Social Networking: Weaving the Web of Informal Ties

Stefanie PankeBy Stefanie Panke
Editor, Social Software in Education

The term networking describes the behavioral patterns that people display to gain, maintain and make use of social relationships in a professional context. The relevance of the concept has increased in recent years due to its ascribed positive effects on individual career paths. Online social networking aims to strengthen informal ties, even within formal settings. These informal connections may ease the stress and stiffness of work-related tasks. People who are part of the informal social network provide resources or further contacts, and reciprocal advantages emerge among the networkers. Examples include simplifying workflows (“cutting through the red tape”), passing on strategic information and mentoring network members in their professional development.

Whereas networking traditionally takes place during conference breaks, in the office’s kitchenette or at the water dispenser, nowadays more and more business contacts are established online. “Social Networking once meant going to a social function such as a cocktail party, conference, or business luncheon. Today, much social networking is achieved through Web sites such as MySpace, Facebook, or LinkedIn” (Roberts & Roach, 2009, pp. 110-111)

For the majority of students the profile in a social networking community is a natural part of their everyday communication portfolio – just as indispensable as the cell phone or e-mail address.

Since student life is to a great and increasing degree mediated through social networking platforms, academic teachers can hardly ignore these environments.

Platforms such as MySpace and Facebook are likely to attract more student attention than the university’s learning management system. These “social” Web portals form a widely accepted virtual meeting point to deal with the social components of campus life.

This new gathering point challenges academic teachers to find a personal strategy for dealing with social networking sites. Should teachers leave the social networking playground to students or should they actively engage in social networking practices to open up a new communication channel with their students? What platforms are out there to choose from, what appeals to their respective target group and what are the prospects and problems of these Web sites?

Examples

In general, all social networking Web sites are used to organize social contacts online. However, networks differ in their character, which depends on the applications offered, the conventions of use and the kind of relationships displayed in the network. Depending on the character of the site, the member profile page highlights specific aspects of the user’s personality and interests and mediates how he or she interacts with other members. For instance, Facebook, which targets mainly students, features a high amount of informal communication and games, differing in this respect from the platform LinkedIn, which is particularly focused on professional contacts and thus features business recommendations and testimonials. There are numerous social networking sites, which differ greatly in their focus and reach. The following examples are either widely used or specifically target an academic audience:

Facebook: Founded in 2004, the platform has 300 million active users per month. Originally, Facebook was accessible for a limited target group. Until September 2006, users needed the e-mail address of a university to register. Still, students are the dominant member group, though other segments are picking up.

LinkedIn: Since its launch in 2003, the network has attracted 50 million users worldwide. The Web site allows registered users to maintain a contacts list with trusted business acquaintances (so called connections). For student supervisors it is a helpful tool to provide recommendations and support graduates entering the job market.

NING: In this Web community, groups can create and manage their own social network. Ning was launched in October 2005 and has more than 1.6 million members. Examples for e-learning related networks are the AACE Connect community organized by the Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE) or the Special Interest Group Evaluation of Learners’ Experiences of E-Learning (ELESIG).

MySpace: Since its launch in 2004, the music community and other interest groups continue to heavily use MySpace. Each month 125 million users worldwide log in to their account, search for songs, bands and tour dates, add contacts and post their own photos and videos. Users may continue to access MySpace for political happenings such as the last presidential election or healthcare bill. A rubric dedicated to education and the organization of school events is MySpace School.

ResearchGATE was founded in May 2008. The platform aims to create an international network of scientists and has been quite successful so far. ResearchGATE has 180,000 members worldwide and grows with a rate of approximately 1000 new member registrations daily. The features are targeted to a scientific audience, for instance, supporting the “self archiving” of publications.

scholarz.net has been in existence since 2007 and has approximately 3000 members. The site is a mixture of citation management tool, search engine and meeting point for  scholars. The start-up was originally a research project at the German University of Würzburg. The academic background along with its advertisement free environment adds to the credibility of the site. In the future, their business model foresees member fees.

