Tag Archives: social networking

Extend Learning with Social Media

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the use of social media tools to extend and expand a given learning experience.  Because I work primarily with adult learners these days – continuing medical education, management training – I’m experimenting with various models to gain perspective on what works best for them. These motivated learners have typically come for one event – a seminar or a workshop – and the challenge is to encourage reflection and application beyond the boundary of the one instance. To tap into their stong relevancy orientation and to honor their significant life experience in the bargain. These are factors that seem ripe for social media.

The challenges are the usual suspects…not enough time, unfamiliar with the tools, how to keep the motivation going as you move away from the high-impact event.

Martin Luther Nailing his "95 Theses" to the door at Wittenberg

Looking for inspiration, I came across a wonderful article in the December Economist called How Luther Went Viral.  In this well written piece, the author talks about the Reformation, nearly 500 years ago, when Martin Luther used the media of his day to spread the word about religious reform (his 1517 nailing to the door of “95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences“).  Scholars have long debated the relative contributions of the printing press (a new technology at the time, allowing the mass circulation of pamphlets), versus getting the word out from the pulpit, in the oral tradition. While these tools were important, the article argues that the underlying critical factor at work was the system of media sharing along social networks that allowed the spread of these new ideas – what we refer to today in new media parlance as “the network effect”.

It turns out that Luther was pretty darned good at this. For instance, he opted to write in German (as opposed to the more scholarly Latin), he avoided regional vocabulary to ensure that his message had impact in wider geographical circles, he made full use of all the media of his day (woodcuts and songs as well as the pamphlets), and he recognized (and leveraged!) the way his media passed from one person to another which added up quickly to a wider audience than he originally expected.

The article goes on to explain that modern media theorists refer to participants in such a situation as the “networked public”, rather than an “audience”.  The distinction being that the people hearing Luther’s message were doing far more than just listening. This 16th century networked public discussed, participated, amplified and extended the message. So that each time the word passed along, it grew bigger and more impactful.

Bingo. That seems to me to be the key – reframe our instructional design so that we think of our learners as a “networked public” and create environments where they can do so much more than consume information.

Can I suggest a few actionable principles (and please, add your thoughts for more!):

– A regular schedule. The most effective social media-connected groups include a regular, heartbeat ritual to them – a weekly gathering, a daily post, or a regularly scheduled webinar – the instance is created to fit the needs of the group but the consistency is vital.
– Set intentions. Just as with any collaborating group, it’s critical to set out a clear intention for the group – what is it that we hope to achieve? – and then inform our design with those goals.
– Amplify the message. Seed and encourage plenty of opportunities for the networked participants to participate, discuss, dissect, share, apply and spread what is learned.
– The importance of facilitation. These experiments require a strong facilitator to urge everyone along, make connections, moderate discussion, and provide tactical support when needed.
– The importance of strong and weak ties. The most effective groups (whether in person or connected from a distance via social media) are those that consist of people with strong ties (those who know each other well and have worked together before) and weak ties (people new to the group).
– A combination of synchronous and asynchronous work.  It works well for the learners to have some opportunities to extend their learning right along with their peers, all together – and some opportunities to do so on their own time, when it’s convenient.  A healthy mix of both.
– The tools don’t matter.  Tools change – but the principles are the same.  While we’ll need to use and understand the tools in order to use them well, we want to keep our eye trained on what they allow us to do (the affordance).
What else?

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How Facebook Fails Me

I have a love hate relationship with Facebook.  On the one hand, it’s powerful, easy-to-use and impressively far-reaching.  I go there and, wham!  Updates from friends, new photos, links and stories to follow, and new friends to discover.  With more than 500 million active users, there is an undeniable ubiquitousness to Facebook.  Its reach leaves you breathless and its network effects are compelling.  I hate to whine, but Facebook really doesn’t work for me.  And here’s why.

