The Rise of the Do-It-Yourself Portal

In the past few days, I've found a number of new portals online. I'm starting to wonder if we can't learn a thing or two from what's happening.

First, via Eisenblog, came Open Learn University's portal, created by Stuart Brown in Netvibes to support OU students and instructors.

Then I find Crimson Connect, the student-run Harvard University portal, developed in the wake of student dissatisfaction with Harvard's "Official" website. (Take note--if you don't create a useful website for your organization, someone else might take matters into their own hands).

And finally, last night I see that Impactiviti has launched a Training Bloggers portal using Pageflakes, featuring feeds from some of the best bloggers in the training and development space. This on the heels of two other portals they've created--Pharmacentral for the pharmaceutical industry and the Marketing Bloggers portal for marketers.

So why should we care?

First, take a quick look around each portal. Harvard's includes access to email and Facebook, shuttle schedules, Boston weather, feeds to student clubs, athletic events and activities, the library--even dining hall menus. Open Learn University's portal has video lesson feeds, feeds to each of their departments, and a keyword search of their content. The Training Bloggers portal includes feeds to several different categories of T&D blogs, pre-selected for quality.

Think about how these types of portals could be used in the nonprofit world:

  • Create a "cause-related" portal that includes feeds to related blogs, audio, video, etc., as well as a calendar of events, etc. I've written about this before and I'm really seeing the possibilities now.
  • Create portals to support better conferencing. A few weeks ago, I was thinking about how to improve the conference experience. Portals are another option. Imagine sending an email out to all conference participants with a Netvibes or Pageflakes portal link that includes feeds to weather, newspapers, events, etc. in the location where you'll be holding the conference. It could also include a calendar of events and feeds to the wiki pages I suggested that you use to develop the conference agenda and get the conversation started. It could also include access to MySpace and Facebook modules, audio and video feeds on related content, email, etc. This can also become a way to follow-up on a conference, by adding feeds to those bloggers who are blogging the conference.
  • Create an organizational portal for staff and volunteers and make it the start page for staff so that they can be updated daily on what's happening in the organization.

Putting together a portal is really not that difficult. It's a matter of finding the content you want to include,  setting up the tabs in Pageflakes and/or  Netvibes and then sharing them with the world.

You can see how other people are already doing it. Tony Hirst blogs here about how he created the predecessor to the Open Learn University portal.  PC World  has an article about creating a Netvibes portal or you can check out this screencast that will give you the basic elements of setting up and configuring an account and using tabsharing. If you're interested in Pageflakes, then this tutorial can help get you started.

The tools are there. Many people are already using them. It's just a matter of us figuring out how to use them on an organizational scale to create value for various stakeholders. As I watch what other people are doing with these tools, I can't help but feel that we may be missing something big if we don't act soon.


Robin Good on Educating the "Net Generation"

Robin Good has another great article today on Educating the Net Generation. Ironic, given my previous post on the digital divide.

I completely agree that many in this new generation of kids are a different breed, with different approaches to learning and that schools need to learn to adapt their teaching protocols accordingly. But I also think that characterizing all learners as being this net savvy obscures the very real divide between the students who "have" and are becoming fluent in the digital world and those American students who do not come to school knowing how to use all of these great tools.

The article does a fabulous job of summarizing the key issues, challenges and changes necessary to foster independence in learning, something I think is sorely needed in our educational system. At the same time, we need to be careful to realize that while all kids need to learn these new kinds of skills, not all kids will come to school with the same foundational experiences upon which this kind of education can build. I also think to argue that this generation as a whole is more "education-oriented" is again, to miss the point. Yes, the students whose parents put pressure on them to get into elite colleges are feeling the crunch. But this doesn't represent all students, not by a long-shot.

Still, some good stuff here--just need to remember the students who don't fall into these categories.

UPDATE--Sometimes I'm too fast on my posting button--This article was written by Kassandra Barnes, Raymond Marateo and S. Pixy Ferris and originally appeared in Innovate. It was reprinted on Robin Good's site. So technically the title of this post is wrong, but it's already out there and too late to change it. Must give credit where it's due and apologies for being too quick on the trigger.