Prospects

An important part of the university experience is building personal relationship networks. Contacts with fellow students are constantly negotiated, evaluated and maintained collaboratively. Whereas common activities strengthen relationships, inactivity renders them fragile or stagnant at best. Communicating through social networking pages is a means to foster and deepen interpersonal contacts. At this, users are by and large not attracted by the anonymity of the WWW. Despite the potential of global networking, a major amount of contacts maintained through social networks mirrors local binds and relationships to friends, study peers or working colleagues (Livingstone, 2008).

A heavily cited advantage of engaging in social networks goes back to the work and writings of Granovetter (1974). According to the researcher, strong social ties towards friends, neighbors or family members are less relevant for finding a job or choosing a career path than indirect or transient contacts (weak social ties). Social networking platforms make it easier to find indirect connections through visualizing second and third degree contacts. Thereby, one can, with little effort, leverage these contacts and make them a part of one‘s personal network. Plus, the profile page in a social networking site starts to replace the personal homepage. It opens up an easy way to gain experiences in designing Web pages and putting together references and other CV information.

All in all, social networking platforms can be seen as relationship management tools that answer everyday questions of student life. When again is the birthday of my new pal from the introductory course? How can I reach the members of my study group? Short status messages allow for easy navigation in one’s own social network, track activities and keep up to date.  Although students use networks such as Facebook chiefly for informal communication, organizing learning activities is in many cases a sidekick to simply having fun.

Problems

The ubiquitous presence of social networking sites in campus life can develop an unwelcomed dynamic. As a matter of principle, the nature and amount of personal information displayed online should be a personal decision by the individual student. But when all fellow students, the tutors and even the teacher meet on facebook, how can one afford to stay behind? Once a member, the student has to cope with the continuous stream of information. Do I have to react to every short message? Should I also become a member in this new learning network? How many online identities can I manage at a time? The pressure and urge to be ubiquitously present and constantly online can turn out to be detrimental to a student’s learning experience.

The unchecked and uncontrollable aggregation of data and the potential for commercial leverage of member profiles are two central points of criticism when it comes to social networking. Different providers follow specific business models, e.g., collecting fees for special services or unlimited storage, advertising general and personalized products based on information in the members’ profiles.

The close interplay between the social networking profile and the person’s relationship management results in a state of dependence towards the provider. What happens when the provider changes the terms of use? Facebook, for example, introduced in 2006 the feature “Newsfeeds.” Many users protested against this decision that created more transparency and awareness of personal information (Boyd, 2008). In the end users can only choose between the two options of accommodating or leaving the platform altogether.

Likewise, the postings and comments of other users, which are displayed within one’s own profile, result in a loss of personal control. Each online identity needs continuous maintenance to be free of spam and other unwanted pictures, games or comments. This upkeep is particularly important since employers increasingly use the Internet for background checks.

Teaching and Learning Scenarios

  • Coordination: Several academic teachers started using Facebook as a tool for working together with colleagues, tutors, research assistants and students. The short messages and status notifications are ideal for arranging duties and coordinating cooperative tasks. As Sara Dixon from the department of psychology at St. Edward’s University puts it: “It is so fast . . . . They check their facebook profile more often than their email account.” The Creative Writing Network on Facebook is a collection of teaching material shared between academics. As the profile page says: “It’s a place to share book and article titles of craft criticism, announce events related to teaching creative writing, and discuss issues in our field.”
  • Narration: Brown & Donohue (2007) describe the use of social networking portals in literature studies. When discussing fictional characters in the classroom, a character specific MySpace-profile offers the link to a context students are familiar with:  “[…] it can be useful to ask what that character’s MySpace page might look like — what might such a character include in their ‘Interests’ or ‘About Me’ section? The MySpace template offers students a way to talk about identity construction in familiar ways.”