What makes for a Friend.  The concept of friending on Facebook (and other social media sites) feels like a sledgehammer to me.  You are either a friend for life or you slap them in the face and “unfriend them”.  The average Facebook user has 130 friends.  I like to think that I have a more nuanced view of friendship than that.  My current Facebook “friends” are such a rag-tag group – from someone I met once at a professional dinner two years ago, to a long-ago acquaintance from high school that I haven’t spoken with in 20 years, to my dear friend in Bethesda who I talk with nearly everyday, to a relative that I barely know. In a social networking site that reflects the way I live my life, there should be a range of ways to keep and filter my online friends or unfriend them without it being such an insult.  No nuance here –  Facebook friendships are static, come only in one size, and they never expire.

Too Crowded. The news I get on my newsfeed is dominated by the people who post the most.  While that’s an obvious truth, it’s not necessarily the news and information I really want to read every single day.  Take today for instance, I scrolled endlessly on my Wall to find something that I cared about – I scrolled past endless trivia (meals eaten, places visited) from the lives of some, long complex posts in Spanish (and I don’t speak Spanish) from a hard-working professional acquaintance, details from the pending wedding of a friend’s daughter, and every single shot you can imagine of another friend’s newborn baby. There are too many tangentially related people in my network to make it useful or interesting to me.

If you go back to Facebook’s roots (as portrayed in the movie The Social Network, which I just saw last weekend – and loved – but it is the very thing that inspired this post), “The Facebook” was built as an effective and fun way for college students to keep track of each other, flirt with each other, and date each other. The college students that made Facebook go viral were all people in the same boat, at the same age, in the same stage of life.  And I think this is why Facebook is not for me – I am no longer in college, my friends and connections have exploded beyond the a small, tightly knit, like-minded community.  I interact with a range of groups – I don’t want to hear the same level of update from them and I don’t want to say the same things to all of them. Similarly, there is no provision for separating my personal and my work life – all of those people are thrown in there like some sort of perverse stone soup.

On the other hand, this is precisely what makes Facebook a perfect vehicle for my two teenaged sons.  The way they use it is, in fact, precisely the way it was intended to be used.

What’s mine.  Facebook and other social networks (Twtipic on Twitter, for instance) are of the opinion that sharing and ownership are mutually exclusive terms.  We have to think carefully about permissions and ownership when posting to a social networking site. I’ve stopped uploading photos to Facebook and Twitter. And you can never really delete your Facebook account – call me squirrely, but I really don’t like that.

Obtuse Permissions.  Facebook is intentionally designed so that ideas, products, images, and videoclips can go viral very quickly. That is its heartbeat.  But that heartbeat is also extremely intrusive.  If you want to change Facebook’s right to follow your clicks, invade your connections, or mine your data you really have to dig into the permissions preferences – you really have to know what you’re doing.

So, that’s it.  My rant.  Works for many – but not for me.


Filed under Reflections


Edchat Twitter Stream

If you’re an educator, looking for a reason to get up to speed on Twitter, take a look at Edchat.  This is a live event that happens each Tuesday at  two times – 12pm EST/ 5pm GMT and 7pm EST/ 12pm GM – on Twitter.  Educators from all over the world chime in with their answers to a question, proposed by the organizers,  Stephen Anderson, Tom Whitby, and Shelly Terrell.

Here is Shelly’s blog post, describing Edchat. Each week, the Edchat topic is voted on by the group.  You can send suggestions to Shelly, Tom or Stephen and then, on Monday of each week, they post five possible topics.  The topic with the most votes becomes the Edchat topic for that Tuesday.  Any Tweet that bears the hashtag – #edchat – will appear in the stream.  You can either search on the hashtag to pick up the stream, run it through an RSS feed, or if you’re using Tweetdeck (a sort of dashboard for Twitter), you can set up a column just for that steam.  Here’s a video tutorial on how to use Tweetdeck to monitor the stream.

If you have questions about how it works, you can get in touch with the moderators. For the 12pm EST #Edchat the moderators are @ShellTerrell and @Rliberni. For the 7pm EST Edchat the moderators are @MBTeach, @KylePace, and @TomWhitby.