23 Things--Web 2.0 Lessons Remixed for Nonprofits

A few weeks ago I mentioned the idea of doing a 23 Things Remix for Learning Web 2.0 in Nonprofits. Well, in my "spare time," (ha!) I've started building a 23 Things Remixed Wiki to do this and I think I'm ready to "go public."

A couple of comments:

  • The primary audience would be nonprofit staff who have little or no exposure to Web 2.0 tools. Like the original 23 Things, I want the exercises to be relatively short and easy to understand and get through. I want people to feel like these are little learning experiments in which they can easily engage without a large commitment of time or energy--at least at first. If they become absorbed in one or more of the tools and want to spend more time, all the better.
  • Right now I have three "lessons" in the wiki. One is on why people may want to learn how to use new technologies. Another is on dealing with technophobia in learning. These topics weren't covered in the original 23 Things, but based on my experiences in the nonprofit and government sectors, I thought they could be useful. I've also done a lesson on RSS, in part because of the great video from Common Craft I pointed to earlier this week. (UPDATE--I've now created two lessons in the RSS category, as I think I had too much included in one)
     
  • I've set up the lessons to have a Discover section and a Reflect section. The Discover section is meant to provide people with some kind of exposure to a tool or concept and then in the Reflect section, they think through a few ideas or questions related to the activity. I wanted to make sure that people didn't get so caught up in "action" that they didn't take a little time to think. Any  feedback on that breakdown, as well as on the activities and questions is appreciated. You can add your thoughts in comments on the specific lesson page, or email me.

This is most definitely a work in progress. I'm going to try to add and refine as time permits.

Of course,  since I used Wikispaces and left it open to anyone, if you're interested in contributing a lesson or two, feel free. The list of potential lessons is on the home page. If you're not familiar with how to use Wikispaces, here are the basic instructions.

Now hit me with your feedback!


Lifelong Learning in Action

I don't know Caroline, but I wish she worked for me. She's a great example of a lifelong learner. Apparently she just attended the Computers in Libraries Conference and returned home to blog about three categories that I think are pretty cool:

  • "Possible projects inspired by the conference." Like all good learners, she's already moving into application thinking about how she can apply what she learned. And I love that it was her FIRST category--proves how inspiring she found the workshops.
  • "Presentations that were particularly inspiring" She writes about who she liked and what she liked about their presentations. And since she's blogging, she's able to share links so that the rest of us can see who excited her and why.
  • "Cool stuff I hadn't heard of before or had forgotten about." I love that Caroline includes stuff she'd forgotten about in this category. How many times do we attend a workshop and say "duh--I totally forgot about that cool thing and I want to remember it"?

To me, this is a really great example of reflection on learning. I love the bloggers who live-blog an event or come back and share what they heard with their readers, but this is often in the spirit of reporting on what happened, as opposed to reflecting on what was learned. Nothing wrong with that. I appreciate it. But even more I love to see people reflecting on a big learning event like a conference. Makes it all worthwhile. It would be great if everyone did this. Imagine the bang for your buck that would come from that.


Using Facebook in Your Nonprofit

Facebook_logo_2 I spent yesterday with my college freshman daughter who revealed to me the extent to which FaceBook has taken over the social lives of teens and twenty-somethings (with the "older folk" coming on fast). Let's just say that if it's not happening through FaceBook, then it's not happening. By sheer coincidence, I'd used the train ride into NYC to read (among other things)  Fast Company's profile of 22-year old (!) founder, Marc Zuckerberg.Then this morning this post by Rob Cottingham on the Turn It Off! British Columbia campaign he launched on the site slid into my inbox. Clearly I'm being told by the universe to blog a little about FaceBook. So a few resources . . .

