There are several ongoing debates regarding social media. One of them – concerning social media experts – was recently reinvigorated by Peter Shankman’s polemic a few weeks ago, which I reflected on in this post. A related issue concerns the best way to develop social media skills and knowledge. Many people argue (often vociferously) that learning from experience is not just the best way to learn, it’s the only way to learn, and they reject the notion that social media skills and abilities can be developed through training. Many people also assert that credentials such as social media certificates are useless, and that the offerings behind them are generally worthless.

Here are links to a couple of thoughtful (and generally snark-free) discussions about the value of social media certificates that are worth investing the time to read:

Though not as prevalent or heated, people have also started talking about the need for formal education in social media. Here are a few discussions that provide some good food for thought:

This post provides an overview of my perspective on social media training and education, but my interests are more pragmatic than rhetorical. My main purpose is to help social media rookies make sense of the issues and their options so they can make informed decisions about the best way to increase their knowledge and skills to pursue their professional objectives. This post (along with the social media expert post) can also provide useful guidance to organizational leaders who need to make decisions about the kinds of knowledge, skills, training and credentials they should look for when hiring social media resources. And finally, it can help professional associations and academic institutions determine their own strategies and plans for incorporating social media and digital technologies into their own training and education offerings.

Since we’re still in the nascent stages of developing formal education in this area, I see this post as way of initiating dialogue and creating a plan of action rather than a definitive statement of what is or should be. I invite people to share their insights and recommendations and offer additional resources to help us continue this journey.

 

Thoughts on the Education and Training Debate

Here are my thoughts on some of the common objections to and concerns about social media training and education.

Social Media is too new. The basic argument here is that it’s too early to have created a body of knowledge and/or best practices about what social media is and how it should be leveraged. Specific platforms may be relatively new, but as I stated in my post about social media experts, the underlying technologies have been around for almost 20 years – longer if you consider some of their digital precursors. Even with respect to specific platforms, there’s a wealth of “how to” advice from experienced practitioners. And the core characteristics of social media technologies – such as user-generated content and social sharing – date back to our earliest days on the planet.

Things change too quickly. Because “social media time” often seems to be moving ahead at warp speed, people believe that specific knowledge gained through formal education will become stale in short measure. That can be true with respect to specific platforms and their features, but the underlying concepts and principles don’t really change. And when the courses emphasize foundational skills that have broad applications, the training should provide a solid base for future refinements.

Certificates are meaningless. Many people are rightfully concerned that any charlatan can offer a certificate program that has no substantive value, and that naïve buyers will waste their money on them. They’re also right to be concerned that certificates alone are no definitive marker of achievement. I’d like to see us get beyond the concern over labels. Certificates may provide a credential that can help in a variety of settings, but it's the training itself that's important. Most people in a variety of professions are still social media rookies, and high-quality training can provide the kickstart they need to develop their knowledge and skills (check out this post for thoughts on how to evaluate the quality of a certificate program).

Experience – and results - are more important than training and education. Countless social media professionals, many of whom are early adopters, believe that the best way to learn how to leverage social media effectively is by jumping in and using it. But learning by doing is a time-consuming process. Given that demand for social media skills and expertise is likely to rise much faster than available supply in the foreseeable future, there's value in participating in courses that can enable people to climb their learning curves more quickly and effectively. Plus, the notion of training OR experience creates a false dichotomy. Training alone is never sufficient for developing expertise, but that doesn’t mean it’s not necessary. If we can recognize the importance of both in other disciplines (e.g., engineering, accounting, human resources), we shouldn’t unfairly bias one over the other when it comes to social media.

Continuous learning argument. Given the rate of change, many people emphasize the need to commit to learning constantly, which is as true in social media as it is in any other dynamic discipline. Those who use that argument to reject certifications and degrees seem to be assuming that they represent some kind of end state or pinnacle achievement. It is more accurate, however, to view certification as a beginning or a middle, something that can jump start lay the foundation for hands-on experience. As things continue to evolve, formal and informal learning can offer powerful complements to one another.