People pose questions and answer them. They contribute suggestions, links, anecdotes, and arguments.  It’s a very lively bunch. In addition to the quality of the Tweets (mostly quite high), what struck me most was the power of the medium.  Here I was, in my own home, listening to 1000’s of smart, savvy educators – from all over the world – chime in on a conversation about a topic that interested me.  It’s the kind of experience you live for when you attend a national conference – that chance meet up in hallway or over a beer, where a group of interesting professionals gather for a few moments and exchange really helpful ideas about something important.  But this “meet up” was scheduled and it included 1000’s – and I didn’t have to get on a plane to listen in. A global brainstorming session, with (according to “what the trend“) 3500 contributions.

I was also struck by the courtesy of the group.  People responded to each other, supported concerns, and thanked each other for suggestions. No flamers here – what a welcome change.

Of course, it’s not perfect.  During the hour that I sat, scanning my Tweetdeck stream, I found myself getting irritated over the number of retweets (people forwarding on a Tweet they liked), resulting in bombardment with the same Tweet over and over again.  As you’d expect, there are a few spammers or advertisers that get in there (not too bad).  There are a few ridiculous comments that don’t bear mentioning.  But, on the whole, there’s some extremely good stuff.  I would say that, over the course of the hour, I learned a large handful of things I’d never heard before, laughed over a few very poignant stories, linked out to at least 50 different web sites (most of which were extremely useful), and choose 4 or 5 new people to follow in my regular Twitter stream.  There were teachers taking polls (trying to get a feel for opinions or patterns), teachers trolling for ideas (first day suggestions, how to use classroom blogs,

Fortunately, the organizers have developed a wiki site to accompany their Twitter live event.  There, you’ll not only find a directory of all the active Edchat participants (including their email addresses and interests) but a complete transcript of each Edchat session, listed by date. Here’s the transcript from this week’s Edchat session, “Should teachers have students write blogs, develop class web sites/wikis, create student PLNs?”

To help with the retweeting problem, I turned to Paper.Li, which is a nifty online tool that turns a particular Twitter stream into an online newspaper, complete with categories and highlights.  You can read more about Paper.Li in this blogpost of mine, from a few weeks ago.  This was a great way to read the #Edchat stream because it eliminates the redundancies, promoting most mentioned items to headline status.  Great way to see all the videos together as well.  Here’s what this week’s Edchat looks like in Paper.Li:

The organizers have also started a Personal Learning Network (PLN), using Ning, for those educators who want to continue the conversation.  On the Ning site, I see that some educators have formed subgroups to start projects at their own schools or carry on a conversation about a related topic.  Nice. And here’s where I get to repeat a frequent (not-original) conclusion of mine – these participatory media tools are so much more powerful when they are used in combination with each other.  In this case…. Twitter, a Ning site, and a wiki.  Magic.

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Filed under Reflections on Teaching, Teaching with Technology


I know that Facebook’s been taking a bruising in the press these days, with the privacy setting problems and all, but I’ve had a few recent (and revealing) occassions to be impressed, all over again, with Facebook’s reach.

Betty White as host on SNL

My observation here has to begin with the terrific Betty White story.  You’ve all heard it by now.  The Facebook group page “Betty White to host SNL (please)?” received over 200,000 fans, all urging the producers of Saturday Night Live (SNL) to hire the 88-year old actress as a host for the show.  Here’s the video of her SNL monologue  – arriving fresh on the request of some quarter of a million fans who voted – abnd applied pressure to television network executives – with their keyboards.

My next example comes from a high school teacher that I admire feverantly – Kim Foglia.  She’s an extremely dedicated AP Biology teacher in Pennsylvannia who manages to keep up with her science and keep up with the times.  She makes regular posts on a biology teaching listserv that I follow and I always find her advice worth following.  Last week she posted this:

I moved to Facebook for student communication out of necessity. Before this
year, I could send an e-mail to my students and be assured that they
would get the info in a timely fashion. But I quickly discovered this
year that students don’t check e-mail anymore… they check FB.
So I moved to where they were.
I made my own account, but I didn’t ask my AP students to make unique
FB personas for themselves.
I don’t hang out on FB with them. I swoop in and send an e-mail
(updates on assignments or class info) or post an article and then
swoop out.
That’s worth repeating…”I moved to where they are.”  If only more teachers felt that way.