What is Facebook?
FaceBook is a social networking site, an Internet site that allows users to post online profiles (including photos, information about themselves, etc.) and then connect to other users who share the same interests, experiences, etc. Zuckerberg threw up FaceBook while he was a student at Harvard to provide an online avenue for students to find one another. It has since morphed into a social network for everyone.

Why Facebook (or any social network, for that matter)?
The first question to ask yourself is why use social networking at all? What can a nonprofit get from the experience? According to this TechSoup article, "What Can Social Networking Do For Your Organization?" the answer is that you can get quite a bit:

"Social networking platforms give nonprofits a forum for meeting like-minded organizations and potential supporters, and provide a medium for spreading their messages beyond the immediate community," says Alan Rosenblatt, Executive Director of the Internet Advocacy Center.

In other words, social networking can expand your reach and help you find volunteers, donors and supporters for your cause inexpensively and relatively easily.

So you've decided to consider social networking. Why Facebook? There are tons of other social networking sites on the Net, including MySpace, Ning, Idealist and Change.org. But as Katrin Verclas of NTEN noted in a March post, Facebook is where it's at right now. It has the most traffic and the biggest reach, and, as she points out, "it's infinitely less annoying than MySpace." (Agreed!) It's your best bet for finding people where they're already congregating online, especially if you're trying to reach the 18-24 year-old set. (Although as this article indicates, the 35-54 year-olds are coming on strong, with about 33% of Facebook users in this age group.) It's much easier than trying to create your own social network (ala Ning), where it can be difficult to attract and maintain users. It also makes sense to go where people are already engaging socially. It's the difference between going to the party and talking to people about what interests you or trying to throw a party that people might not even want to attend.

How Can I Use Facebook?
Besides the TechSoup article above, here are some good resources to check out:

  • Start with Fast Company's slideshow, "Eight Things You Can Do With Facebook". You'll see that you can connect with like-minded users, promote events, start your own groups, etc. You might also want to take a look at this profile of Facebook (scroll down to the features section), which gives a decent overview of the different Facebook elements.
  • Read through Rob's article on how he started his campaign and how he went from 8 supporters to 60 in a few days.

Whatever You Do, Avoid Looking Clueless
The one thing you CAN'T afford on a site like Facebook is looking clueless. No one sniffs out inauthenticity faster than a social network native. As the Chronicle's article reports:

"Any organization interested in leveraging communities on MySpace and Facebook must learn about them firsthand," Mr. Gammel says. "You will come across as clueless and wooden if you try to make a big splash in either place before you really understand their culture of interaction."

He recommends looking at social-networking profiles of other nonprofit organizations, examining how they interact with people online, and reading their blogs to get a sense of the tone and content online.

So your first task if you want to explore using Facebook is to join and observe the culture.Check out Martin Lemeiux's article on getting started with a Facebook profile.  I'd suggest having a staff person join on their own and then do some research for you. You might also consider talking to young people and asking them how they use the site and how they react to various nonprofit messages.

In addition to seeing how other nonprofits are operating, I'd also suggest looking into how your "target population" interacts online. I noticed, for example, that my daughter and her friends (the 18-24 year old set) are drawn into groups that use humor and off-beat group names.  One of her favorite Facebook groups is "You Know You Grew up in the 1890's When . . . " Yes, I typed that correctly--the 1890's. This group puts up hilarious "fake" posts about "Where Were You When McKinley was Shot?" and "What Should We Do With Kaiser Wilhelm?" This isn't the "normal" way that nonprofits would position themselves, but for a culture that really thrives on smart humor, you may need to think differently about how you market your groups and ideas in a setting like Facebook.

Finally, you may want to jump in cautiously at first, rather than going "whole hog." Set up a basic profile for your nonprofit, but then try using it at first to promote a specific event or online activity (signing an online petition, for example). This article on running ads on Facebook has some helpful ideas. Also see the Lemeiux article I mentioned above for some other options.

