Archive for October 2007



Social Network Or Community?

Social Network or Community?

I’ve been watching the rise of the social networking sites with fascination.  There has always been a bit of fuzziness (or violent controversy, depending on in which circles one is having the conversation!)  about what constitutes community in general, as well as about what constitutes online community.

I think the rise of online social networking gives us a new angle on this question.  It seems to me that my social network forms with me at the center, and allows me to branch out from there. This explains the online social network software’s “me” focus – First you post what it is you want others to be known about you, and then you go out to create connections to others

Community usually forms with something else at the center – a shared geographic location, a shared project, a shared interest – something around which people gather, and as a result of that gathering, develop deeper understandings of one another and of the community focus.  Community is where you get things done.  A social network is an invaluable tool for pulling people into community.

Social networks form bridges across communities. My memberships at the YMCA and the karate dojo have more than once resulted in my introducing a friend from one to the people I know at the other.  Like most people, I’ve landed jobs (and hence new strong ties to new organizations) as a result of introductions from people I’ve met in various communities.

Interestingly, though talk continues about whether a “virtual” community (one which exists primarily online) is in some fundamental way different from an offline one, nobody worries too much about whether a “virtual” connection to somebody through a social networking site is fundamentally different from an offline connection.  Now that a critical mass of ordinary people have a presence online, it’s more common to be in contact online with people to whom one is already connected offline.  Being introduced online just doesn’t seem to make a difference, what matters is the communities in which one participates after the connection is made.

My 18 year old son caved to pressure from his high school friends, and finally made a Facebook page before he headed off to college.  That page was quickly populated by friends from his high school community, and by a friendship link extended to the guy in Texas who was assigned to be his roommate.  These days, his friends page is dominated by people he’s met at college, but those other folks are still there, too.  It’s clear from just a casual perusal of his wall (I did NOT ask him to “friend” me, as somehow, having a shot of mom on your friends page is not exactly the kind of thing which enhances a young man’s image, but I can see his page because my son and I share a new community now – he is attending my alma mater, which makes him “in-network” according to Facebook)  that the network is primarily serving to maintain ties he’s formed through his new community membership at college.

My use of the same resource looks very different. Though some of my offline relationships are represented among my Facebook friends, a large number of my Facebook contacts are people I met online first.  That is likely an artifact of my age – most people not working online don’t really need an online presence the way I do so they just don’t have a page to link to, but I do have a lot of colleagues and friends I’ve met online in my Facebook network.

Which is to say, it is the nature of the community in which I participate which predicts the way in which I perform the networking function – almost all work and and maybe half my social contacts (because you make a lot of online friends when that’s where you work and a large part of where you like to play)  are the ones which get bridged with my online presence.  I’m still making those dojo introductions in person, and I expect to be doing so for some time to come

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iphoneipodmacbooksmThere’s a fascinating formal debate taking place on The Economist site this week. The proposition put forward is:

This house believes that the continuing introduction of new technologies and new media adds little to the quality of most education.

Speaking to the pro side is Sir John Daniel, President and Chief Executive Officer of The Commonwealth of Learning which is “an intergovernmental organisation created by Commonwealth Heads of Government to encourage the development and sharing of open learning/distance education knowledge, resources and technologies. COL is helping developing nations improve access to quality education and training.”

I don’t know that I agree with Sir John when he says there’s a zero-sum relationship among volume, quality, and cost. Technology changes that, a lot. One of the really amazing things about using the Internet, as in the Open University model, for example, is that there’s very little marginal cost associated with opening a program to a large number of additional learners.

What’s sort of sad is that the guy arguing the con side, Dr. Robert Kozma, Emeritus Director and Principal Scientist at SRI international, has to carefully qualify his argument in order even to make it. He says “new technologies and new media do make a significant contribution to the quality of education, at least under certain circumstances.”

I’ve spent the last 15 years of my career facilitating the incorporation of technology into educational programs. I wouldn’t have been doing this if I didn’t think I was in fact adding value to the world.  But it’s an area fraught with landmines.

The truth is it’s possible, and sadly, common to detract from the quality of a given learning opportunity by adding a lot of cognitive overhead in the form of new technology learners must master in order to access that learning opportunity!  Except in those programs which are explicitly designed to introduce technology, it’s probably a bad idea to require learners, or instructors, to master more than one new technological interface per course.  And it’s really better for learning efficiency if there’s NO new technology at all to master, so that one can free up one’s brain to learn the program material which is being presented, without having to be on guard against looking stupid because one doesn’t know exactly what to do.