 

Categorizing Current Offerings

Earlier this year I was hired by Northeastern University (NEU) to develop a Social Media and Online Communities (SMOC) specialization for their Master’s degree program in Corporate and Organizational Communication (click here to read descriptions of the courses). To develop the curriculum, I conducted numerous internet searches to identify available training and educational programs as of January 2011. My search was not necessarily scientific or exhaustive, but it was thorough and sufficient for my purposes.

It should be no surprise that the offerings were heavily focused on the marketing applications of social media. Because the curriculum I was asked to develop was not strictly focused on marketing, however, I had to dig deeper to find courses and programs in other areas such as communications, journalism, public relations, non-profit management, and other business topics (e.g., human resources).

Although the results weren’t equal across them, the courses I discovered fell into the following categories:

  • Non-degree offerings
    • Training courses: offered either individually or as a short series
    • Certificate and certification programs: longer series of courses that result in a “credential”
  • Degree offerings  
    • Individual courses: either elective or required, as part of a formal degree
    • Majors and specializations: a series of courses required for a degree specialization or major

I set up a spreadsheet to capture these courses, categorizing them as follows:

  • Academic degree programs (i.e., degrees that include at least one required course in digital technologies)
  • Other academic offerings (i.e., training and certificate programs from academic institutions)
  • Non-academic offerings (i.e., training and certification programs from individuals and organizations with no academic affiliation)
  • Individual courses and other offerings (i.e., elective courses from academic institutions and stand-alone training courses from others)

I explored websites and followed links and reviewed as much information as I could about the courses and programs I found. In addition to the categories above, I noted key differentiators among the courses, such as level and type of focus, the target “student,” whether the courses were offered online or in person, and the cost.  I didn’t record everything I learned because it wasn’t all relevant to my current purpose and the information was subject to change, but I made some notes and captured urls if I needed to go back and dig deeper. My primary focus, though, was on identifying course content, which I categorized as follows:

  • Concept:  An idea unique to the Digital Era, or one that takes on new meaning in the Digital Era
  • Tool: A specific enabling technology or application of technology
  • Platform: An environment in which multiple 2.0 technologies are leveraged for a specific purpose
  • Skill: A capability unique to the Digital Era, or one that takes on new meaning in the Digital Era
  • Tactic: A specific means of leveraging 2.0 technologies to achieve an organization's goals and objectives
  • Management: Issues and challenges related to the develop of social media strategies and plans, including the creation of online communities

I identified about 170 ideas that fall into these six categories, and I know my list isn’t complete. Given that, I’m certain there’s a substantial body of knowledge that can provide the focus for a variety of social media training and education programs.

I am happy to share the spreadsheet I created with folks who are interested in seeing the results of my research. If you’d like a copy, please email research@sminorgs.net.

 

Thoughts on Future Offerings

Although the current offerings aren’t as numerous or varied as they’re likely to become, they offer clear indications of what the future of social media training and education holds. We are likely to see an increase in courses and programs of all types, and that’s perfectly appropriate. Because we are still in the early days of the second phase of the Digital Era, many professionals in multiple disciplines will need training and education of various types.

Decisions about the kinds of programs to create/offer, the best course of action for an individual, and the kind of training/education an organization requires should be driven by the same criteria used for other disciplines. What are your goals and objectives? What’s the relative importance of doing versus leading? Do you want to emphasize strategy or tactics? There is no single solution.

Based on my understanding of digital technologies and their impact, my analysis of current offerings, the work I did to develop NEU’s program, and other related projects, here is a rough cut of my thoughts on the kinds of course offerings that we should see more of going forward.

NON-DEGREE OFFERINGS

  • General training courses
    • Length: can range from 90 minutes to full days, as one-shot courses or a series.
    • Topical coverage: broad introductions and overviews (e.g., Business Intelligence 2.0; Managing Human Capital in the Digital Era; Social Learning: Opportunities and Challenges).
    • Target audience: usually social media rookies, professionals in a specific functional area that need to understand the basics of how new digital realities can and will impact their discipline.
    • Focus:  primarily on conveying information and ideas. Attendees mostly listen. They may engage in some hands-on activities during the sessions, but opportunities to practice and develop skills are limited.
    • Delivery: in person or onlne.