OK, so there you have my basic primer for using Facebook in nonprofits. If you're going to go the social networking route, this may be your best bet. It will take you less time and is easier than starting your own. It gives you another way to engage your volunteers, supporters and donors. And it's probably where you'll eventually need to be anyway. Online networks are a fact of life now and even if a lot of our constituents aren't using them yet, I think it's only a matter of time. Do you want to be ahead of the curve or behind the 8-ball.


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Webinar Hosting Suggestions?

I'm in the process of looking into putting together a few webinars for some clients and I'm wondering what recommendations, if any, people have for hosting. I see that N-Ten uses ReadyTalk and that there's a special pricing deal for nonprofits, which is nice. Any other recommendations? I'm looking for something that's inexpensive, reliable, easy-to-use and offers basic web conferencing capabilities (audio, PowerPoint, shared screens, etc.) If you have any suggestions, drop me an email or leave me a note in comments. I'm interested in anything you can share about your experiences with these applications, too, so feel free to tell all. If I get enough info, I'll be happy to pull something together to share with everyone.


101 Ways to Practice Blogging

Earlier I wrote about creating a climate of learning within your nonprofit and mentioned 23 Things, a series of mini lessons designed to help staff get comfortable with Web 2.0 and social media. This morning I noticed this article on 101 Great Blog Posting Ideas to Make Your Blog Sizzle in the nptech del.ico.us feed and it occurred to me that many of them would make great mini exercises for staff to practice with in developing their own blogs.

Some of my favorites:

  • Write a tutorial.
  • Do a write-up of an interview with someone in your professional niche.
  • Do a “speedlinking” post.
  • Write a post by examining the pros and cons of an issue.
  • Make a post that solves a problem.
  • Make a post that is inspirational.
  • Debunk a myth in your post.
  • Make a post for beginners.
  • Make a post for advanced readers
  • Create a mission statement for your blog.
  • Make a post simplifying a complex problem for your readers.
  • Create a guide for your niche.

I could see sending this list to staff and inviting them to write a post or two a week trying out different ideas from the list. For some of them you might want to create a group blog or wiki. For example, if you have staff write a tutorial, then all of the tutorials could be gathered together into a wiki that staff could continue to access. If you use wikispaces, this could be done even more easily, as wikispaces allows you to automatically create a wiki entry from a blog post.

Lots of possibilities here that I think would be fun to explore as an organizational learning experience.


Two Other Strategies for Creating a Climate of Learning

The other day I was musing on strategies for encouraging an organizational climate of learning. Here are two more:

  • Help staff create learning plans.
  • Use ePortfolios

Creating Learning Plans
Steven Forth has a great article on learning plans, which he defines as:

. . . a set of learning objectives (that) identifies the resources needed to achieve these objectives, indicates what constitutes evidence that the learning objective has actually been achieved, and provides some sort of schedule for achieving the learning plan.

He also provides a nice schematic to visually represent the plan:
Learning_plan_2




As you can see, progress in a learning plan is measured by documentation of evidence. In other words, staff need to demonstrate that they've mastered learning objectives by providing examples of the application of their learning and/or some kind of learning record. Which leads me to the next strategy--using ePortfolios.

Using ePortfolios
I've been exploring using ePortfolios ever since I started thinking about nonprofit skill networks. One of these days I'm going to get my act together and write something  about what I've been learning, but for now, this article  by Serge Ravet and Maureen Layte is a great start.

Serge and Maureen define ePortfolios this way:

A personal collection of information describing and documenting a person's achievements and learning. There is a variety of portfolios ranging from 'learning logs' to extended collections of achievement evidence. Portfolios are used for many different purposes such as accreditation of prior experience, job search, continuing professional development, and certification of competences.

There are a number of ways to maintain ePortfolios. To see a wiki version, check out Beth Kanter's portfolio.  Cool Cat Teacher, Vicki Davis offers another strategy for maintaining an ePortfolio--her blog. On it, she writes about her successes and challenges, links to projects such as her Flat World Wiki, and documents both her learning and her professional progress.   