Alumni: The German university RWTH Aachen uses the platform XING as a tool to support alumni. The alumni group was established in October 2004 and now has 9000 members. Another example is the facebook group from Thomas College or the University of California group on MySpace.

  • Lectures: The media informatics work group of Prof. Oliver Vornberger from the German University of Osnabrück has developed a plug-in for Facebook called social virtPresenter. It allows the distribution of lecture recordings via the social networking site. This supports social navigation through the lecture contents.

Conclusions

Whether or not academic teachers choose to create personal social networking profiles and the degree to which they make use of it is a personal decision, one that cannot be made unambiguously from a pedagogical point of view. Mazer et al. (2007) researched the influence of teachers’ Facebook profiles on student motivation, learning behavior and learning climate. In addition, students were allowed to comment on how appropriate they perceived the teachers’ Facebook profiles. Despite positive effects on student motivation in the experimental setting, the majority of subjects surveyed reported that an in-depth teacher profile appears to them as “unprofessional.”

Since student life is to a great and increasing degree mediated through social networking platforms, academic teachers can hardly ignore these environments. Knowledge and personal experience can help instructors to facilitate media competence, critical reflection and responsible use of social networking tools among students. Whenever an openly accessible Web site becomes part of the official learning environment, teachers have a certain responsibility for the way students present themselves and interact with each other online. If open social networks are to be used, it makes sense to develop a respective “netiquette.” Furthermore, teachers need to create awareness of privacy settings.

Social networks with an academic focus, such as ResearchGATE or scholarz, offer the advantage of features that are tailored to the target group of researchers and students. They offer options to manage citations, post presentations and articles, and support educational activities. This makes them a good starting point for teachers to get into social networking.

Patterns in the Design of Ed Media: An Interview with Christian Kohls

Stefanie PankeBy Stefanie Panke
Editor, Social Software in Education

Christian Kohls is a software developer, community manager, and e-learning researcher. Since August 2009, he has worked for SMART Technologies, the international producer of interactive whiteboards. Prior to his current position, he worked at the Knowledge Media Research Center, where we had been colleagues for many years. Christian’s main research foci are patterns for interactive graphics and educational media. In March 2009, he organized an international workshop on e-learning patterns.

He has recently won the best paper award at the E-Learning 2009, the largest conference on e-learning in the German speaking areas. Another indicator of his distinctive contribution to the field of patterns in instructional design is the so called “Shepherding Award” that he received at this years’ EuroPLoP conference in Irsee, for his effort as a conference reviewer.

Christian Kohls

SP: Christian, can you explain what patterns are and what impact they have on designing educational media?

CK: Patterns capture experience about forms of good design or successful practices. Experts have a whole bunch of patterns in their mind, and they apply them in the course of designing media or lesson activities. Somebody who “knows how to do it” knows the right patterns. There is no reason for hype – it’s all about craftsmanship and sharing practical knowledge. And that’s why patterns are important to the design of educational media. Would you go to a doctor who invents a new treatment every time instead of using tried and tested practices? The same is true for educational media: Instructional designers have the professional knowledge to address standard problems. Patterns are an effective way of sharing and communicating this knowledge for two reasons:

  1. First, the pattern format offers a specific reflection on forms or practices. A pattern description reasons about why an established solution is a good solution to recurrent problems and in which context it is applicable. The fit between a solution and the context of a problem is very important and offers a holistic view. A pattern explicitly tells us which forces have influenced the design decisions. In each pattern description you will find context information, a problem statement, a discussion of forces, and the description of a tested solution that resolves these forces.
  2. The second reason that makes patterns useful is their medium level of abstraction. A pattern is neither too abstract nor too concrete. It generalizes enough to reduce the complexity of things a designer needs to know. Only an abstracted form spans a design space which lets the designer adapt to specific needs of a new situation. However, there are limits to the process of abstraction. A pattern that is too abstract loses its “gestalt” and does not provide enough instructions for practical implementation.

SP: When did you first develop an interest in patterns?