And finally, from my soon-to-be college freshman son (who checks Facebook as reflexively as most of us check our watches). He was working his way through the byzantine system that his college-of-choice has set up for roommate selection in the dorms.  There was a questionnaire (“Which of the following is most important to you….a) academic success  b) meeting new friends  c) staying up late to party….you get the idea) and a complex method for pairing yourself up with someone who shares your interests.  After a few hours struggling with it, my son announced that it was ridiculous and that he’d rely on Facebook instead.  Sure enough, there were Facebook groups already set up for finding like-minded roommates at his college – along with every other college on the planet, it seems.

Privacy settings are no laughing matter, and I’m still sorting out what it all means (as should our schools and teachers – and parents).  But one thing is crystal clear, there is tremendous power in our social networking tools.

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Filed under Teaching with Technology, Technology Trends

Polyvore: Community Building Around Fashion

Assembling a "set" at Polyvore

Here’s a new one on me – fashionistas uniting, creating, and communing online at a web site called Polyvore.  On this site you can create fashion “sets” – sort of collage assemblages – made of pictures of merchandize, clipped from all over the Web. Polyvore-istas get their images from online boutiques, department stores, jewelry wholesalers, online shoe stores, and catalogues.  The Polyvore site provides you with the collage-making tools – an electronic clipper, basic text tools, background options, along with tools to shrink, flip, or enlarge – and then save them in your “closet”.  The Polyvore-ist (they sometimes refer to themselves as “Polywhores”) assembles their pieces in an artful arrangement – often including cosmetics, accessories, background images, flowers, and even a picture of a fashion models (or themselves!) to complete the ensemble.  Polyvore limits you to a maximum of 50 items per set, which seems sufficient for most of its registered users – which, btw, number 1.4 million.

“It’s sort of like playing paper dolls with pictures of real clothes”, explains Alexandra Jacobs in a recent New Yorker article about the site. As background for her article, Jacobs did a ride-along of a user test, at Polyvore’s Mountain View, California offices.  They invited a frequent Polyvore-ista, from Calgary, who goes by the handle “MyChanel”, to come to Mountain View and put together a set while the engineers (and Jacobs) observed her in action.  I found the description of the way MyChanel worked absolutely fascinating (the article is worth a careful read), but what intrigued me the most was the social element of the thing.  Before MyChanel could start assembling her set, she wanted to clear the messages on her Polyvore home page. There were direct messages from some of her 9,356 international contacts, along with comments on a set that she’d posted the previous day. When she completed the test set for the Polyvore engineers, she accumulated 60 comments in the first 12 minutes. That’s a lot of socializing! MyChanel described how much she enjoys the comaraderie of the Polyvore site – plus she loves having an anonymous identity. Her friends (her “Polypals”) on the site know her by her sets – and by her comments on other people’s sets.

Of course, there is a Polyvore blog site, a Polyvore Facebook group, YouTube tutorials, and you can follow Polyvore on Twitter (@polyvore). Polyvore organizes events and contests – timed or themed set building or sponsored competitions (for instance, Nike invited Polyvores to create “a look that best showcases how you like to look good and feel great” – winners would receive NikeWomen.com gift cards).

In addition to comments on various sets on the Polyvore site, there is an “ask” section of the site. Browsing through that, I read entries to help decide what “looks good on me” or “what should I wear with this skirt?”  It’s clear that these women (and they do seem to be mostly women) are not just assembling collages, they are also buying (based on what they see) and talking with each other about what they’re sporting in their real lives.  Each item in a collage has embedded information about where you can purchase it. So, as a model of a free online service driving commerce, Polyvore seems to be working pretty darned well.

What an intriguing idea this is.  I mean, I’m not much of a fashionista myself, but imagine a site like this set up around a field of study  – students assembling their own online scrapbooks of American History or a self-assembled study guide of images by topic.  Perhaps portfolios of art work, gardening, architecture, or cooking.  Or how about interdisciplinary projects, where students assemble collages of visuals to represent significant documents, inventions, religious practices, political movements, literature, and significant events of a particular time period?  A whole world of options comes to mind.

And once again (how many times do we need to hear this?) – it’s really all about building community around something that lights your fire.  Rage on Polyvore!