While ePortfolios have obvious individual benefits, the extended value of ePortfolios lies in their ability to support social learning, says Serge and Maureen:

"Beyond a repository of knowledge and skills (content), an ePortfolio is a connectivity tool, a tool for sharing knowledge through communities (context). It can be viewed as some kind of context management system – as opposed to current eLearning solutions that are mostly focused on content management systems."

In other words, when ePortfolios are connected to one another, they become not just a tool for managing content, but they can also be a tool for learning.

Some organizations are already launching large-scale applications of this idea:

"In the UK, Wales has decided to provide ePortfolios to its 3 millions citizens, while, last May, the state of Minnesota in the US announced that the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities had launched an ePortfolio that will enable students, teachers and jobseekers throughout the state to create their own Internet-based portfolios. The UK's Royal College of Nursing, the largest professional association in Europe with 350,000 members, is providing an ePortfolio for continuing professional development (CPD) and reregistration."

If 3 million citizens can be engaged in creating ePortfolios, can't a nonprofit with 20 staff do the same?

Take-Away
I would argue that every nonprofit staff member should be creating his/her own ePortfolio and contributing to it regularly. The Learning Plan would be part of that portfolio and as staff achieved their learning objectives, they would use the ePortfolio to document their progress. Not only does this benefit  individual staff, it also has huge benefits for the organization. Grant writers would be able to use ePortfolios to quickly access information to be used in proposals. Management would be able to identify the best staff for particular projects, especially if the organization encouraged staff to document ALL activities and learning, not just those that occurred at work. As staff filled their ePortfolios, it would also create a knowledge management system for other members of the organization to easily and quickly access. And reviewing a staff person's ePortfolio would be an outstanding addition to the staff evaluation process.

In some later posts, I'd like to look more closely at the exact process a nonprofit would use to start implementing Learning Plans and ePortfolios with staff. For now, I want to at least start floating the idea.

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UPDATE--Here's another article on ePortfolis.


Creating a Learning Climate for Nonprofit Staff

Awhile ago, Allan Benamer of the Nonprofit Tech Blog talked about nonprofit staff as knowledge workers and how technology and work processes need to support staff whose value comes primarily from their ability to make effective use of knowledge and information in working with customers. If we're to fully capitalize on the promise of a knowledge network, then staff need to have the tools, resources and supports necessary to truly fulfill their function.

This idea has been rolling around in my head for awhile now. My primary role in my consulting practice is to build organizational capacity, in part by building staff capacity through training and ensuring that staff have what they need to get their jobs done. Part of my fascination with technology lies in its power to help staff better manage knowledge and information to become highly skilled in their jobs. I keep feeling like we're missing some key pieces of the puzzle in terms of how we work with staff. They seem to be the forgotten ones. Developing their capacity is low on the list of priorities beneath things like accounting systems, how to raise more money and marketing. Yet in most nonprofits, without our staff, we are really nothing.

Earlier this week I talked about informal learning and the need to create an environment that supports  ongoing professional development.  I believe that informal learning ("the other 80%") is a crucial element of staff capacity-building, but one to which we pay little attention.

Here are a few ingredients I think we need to create a climate that supports informal learning.

