Development not Training: an approach to social media for leaders

The Jisc Digital Leaders course is running again in May. Whenever we have run the course we have always had lots of questions about social media, especially Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin (sic).

These three particular platforms perhaps embody one of the key issues – and causes of angst – for many people both working in education and beyond: where do you draw the line between personal and professional? For some people the following is a rule of thumb:

  • Facebook: Personal
  • Linkedin: Professional
  • Twitter: complicated – with some people saying I only use it for work, and some saying I only use it for personal stuff!

At first glance it makes some sense, and I have heard variations on these distinctions in many workshops. There are two problems with it. Firstly, the affordances of the platforms are very different. Secondly, it creates an artificial divide in your life where there is a hard line between work (professional) and personal activities. Most people have friends of one degree or another in the workplace; it is after all where we spend a large part of our waking life.

One of the projects I was managing under the 2006 Users and Innovation Programme – aimed primarily at looking at how education was influenced by Web 2.0 – came up with the idea of social media behaviors being a continuum. The Open Habitat team posited that at one end of the continuum, individuals treated the web as a tool box, going online to do something, completing it, and going offline, leaving almost no social media trace. At the other end, some individuals had their identities more embedded in their social media use, actively engaging, having conversations, leaving digital footprints. . Framing these differing practices on a continuum allowed the team to think about how students engaged in online learning environments, especially – at that time – Second Life. The team, led by Dave White, coined the term Visitor – Resident for the continuum.

Canal Boat

At the time I was working with Dave Cormier around the idea of scenario planning for education. We recognized that whilst the Continuum was was useful for identifying how some students behaved in social media spaces for their learning, more nuance was needed. Whilst navigating a canal in the North of England, and joined at various times by Mark Childs, Richard Hall and Dave White, I reflected on my own practice and discussions I had had with Craig Wentworth (formly at Jisc) around attitudes to work-life balance. Craig described his own practice as a work-life blend: he and I, and others in our team and beyond (such as Dave Cormier) kept open social media and communication channels and were by nature flexible in our working hours. With this in mind, we reflected on the digital spaces we occupied – and how and why – and decided to map our various practices along the visitor – resident continuum.”

We also realized that more granular value and understanding could be achieved by adding an axis of personal / institutional use, turning the continuum into a tension pair. Later this was to become personal and professional (where professional could also be applied to a student’s formal learning activities).

This grid – and the leaders’ mapping of their own and organisational practices on it – are now established as part of the VandR toolkit. It is also a key part of the approach that we take on the Jisc Leaders Course to delegates’ use of social media (and other online tools). We are not training leaders to use social media, the tools we use are open ended, adaptable and focused on personal and professional development in the context of the individual. There are no template maps that can be elicited, no best practice that can be duplicated. The process is a journey, and the maps that leaders create are merely a snapshot of where their current practice stands. The Leaders Course uses the maps created as a development tool, allowing delegates to understand and reflect, with their peers, on what they do, and importantly what their aspirations are.

At the start of this post I talked about the angst of whether some social media and online tools are for work or personal. The process of creating a map of practice allows you to reflect on this, not dictating right or wrong, but allowing choices to be better understood. Look at 10 social media accounts of senior leaders in education and you will probably see 10 different approaches to how they project themselves, communicate and engage online. The Jisc Leaders Course approach to advice around social media, as well as providing help with getting started with the tools for those that need it, looks at the behaviours that leaders exhibit. Providing advice and guidance to enable delegates to create a more nuanced use of social media and online tools, to meet their needs and effectively communicate.


  1. One of the main ways to use the behavioural approach to learning in training and teaching is to specify clear behavioural objectives at the start The social learning theory is a development of early behaviourism theory. It proposes that people can learn, both directly and indirectly, by observing others.

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