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Dec 2016

Listening – social learning’s most important skill

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Shaping the future of learning

When thinking about the skills of a 21st century learner the emerging skills of curation and networking might come to mind; or you might draw on ideas around participatory culture such as Jenkins’ (2009) core media literacies:

  • Play: the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving;
  • Simulation: the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real world processes;
  • Performance: the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery;
  • Appropriation: the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content;
  • Multi-tasking: the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus onto salient details on an ad hoc basis;
  • Distributed Cognition: the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities;
  • Collective Intelligence: the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others towards a common goal;
  • Judgment: the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources;
  • Transmedia Navigation: the ability to deal with the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities;
  • Networking: the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information;
  • Negotiation: the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative sets of norms;
  • Visualization: the ability to interpret and create data representations for the purposes of expressing ideas, finding patterns, and identifying trends

Following the recent work of Wise, Hausknecht and Zhao (2014), perhaps we should add listening to this list as we understand more about the skill of digital listening. Similar to my recent reflections, Wise et al also argue that labels such as ‘lurkers’ or ‘readers’ are not appropriate metaphors for social learning and instead they introduce the ‘listening’ metaphor with appropriate associations to face-to-face conversations. Listening is a complex cognitive process and a mode of active, rather than passive, learning and so fits in well with some of the participatory concepts above. In a digital space they describe listening as attending to other people’s posts.

A key difference for digital listening skills is the asynchronous nature of social media – learners are not constrained to the timeline of when comments were made (unlike face-to-face where you generally need to be in the room at the same time) and they can attend to the discussion for how long and in whichever order they chose. Threaded discussions can also branch off into many directions presenting learners with a larger decision space and greater range of behaviours. Those with lower digital listening skills may find this new space to be chaotic (imagine the first time you see Twitter and how it updates before you can read it if you don’t know how to navigate it).

Wise et al identify four common types of digital listening – which one best describes you? And do you use different listening strategies with different media?

  • Disregardful - Minimal attention to others’ posts (few posts viewed; short time viewing). Brief and relatively infrequent sessions of activity in discussions.
  • Coverage - Viewing a large proportion of others’ posts, but spending little time attending to them (often only scanning the contents). Short but frequent sessions of activity in discussions, focusing primarily on new posts.
  • Focused - Viewing a limited number of others’ posts, but spending substantial time attending to them. Few but extended sessions of activity in discussions.
  • Thorough - Viewing a large proportion of other’s posts and spending substantial time attending to many of them. Long overall time spent listening; considerable revisitiation of posts already read.

Wise et al further categorise these in a matrix based on the depth and breadth of listening: 


Breadth and depth of social listening matrix

Their study goes to show that listeners who adopt a pattern with high depth tend to provide more useful comments and feedback to progress the discussion and create a discursive environment. So if you’re looking to create a thriving learning community in your organisation then thinking about you can develop digital listening skills among your learners should be a priority.



Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture : Media Education for the 21 Century. Digital Media. MIT Press. Retrieved November 30, 2016, from

Wise, A. F., Hausknecht, S. N., & Zhao, Y. (2014). Attending to others’ posts in asynchronous discussions: Learners’ online “listening” and its relationship to speaking. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 9(2), 185–209.



Shaping the future of learning

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