  • A team of staff who have passion for the work they do. Passion is critical. If you don't love what you do, then you're not going to be devoted to doing things to make yourself better at it. And there's nothing better for learning than being surrounded by people who are excited about their work and want to get better every day at what they do.
  • Managers who nurture curiosity. Personally I don't think there's enough curiosity in the world. When my girls were 3-4 years old, all we heard was "Why?" But it seems that when we grow up, we stop asking questions and just start accepting things as they are. Without curiosity there is no learning, though. Here are some tips for "Learning to be curious" that I think hit the nail on the head (although I find it sad that we have to LEARN to be curious!)
  • Access to resources and learning activities. One area that I think is really interesting is "micro-learning."  Without getting all technical about it, micro-learning is bite-size learning experiences that can be easily digested in a short period of time. A great example of this is 23 Things, which is a series of mini lessons to help staff learn about different Web 2.0 tools. Ideally, staff try to come up with their own ideas for learning activities they'd like to pursue. But an eagle-eyed manager might also keep an eye out for these kinds of activities to share.
  • Access to learning tools and encouragement to use them. One of the reasons I love to blog is because it helps me learn--it's essentially a way to maintain an online learning journal complete with links to resources and tools that help me learn even more. Wikis, social bookmarking,  RSS and the work of others in my field that I can catch online also feed my daily learning fixes. Fortunately I work for myself and so I don't have to worry about a boss who decides to take these tools away from me. But other people do. To have a culture of learning, organizations need to consider if the benefits of arming staff with knowledge management tools don't outweigh the risks.
  • An expectation that learning is something that happens on a daily basis on "company time." If learning is going to be part of an organizational culture, than it has to be woven into its fabric.Learning shouldn't be reserved for special training days. And it shouldn't be something that we expect always expect staff to do on their own time. My favorite organizations are those that have subscriptions to professional journals and pass them around the office with the expectation that staff will read them. My favorite bosses have always sent interesting articles my way. In a good learning organization, at the end of the day, not only should we be asking "What did you accomplish?" but we should also be wondering "What did you learn?" If the answer is "nothing," then we have a problem.

So a few of my thoughts. . . . what other elements do we need to create a climate that supports informal learning? And is creating such a climate really as critical as I think for nonprofit staff?

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UPDATE--Rallyfan of Random Thoughts on Life and Work adds another item to the list--giving staff a chance to actually USE the skills. He has a good post on this that you should also check out. 

Also, I've written a follow-up post describing two other strategies that I think are critical.


People Love to Learn, But Hate to Be Taught

In my recent Web travels I came across an interesting draft paper from 2003 that's still very relevant today. It  talks about "the other 80%"of learning. That is, 20% of learning in organizations is a result of formal training, while 80% occurs through informal learning. Yet organizations put more resources toward developing formal training options.

One piece that struck me in this paper was the notion that "people love to learn, but hate to be taught." So true. It suggests that if you ask net-savvy learners what they want from a learning experience, they will ask for many of the strategies that are currently happening through Web 2.0 tools:

  • Smart technology that learns about me and makes recommendations,             like Amazon
  • Persistent reputations, as at eBay, so you know who you’re collaborating             with
  • Flexible delivery options, as with the bank offering access by ATM,             the Web, phone, or human tellers – give me instruction, an FAQ, a             subject-matter expert
  • Let me choose whether my instruction is push or pull
  • Give me a way to find out how our company does things, not just             generic lessons
  • Adapt to the learner’s pace, as the Porsche Boxster learns your             driving style
  • A single, simple, all-in-one interface, like that provided by Google             for search
  • Community of kindred spirits, like SlashDot, The WeLL, and MetaFilter
  • Ability to share information and comments, as with my blog
  • Show me what others are interested in, as with pointers from BlogDex

I would argue that not just net-savvy learners would ask for these characteristics. They might not use Web 2.0 language to describe them, but I think most learners when they think about it prefer to learn with a community of kindred spirits, want choice in how and when they will learn, etc.

The question is, what are we doing to create these kinds of learning environments for our staff? Probably not much. Informal learning tends to be more haphazard and accidental with little thought put into how to foster a community of learning. We may agonize over curriculum and logistics for a formal training session, but supporting informal learning has typically been unintentional. But if 80% of learning is happening outside of the classroom, maybe we need to shift our attention to crafting an environment that supports that informal process. What can we do differently to create a culture of learning?

For me, many Web 2.0 tools start to move us in that direction. Wikis and blogs, social networks, etc. are all tremendous learning tools that support the development of individual and shared knowledge and expertise. But they are just tools. We also have to pay attention to all of those things that create a particular organizational culture that either supports or inhibits informal learning for the tools to be effective. And that's probably the bigger challenge. How to get there is the question.

What thoughts do you have on this? How do we nurture a culture of informal learning?