My husband remarked to my son-the-junior-in-college and a classmate of his that really, they should savor their junior year.  As juniors, they know their way around the campus. They know how to figure out what the professors want. They have mostly fulfilled their core requirements, and are free to study the subjects that interest them in depth. And, they don’t yet need to devote energy to that looming question of “what’s next”.  In short, they are free to concentrate on the learning tasks at hand, without all that excess overhead to manage.

I don’t know that we can reliably simulate junior year in the groves of Academe here in the corporate training world. But I do think keeping that ideal in mind might curb some of our more technophilic tendencies to throw a lot of cool new stuff into our programs without sufficient thought about where the resources to master that stuff must be taken from!  If it’s worth teaching, it’s probably worth teaching in a format our learners have a level of comfort with.  And if we’ve got a brilliant idea for a new format which we really do have reason to believe will improve the cost/quality/reach of our programming, it’s probably worth taking some time to train learners in it’s use apart from whatever challenging programming we’d like to put into it.

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tivoboardIf the web-displayed email list is the oldest form of Web2.0 technology, the message board is probably the second-most venerable form of the read-write web.

For many web denizens, the message board is their first experience with publishing their words in a world-readable place. And though some would like to think this technology too “last century” to be of interest in a world with blogs, wikis, instant messaging, text messaging, and twitter-like micro-messaging, message boards continue to be in wide use, notably in customer-support “communities” for high-tech goods like those at Tivo. A board is literally comprised of message “planks,” each with subject line crying out for the attention which will solve a vital problem: “Tivo Crisis: HELP!” is a typical example.  In time, a Tivo employee assigned to answer customer questions, or possibly, a Tivo enthusiast who has encountered this problem previously will see the message, and either ask some additional questions or offer a suggestion, thus ending the transaction and quite possibly the customer’s relationship with the board and the people on it.

Message boards offer a range of affordances which tunes them well for this sort of application. Reputation management is a popular one, making it possible for somebody new to see immediately how others judge the value of a stranger’s contributions.

There is a difference, though, between leaving a message, in the hopes someone, anyone, will answer, and having a discussion with a group of colleagues who share one’s interest in exploring an idea or in moving a project forward.

It is for this latter purpose that discussion forums like Web Crossing, Caucus, and the discussion engine in our own eCampus are optimized.  Teams of people working together over time to create action plans, documents, or  new initiatives have different needs from those who are seeking answers to technical questions. They need to be able to attach a range of different resources, and to be able to search through those resources. They need to compare notes, and bounce ideas off one another. They need to track off-line communications – agendas and minutes from face to face meetings, links to resources elsewhere, recordings of key events. They need to track conversations they are not necessarily contributing to.  Discussion forums provide these affordances, and more.

It’s common practice in this era of social software to tack a message board onto an app and pronounce it a social networking or collaborative platform. But if your idea of collaboration requires providing web workspace where people known to one another can think together and riff off each other’s ideas, you need software which does more than take messages.  You need a full-featured discussion forum.

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Business Email 101

emailEducause has released their study of Students and Information Technology, 2007.  There’s not much startling in this report, which the authors characterize as a detailing of evolution, rather than revolution.  More students are using content management systems than ever. More have laptops than ever.  Many have complaints about the unhelpfulness of the college help desk, and the lack of expertise demonstrated by their instructors when the instructors incorporate technology into the curriculum.  Most use email to reach instructors and other institutional staff, and facebook, IM or text messaging to reach each other.

Indeed, email appears to have acquired something of a professional patina. What once seemed like a perfect medium for a quick note, looks, by comparison to the more immediate modalities of chat and instant messaging and mobile text messaging, more and more like something the old folks use to produce official correspondence.

Unfortunately, email’s rise to prominence for this kind of communication has not been accompanied by an initiative to teach the art of formal business correspondence.  High school writing texts still teach the formal business letter, which, while not having gone the way of the dinosaur quite yet, is sufficiently beyond the experience of most students to seem utterly irrelevant.

That this gap has significant repercussions for young people was illustrated this week at a college recruiting information session I attended with my daughter.  Representatives from several schools offered general tips on how to conduct a successful college search.  One of them spoke to the issue of email, addressing issues which startled me:

Email is an excellent way to reach us.  You may want to consider obtaining a separate email address for your college correspondence. That address should be “family friendly.”  You would not believe some of the addresses we see in our inboxes!

Please use actual words. At our prestigious institution of higher learning, we recognize “to”, “too”, and “2” as separate and independent concepts.  We appreciate correct spelling, punctuation, and capitalization.  Please use complete sentences.

Yikes. On the one hand, I’m appalled. On the other, how the heck are kids, or for that matter, our employees,  supposed to know what is expected in formal business correspondence if we don’t teach them?

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