Filed under Project ideas

Beth Kanter: The Networked Nonprofit (NMC Symposium Keynote)

Beth Kanter, International Social Media expert, gave the second keynote talk at the New Media Consortium’s Symposium for the Future today.  It was a wonderful session on the use of social media by non-profits, chock-full of great stories and examples.


Beth Kanter's entrance

She started off her session with a bang, by arriving in a Jetson’s-style vehicle, to the opening tune of the old Jetson’s TV show, wearing a pink, Jetson’s-style outfit.  What an entrance!

She went on to talk about what she termed, “Free Agent Fundraising”…that is, running campaigns using Facebook, Twitter, blogging, and other social media tools to raise money for a particular cause.  It’s happening and it’s effective. Agencies like… the Red Cross, Environmental Defense Fund, American Cancer Society, Wildlife Direct have all become “networked nonprofits”.  They are groups that have learned to work in a networked way.

Beth went on to identify and explain what she saw as four key themes to working in a networked way:

Simplicity.  Identify what your organization does best and network the rest.


Wildlife Direct

Movements. Learn to work in a networked way.  Or working “wiki-ily”.  For example Wildlife Direct.  Their basic approach is to encourage bloggers to write stories, the potential donors read those stories, donors make online donations, rangers do anti-poaching education, and the result?  More and safer wildlife.  The blogs are written by conservationists and others in the field – so they have urgency and authenticity.  But they don’t stop with fundraising – the goal of their work is to create a powerful enough movement to be able to respond to any conservation emergency quickly and effectively.  They’re not just turning on the switch and asking for money – they are keeping the network going so that, when an emergency occurs, they can catalyze the group into action.

Network weaving. Think rhizomatic plants (shared root systems).  One part of the plant gets nutrients, shares it with the others.  Organizations need people who weave new and richer connections between and among people, groups, and networks.  With that sort of weaving, the positive effects are amplified.  Beth says, it’s like Fantasia and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  Self-replicating behavior (broomsticks). These “weavers” model the networking behavior and spread it.


The Mending Wall

Transparency. Beth explains that it is important for an organization to ask (and answer)…what is private and what needs to be secure?  She encourages groups to be more fearless about what they share.  And to inspire us, she read the Robert Frost poem,  The Mending Wall.  She reminds us that is important to think about where you build these walls and that those walls might need to be moved, as the plans evolve and the context changes.

After developing those themes, she went on (with some great dog pictures) to encourage us to learn to become more comfortable with discomfort – to embrace our fears.  She explains that working in this networked way does indeed suggest some scary stuff but that if we embrace it, the benefits will come.  Here are some great examples of the “ohmigod” style fears that she hears from people when considering the use of social media…

  • ohmigod, emloyees will spend all their time on Facebook or tweeting…
  • ohmigod, we’ll be sued…
  • ohmigod, the wrong information will leak to the wrong people…
  • omhigod, engaging in social media won’t give us any time for reflection…

Sound familiar?  Beth urges us to embrace those fears, start easy (with small experiments), if need be, but move on.

And here are some helpful links, with many thanks to Beth.  Her blog.  And a fantastic wiki called We are Media, which is full to the brim of presentations, advice, tools, and tips for non-profits considering the use of social media tools to advance their agenda.

Wonderful session!


Filed under Virtual Worlds


From Unfocused Mike, Flickr Creative Commons

From Unfocused Mike, Flickr Creative Commons

Here’s another article, this one from USA Today (sorry about that), summarizing the latest thinking on social networking and the “contagion” idea (see previous post on social networking and contagion).  This article pulls together a few threads from different places…I like the idea put forth of flocking or schooling behavior as an analogy for human social networking.  And this image of birds on a wire really spoke to me.

Of course, there’s the usual drivel in this article, this time from Michael Bugeja (Iowa State University) who expresses concern that social networking sites, like Facebook, are just data mining and not “programmed to bring you a friend”.  Per usual, this sort of thinking misses the point.  Facebook, like any of the social networking sites, is a tool.  You use it to help you to build relationships, expand your network, deepen your connections.  It’s  like a fork or a shovel or a flashlight.  Not inherently good nor evil – just a tool.  No one is expecting Facebook to “bring them a friend” – they’re using it to deepen and broaden the connections they have. Why is it that people find that simple concept so difficult to internalize?  And speaking of tools, they make the point, in this article that, in addition to using social networking sites as a tool to extend one’s network, it is also a tool for social scientists to use to accurately measure our friendships and connections.  Good point.