CK: I encountered software design patterns when I studied computer science – and I was right into it. The now famous book Design Patterns – Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software may have been the most important book for my professional career as a software developer. It addresses a lot of problems that I stumbled into when I tried to design larger architectures. Large architectures soon become very complex, and I lacked the experience of how to deal with such systems. Design patterns gave me answers from experts. Not only did this help me to solve the problems I was aware of but it also uncovered that there were problems I had previously ignored. Design patterns allowed me to understand the problems and become an expert myself. There is a difference between knowing and understanding a problem. Once you understand the problem you can really see how and why the given solutions work.

_______________________________

Many multimedia applications use interactive elements. Can you always tell why the designer has chosen the specific form of interaction? No? Well, me neither. Interactivity should be a means to an end, but very often you get the impression that it is used as an end in itself or to make the product “cool.”

_______________________________

Over time my work focus shifted more and more to the field of education. If you are trained in thinking analytically about computation and programming, all the literature on instructional design, online pedagogy, and learning theory feels like a maze. I was collecting educational patterns in my very own interest: I wanted to learn how to produce and author educational media that have real instructional value. What I found was that very often pedagogical models were too abstract for beginners – that is, they did not tell me what to do practically. On the other hand, I found many case studies and reports that were way too extensive for my purpose. They described a lot of details irrelevant to me. Or, more exactly, as a beginner it’s hard to judge what matters or not when you can’t see the woods for the trees. I felt the need for a structured approach to reflect on the reasons for choosing a specific educational practice. For example, many multimedia applications use interactive elements. Can you always tell why the designer has chosen the specific form of interaction? No? Well, me neither. Interactivity should be a means to an end, but very often you get the impression that it is used as an end in itself or to make the product “cool.” I am interested in what benefits a specific form of interaction offers so I can decide when to use it and when to avoid it. That is why I started writing my own educational patterns about the effective use of interactive graphics. And that’s also when I got in touch with the pattern community for the first time.

SP: What is so special about this particular community?

CK: The pattern community is a great example of a community of practice that really works. Many great books and products are owed to that community. For example, the first Wiki by Ward Cunningham was designed to collaboratively write and share patterns. I think we have a certain spirit in the community: There is a culture of giving and sharing and, yes, we want to make this world a better place. This might sound funny. But seriously, if you create educational media that help people to learn more effectively or to better understand the topic, you have improved the world a little. Patterns are about solving problems – and that’s a good thing, isn’t it? The amazing thing about the pattern community is that it is not only about idealism but about practical work. We reflect a lot about design and then we write down which forms have worked for what reasons. We give this knowledge to the public as a gift. And we get a lot back from other people who are sharing their own experiences. I think gift culture and our common goal to further good design practice is what drives this community.

SP: Can you summarize your personal lessons learned from attending the PLoP conferences?

CK: We use a special format at PLoP conferences, the Writer’s Workshops. In that workshop you are not presenting your paper but other participants are discussing your paper. They point out what they liked and give a lot of suggestions for improvement. I have never experienced a better feedback culture than in PLoPs. In fact, I have learned to give more constructive feedback since I attend PLoP conferences. You will find that even the best paper can be improved, and you will find that even the worst submission has some parts to be praised. And the same is true for every product in the world. You

_______________________________

But not everything that is labeled a pattern really is a good pattern. What we need is to establish quality standards, and I think we can learn a lot from qualitative research methods.

_______________________________

may have noticed that I am fully convinced of patterns. But not everything that is labeled a pattern really is a good pattern. What we need is to establish quality standards, and I think we can learn a lot from qualitative research methods. From my point of view, patterns are theories about good practices, which means we can develop academic standards for pattern mining, pattern writing, and pattern evaluation. Many other members of the community were interested in this idea, and I had some very good discussions. But I have learned that I need to package my scientific reasoning more practically. What we need are patterns to judge the quality of patterns!

SP: Can you name some patterns every instructional designer should know?