 

  • Specific training courses
    • Length: can range from 90 minutes to full days, as one-shot courses or a series.
    • Topical coverage: narrowly-defined, tactical courses on specific subjects and platforms (e.g., how to use LinkedIn, Facebook for SMEs).
    • Target audience: usually social media rookies, professionals in a specific functional area that need to develop specific social media skills.
    • Focus: primarily on conveying information and ideas. Attendees mostly listen. They may engage in some hands-on activities during the sessions, but opportunities to practice and develop skills are limited.
    • Delivery: in person or onlne.

 

  • Certificate programs*
    • Length: a series of courses over several weeks/months.
    • Topical coverage: will include a number of narrowly-defined, tactical courses on specific subjects and platforms (e.g., how to use LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, blogging;  managing digital communities).
    • Target audience: professionals in specific functional areas (e.g., marketing, public relations, human resources) that need to develop a broad range of social media skills to increase their digital effectiveness. May want the certificate credential to demonstrate the knowledge and skills attained.
    • Focus: primarily on knowledge and skill development. Courses should include lots of hands-on activities. Programs should require students to complete projects to apply knowledge and demonstrate skill development. Emphasis will be more tactical than strategic, however, and may involve no formal analysis or reflection.
    • Delivery: in person or onlne.

* Note: Although people often confound the terms “certificate” and “certification,” I think we should restrict the use of the term “certification” to designations by professional associations (e.g., ABC, CPA, PHR). From a training perspective, what we’re really talking about is certificate programs.

 

DEGREE OFFERINGS

  • Individual courses*
    • Length: can range from six-week modules to 16-week semesters, depending on institution and program.
    • Topical coverage: Whether elective or required, these stand-alone courses concentrate on the application of social media and digital technologies to a specific discipline or function (e.g., public relations, commercial law, human resources, journalism). Though specific platforms might be incorporated, the courses would generally be platform agnostic, focusing more on the underlying technologies than the specific channels through which they’re applied.
    • Target audience: students in specific functional areas (e.g., marketing, public relations, human resources), at both undergraduate and graduate levels.
    • Focus: Though the depth would vary based on academic level, the general focus would be more conceptual and strategic, linking extant theory and practice with new realities. Analysis and reflection would be more heavily weighted than skill application.
    • Delivery: in person or onlne.

* Note: Eventually, stand-alone courses should be supplanted by “curricular infusion,” where Digital Era realities are incorporated into all courses rather than only being addressed through stand-alone courses. I’ll say more about that in a forthcoming post on business school education.

 

  • Majors and specializations
    • Length: a series of academic courses (usually 4 to 6) that comprise a major or a degree specialization. Could also bundle a smaller set of courses into a minor.
    • Topical coverage: concentrate on the applications and implications of social media and digital technologies to a specific field (e.g., marketing, public relations, communications, journalism).* Though specific platforms might be incorporated, the courses would generally be platform agnostic, focusing more on the underlying technologies than the specific channels through which they’re applied. General focus would be broad rather than narrow.
    • Target audience: students in specific disciplines, at both undergraduate and graduate levels.
    • Focus: Though the depth would vary based on academic level, the courses would incorporate elements of all the other types of offerings: conveying basic knowledge, requiring hand-on project work, linking traditional knowledge to new realities, and analysis and reflection. At the graduate level they should also emphasize higher-level leadership abilities like strategy formulation, tactical integration, and governance.
    • Delivery: in person or onlne.

* Note: The NEU specialization I developed is targeted to professionals across multiple fields (e.g., non-profit management and human resources as well as communications and marketing), but it still part of a Master’s degree in communication.

 

Conclusion

As I noted earlier, I am happy to share the spreadsheet I created to capture my research on current social media training and education offerings. If you’d like a copy, please email research@sminorgs.net. I have many other notes and ideas that evolved from the work I did for NEU, so please contact me if you’d like to hear more about them as well.

I’d also love to hear from others. Please feel free to share your thoughts and insights about the ideas I’ve presented, and/or relevant resources. Let us know if you’re thinking about pursuing formal training and/or education, and if so where. And if you can identify any other courses and programs you’re familiar with and/or share feedback and testimonials that can benefit others, that’d be great too.

Finally, I’d love to connect with kindred spirits who’d like to collaborate on creating a body of knowledge, develop curriculum, provide thought leadership, etc.

I look forward to hearing from you, as always.

-  Courtney Hunt