I really like the wrap up in this article…”We’re not substituting online for offlline.  We’re augmenting.”


Filed under Technology Trends

Social Networking and Contagion

From the NYTimes

From the NYTimes

If you haven’t yet read the Sunday NY Times article on social networks (written by Clive Thompson) and their relationship to behavior, do it. Stop what you’re doing now (alright, maybe finish reading this post) and go read it.  You’re going to love it.

To recap briefly…for years, social scientists have been looking for an extensive enough data set to more fully investigate the theory that certain human behaviors are “contagious”.  That is, that our behavior is strongly influenced by the behavior of those around us. There are some really intriguing questions tucked into that theory…how does the shape of social network influence and affect the way people behave? How do information, gossip, influence, and opinion flow through a network and impact the people in it?

Enter the Framingham Heart Study.  Starting in 1948, researchers began tracking individuals to investigate the common factors contributing to cardiovascular disease by following a large group of participants over a long period. There are a number of cohorts in the study, but overall, the researchers have followed more than 15,000 people, spanning three generations, over 50 years.

Turns out, in addition to their basic health and wellness information, the Heart Study’s researchers also collected the names of the participants’ family and friends.  And it was that wonderful data pool that attracted researchers, James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis.  Working with the Framingham Study data, they used the connections information to manually reconstruct the social ties of the Framingham group.  Through painstaking work, they constructed a map of how 5,124 subjects were connected – friends, family, and work colleagues.  Then they added in weight loss/gain data and created an animated diagram of the network, with each resident displaying as a dot that grew bigger or smaller as he or she gained or lost weight over a 32-year period. As the animation ran, they could see that obesity broke out in clusters.  Check out the illustrations in this Wired magazine article about the research and you can see that groups of people would become obese, while other groups remained slender (same with the smokers).  Whoa.

But they didn’t stop there.  They continued to mine the data, finding more examples of contagious behavior.  For instance, smoking and drinking seemed to spread socially.  Even happiness and loneliness.  But how does it work? Chritakis and Flower hypothesize that these behaviors spread partly through the subconscious social signals that we pick up from those around us. In other words, we decide what is “normal” from the people to whom we are most closely connected.  That makes sense.  But you have to wonder what comes first, the chicken or the egg….I mean, are you drinking because those around you are drinking or did you seek those people out because you are a drinker and they seemed like good company?  The article points out the confounding factor of “homophily”, the tendency of people to gravitate toward others who are like them. Social relationships are so complex and it’s difficult to weed out where cause and effect begins and ends.

The scientists themselves agree that their friendship map isn’t perfect and there are many questions still to be investigated  but there is clearly quite a bit here for us to chew on as we groom and cultivate our online social networking.  For instance, one of their findings is that some social behaviors can skip links.  That is, spread to a friend of a friend without impacting the connecting person.  Hmm….And another of their findings – they discovered that behaviors appear to spread differently depending on the type of connection.  They’ve identified something they refer to as “directionality” in a relationship.  That is, I might identify Karen as my close friend, but Karen might not think of me in the same way.  In that scenario, Karen is much more likely to influence my behavior than I am to influence hers.  But if our friendship is mutual, apparently, the influence can be huge.  That seems like a good one to ponder as it relates to the importance of adding value to your network connections.

It also seems natural to use this model to predict that the best way to change your behavior is to surround yourself with people who are also trying to change that behavior (or have already done it).  So, if a teacher wants to change what she is doing with her students, she’d better find herself a like-minded networking group (or reshape her existing network) so as to surround herself with those reinforcing connections.  Hard to do if you can only select from the people who live geographically close, but much easier to do when you have a live internet connection and tons of social networking tools at your disposal.  Christakis and Fowler even point out that “you don’t need a lot of people, but you do need the right ones.”  Amen.

Christakis and Fowler have published their findings in the New England Journal of Medicine and have book, Connected:  The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives coming out later this month.

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