CK: I am afraid that we still don’t have one tried and true set of patterns that apply to the wide world of instructional design. This definitely is a task for the community in the next few years. Fortunately, the number of people who write educational patterns is growing. We had workshops on pedagogical patterns on the last EuroPLoPs, the European branch of the community. A good starting point is the pedagogical pattern project which has collected patterns for more than 10 years now. The more recent patterns are found at the EuroPLoP conference web pages.

SP: If somebody is interested in the approach, what is a good starting point to learn more or even get involved in the pattern community?

CK: The best starting point is the website of the Hillside Group. They organize all the PLoPs and offer general information about patterns. Though most of the content is about software patterns, visitors will find many definitions and introductions. If you look for starting points about educational patterns, check out the pattern language network.

ICT for Development and Education: Exit LIFI

claude80By Claude Almansi
Staff Writer

Thanks –

to all members of the LIFI (Laboratorio di Ingegneria della Formazione e Innovazione, or Laboratory of Educational Engineering and Innovation) team [1] for their concrete and theoretical work in the field of ICT (Information and Communications Technologies) for development and education, which I had the privilege to follow rather closely as translator of many of their texts since 1998.

Thanks also to Lynn Zimmerman and Steve Eskow for the discussion they started in this blog on the imperialistic characteristics of online and traditional approaches to teaching: her “Access: The New Imperialism?” and his “The Campus: The Old Imperialism?” articles are very relevant to the social and cultural situation in which the LIFI team had to operate: while Switzerland became technically highly connected fairly early, ICT literacy progressed more slowly, and powers-that-be in education were – and still are to some extent – very wary of these “new” technologies. It is in this background claude_jan29that the LIFI team nevertheless managed to offer opportunities for vocational training (both basic and lifelong) via ICT to people living in remote Alpine areas, but also in (African) Guinea, where creating new brick-and-mortar schools would have been much more expensive.

Progetto Poschiavo – LIFI movingAlps

In 1997, a group of researchers based in Lugano (CH) started organizing sustainable development and training projects that used online technology (video conference, virtual learning platform, e-mail, etc.) to connect people in remote areas with experts from a range of academic institutions.

The success of the first, Progetto Poschiavo (1997-2004), limited to one Alpine valley, led to further projects, among which movingAlps [2] (2004-2008), which covered Val Bregaglia, Vallemaggia and Val d’Anniviers.

These projects were characterized by a multidisciplinary approach combining economic analysis and cultural anthropology, in order to first gather data about the potential resources of the area and the wishes of the inhabitants, and only then help them to structure, finance and enact their own development initiatives.

During movingAlps, these researchers were based at the Università della Svizzera Italiana [3], where they created LIFI [4] and offered courses based on these concrete experiences. But in2008, the university council decided, to put an end to LIFI. There may have been administrative reasons for this decision – the status of LIFI was exceptional – yet it seems rather paradoxical in the year in which Michael Wesch became one of the CASE/Carnegie U.S. Professors of the Year for Doctoral and Research Universities (see [5]) for his own use of cultural anthropology in research and teaching about our present information society.

Taking Stock

Fortunately, the knowledge gathered in these projects remains available in two forms: the texts gathered in the movingAlps Vademecum (downloadable in Italian, German and French from [6]; see also the movingAlps Vademecum discussion in English on Innovate-Ideagora [7]) and in Graziano Terrani’s documentary “Un Successo Condannato” for Radiotelevisione della Svizzera di lingua italiana, which illustrates vividly the activities and results of movingAlps, for instance:

  • Punto Bregaglia, a business conference and training centre in Val Bregaglia [8],
  • PercorsoArianna [9], which fostered the creation of women’s micro-enterprises,
  • minimovingAlps [10], where pre-school children freely photographed their environment, which led to further initiatives, like the creation of a “Gnomes’ Village” playground in Avegno, where the children were directly involved in the design, and Cià c’am va [11], a series of itineraries in Val Bregaglia based on the photographs taken by the local kids, which offers activities for families with young children.

ciacamva_dianaFrom the site of Cià c’am va [11].

