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How to use social media to learn online

Social media is much more than an opportunity for you to share your messages and reach new audiences. It is a gold mine of experts and peers you can learn from in your own time.

Learning styles are changing too. Early in 2012 we did a short survey looking at how people use social media to support their work. 35% of people said they preferred learning in small chunks rather than a full day classroom based course. 67% said that the immediacy of finding learning resources to help them in their role rather than waiting for a course to be run was very important.

So this guide looks at how social media channels can bring new opportunities for learning and collaboration to your desktop / smart phone. And how sharing is the key to online learning.

“There's a world of information out there. Stop waiting for someone to "train" you, and get out there and find the information.” KnowHow survey respondent


Change how you learn

Q: Where do you go if you have a work problem or have to do a task or need to update your skills and don’t know where to start?

In the old days you’d pick up the phone to talk to someone or wait for a book or training course to give you answers. But now you have a whole network of sector experts who could help at your fingertips. Whether it's how to solve a dilemma or problem or a wider search to learn about a new topic or develop new skills – online should be your first port of call.

At a basic (passive) level you can use social media to find out about sources of help or new resources to support you work. At the next (active) level it’s about reaching out to your network, learning from them and asking them questions. At the top level it’s about giving your help to others.

Of course, being an active social media user will not suit everyone but there is something for everyone and you don't have to contribute if you don't want to. Most activity is populated by the 70/20/10 rule – 70% will be passive users, 20% on/off active users and 10% regularly active.

People learn in different ways and have different levels of time available - it's just about knowing where to look.


Learn via Twitter

Twitter has 140 million registered users with around 180 million tweets being posted each day, unusually for a social network 60% of registered users actively contribute content. In the UK there are 10 million users with upto 80% of tweets from mobiles. If you're not on Twitter, it's free, quick and easy to get started and there are plenty of resources online to help you work out how it all works.

Twitter is brilliant for communicating instantly with a network of people. It's great for short updates and signposts to learning resources, as well as asking quick questions if you are stuck for an answer to your followers (and potentially their followers etc). Potentialy it's the largest group of contacts you could ever build-up!

Follow people and organisations you can learn from or share with

Twitter can give you access to the insights and knowledge of people you could learn from. Not just the top sector leaders such as Big Lottery CEO Peter Wanless (@peterwanless) and Minister for Civil Society Nick Hurd (@minforcivsoc) but news sources such as @ThirdSector and @SocietyGuardian, infrastructure organisations such as @NCVO, @ACEVO and @knowhownonprof as well as thousands of charity CEOs and staff.

Individuals and organisations use Twitter to share new resources, ideas and topical issues. It is also an acceptable, accessible channel to communicate with local MPs and councillors to canvass opinion and inform them of news.


Use hashtags to follow events live if you are there and especially if you are not. For example lots of learning was being shared on twitter from the NCVO Annual Conference. Delegates included #ncvoac in their tweets. #ncvoac was a searchable term, aggregating all messages using this code. Regular events which use #hashtags include:

  • #nfptweetup - a London quarterly evening meet-up sharing good practice in digital fundraising and campaigning (also live-streams the event)
  • #begoodbesocial - Scottish equivalent of the above.

Sites such as Topsy and Storify are used to collect tweets, multimedia and resources from events.

Hashtags are also used for live chats around topics. An example of this is i-volunteer’s Thoughtful Thursdays which uses #ttvolmgrs to gather and share top tips on a new subject each week.

See also:

  • #lgovsm - 8.30pm Tuesday
  • #nptalk 8pm - Wednesday
  • #chat2lrn - 4pm Thursday
  • #swchat - 9pm Thursday

How not to get overwhelmed

If you are following a lot of people who are all tweeting links to interesting resources, it is easy to feel a bit overwhelmed especially if you are trying to get on with your work. Set up an account with Instapaper. This lets you save web pages for reading later. Perhaps devote an hour once a week to reading the things you have saved, or read on your Kindle / iPhone on the train.



Learn from groups

Learn from other people doing similar tasks and roles. There are many different public and private groups who are online or accessed via email. To get the most out of groups like these, you often need to contribute.

  • Join professional groups on LinkedIn (eg KnowHow NonProfit, NCVO, UK Fundraising, Guardian Voluntary Sector Network)
  • There are some really good email groups such as Lasa's UKriders for people interested in technology development and the Yahoo Charity Web Forum group for web managers and editors. 
  • There are also a few web groups which use ning such as Our Society
  • Professional Facebook groups are growing such as Rob Dyson's Third Sector PR and Communications Network which has over 1500 members.

Learn by asking questions

87% people in our survey said they used digital learning to answer a specific question / solve a problem. Try these different ways of getting a direct answer to a specific question

  • GuardianVoluntarySectorNetwork runs weekly live Q&A sessions generally on Tuesdays from 1-3. A panel is gathered ready to answer questions on a set topic. Generally only a small number of people ask questions, the majority just watch. To get the best out of a Q&A, ask questions however trivial or silly you think they sound. If you don’t want to post under your real name, register under a pseudonym so people can't identify you. It's surprising how many people will want to know the same thing but are too afraid to ask. Also, when panellists answer, push them further if you need to. It's really easy in these forums to just get general comments but if you want something expanding and explaining always ask.
  • The Guardian’s Public Leaders Network also run live Q&A sessions aimed at CEOs
  • Sector forums are an open space for you to find and share knowledge. Try the KnowHow forum, UK Fundraising's forum or ThirdSectorLab.
  • Learning Pool have a community conversation area with a group for learning in the sector.

Learn from shared knowledge

This is based on the idea that we're all experts, not just the people who talk at conferences or have their own consultancy businesses. The everyday knowledge of how to solve problems or carry-out small tasks is often not shared. Have a look at these sites which encourage knowledge sharing and add yours:

Benchmarking surveys

Taking part in benchmarking surveys to help analyse how you’re doing against your peers. As a thank you for taking part, you’ll often get a report of the findings.


Learn by doing online courses

Not strictly social media but worth a mention here as more and more people are turning to eLearning as an alternative to in-person courses, workshops and conferences.

eLearning is great as it is available all the time (24/7) and reduces cost of attending a course in person as well as time away from desk. You can learn at your own pace and courses can often be revisited - which 64% of people said was an important feature. Many courses include interactive elements such as live discussions, Q&A sessions with the trainer as well as downloadable resources.

Here are some of our favourite eLearning sites:


Learn from blogs

Blogs may feel slightly 2009 but are a valuable source of learning. 69% of people in our survey used them as a source to increase their skills and knowledge for thie job. Bloggers are keen to share their knowledge and recommend resources. Here are a few examples:


Learn from video

Learning through pictures and videos can be an effective way to build understanding about a subject. This form of learning can take a number of forms from passively watching videos on sites such as YouTube or Vimeo to partaking in two-way conversations through Skype or as part of a Webinar. The KnowHow NonProfit study zone makes a wide use of video to get across its training material.

Examples of video based learning sites are:

Further information


This how-to guide is based on a workshop given by Madeleine Sugden of KnowHow and Paul Webster of MyLearningPool at the NCVO 2012 Annual Conference. Slides from the workshop are on the NCVO site. The survey of 100 people working in the sector was carried out on-line in Feburary 2012.

Learn how to make social media work for your campaign or organisation with our Strategic social media online training course in KnowHow's StudyZone.


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