking International to perform the audits (AND to certify PCA as in compliance).

Lessons Learned

  1. When a company pays an auditor, the auditor may have incentive to be lenient.
  2. When a company relies on outside inspectors to assess other entities, they may not get good information.
  3. When an industry fails to provide good oversight and regulation, bad things can happen.
  4. Just because something is certified, even by the largest or most prestigious certifying body in an industry, doesn't mean the certification can be trusted.
  5. It's not just about good people, it's also about good structures, oversight, and information.

Is this Relevant in the Training & Development, Learning & Performance Field?

Yes. You bet. We have:

  1. Awards that are biased toward those paying award application fees.
  2. Top 10 and Top 20 lists that represent the awarding entity's client list.
  3. Industry research based on surveys sent to the research entity's clients' client lists.
  4. Industry research that is biased toward the research entity's biggest clients.
  5. Conference sessions that are guaranteed for companies who pay for exhibit space.
  6. Webinars by sponsoring organizations.
  7. Etc.

Unfortunately, there is no trusted journalistic institution in our field. Our trade organizations are timid because commercial interests pay the bulk of their operating expenses. Most of our bloggers (me included) are timid because we earn our living in the field. Where the hell are the freelance bloggers who our social-media evangelists promised would rise up to fight corruption and injustice?

Best Advice in Current State

The best advice at this point in time is:

  1. Be skeptical.
  2. Do your own digging. 
  3. Form groups of other skeptical diggers and share information.
  4. Don't just get angry about this. It's the way the world works. Find work arounds.
  5. If you can't point fingers, gently avoid the corrupters.
  6. If you're entangled with a corrupting entity, gently work to reform it, or leave it.
  7. If you are a corrupter, forgive yourself, reform yourself.
  8. Do good work.