Participants’ Viewpoints

From Graziano Terrani’s documentary (GTD):

Maurizio Michael (Centro Punto Bregaglia): On the one hand, Punto Bregaglia strives to pursue what has been done so far within movingAlps, hence to provide a continuity and to reinforce those activities and initiatives. And on the other hand, it offers a space to local enterprises wishing to grow and cooperate towards the development of our area. . . .

Romana Rotanzi (PercorsoArianna): When movingAlps started here, it seemed aimed at teaching us how to fish rather than at giving us just one fish, I mean that its purpose was to give people the bases enabling them to do a thousand things. I didn’t want to be left out. So I was very pleased when I heard that we could learn how to use computers without having to go to Locarno – which, for me, means one hour’s journey. This training offer arrived when my children had reached school age. And with some cleverness and a few work-arounds, you can do it all, if you want to. I don’t feel in the marginalized anymore, it is as if I lived in Milan – why not? I too can find anything via the internet, now that I know how to use it . . . .

Gaby Minoggio (PercorsoArianna): At first, it seemed to be just a computer course. But afterwards, we discovered that it was a far more comprehensive kind of training, aimed at making women realize and exploit their know-how and potential. And I thought that a training offer here in the valley was an opportunity not to be missed. It was a full evolutionary process for us six women, which now we manage ourselves: training, at first, and then this evolution through our activities . . . . So, obviously, we are satisfied with our involvement.

logo_pa

Logo of the percorsoArianna project.

Outlook?

Giuliana Messi, of the movingAlps team in Lugano, says in GTD:

When you manage a project, it is right to leave it after a while, and let people continue on their own. I think that the 3-4 projects started in Vallemaggia last well. And then there are less visible, yet important, things: for instance, women who participated in percorsoArianna who tell me that they have become reference persons for others, and so on – this is positive empowerment.

And in fact, several initiatives started within movingAlps are still going on after the end of the project. Apart from the Punto Bregaglia business and communication center, in Val d’Anniviers: a census of local architectural and artistic works and a gathering of traditional legends and tales, for instance. Participants have found alternatives to the infrastructure offered by movingAlps. Again, from GTD:

Adriana Tenda Claude (PercorsoArianna): We have opened a blog as a way to replace the room we were able to use for our monthly meetings . . . before, and also, partly, the virtual learning platform we had for the two years of PercorsoArianna. Also to stimulate the development of our projects.

plateforme

Screenshot of the movingAlps virtual learning platform

Nevertheless, other initiative ideas were not yet sufficiently developed to be able to continue on their own.

Moreover, the work of the LIFI team has been characterized by the use of the data gathered in former projects to start new ones: apart from movingAlps, the initial Poschiavo project had also led to Projet Guinée, in collaboration with the Institut Supérieur des Sciences de l’Education (ISSEG) in Conakry, which aimed at the development of literacy through the creation of cooperative microentreprises (see Amadou Tidjane Diallo, “Aphabétisation, développement communautaire et utilisation des TIC dans la formation,” 2003 [12].

ma_initiative_develDevelopment process of movingAlps initiatives (from movingAlps Vademecum).

True, the summary of the movingAlps data in the above-mentioned Vademecum (see above and [6]) and in other LIFI publications (see [13]) are available for the development of further projects. But it will not be the same as the possibility to refer to a team working with the necessary infrastructure in one place. Hence the understandable disappointment expressed by its director, Dieter Schürch, at the end of Graziano Terrani’s documentary:

Involving such a conspicuous number of people, creating a team of collaborators from several fields, organizing a series of activities that have enabled these regions to launch sustainable initiatives – and being unable to continue – this is very sad. The fact that we cannot carry on beyond this deadline does not only harm these projects and regions, but also the image of the University where we were working until now, I think.