Some Links for Creating and Managing Your Own LinkedIn Group

I had to pull together some resources on using LinkedIn's Groups feature for a client, so thought it might be helpful to post the links here. These are more geared toward starting and running your own group, as opposed to finding and joining an existing group.

Features of LinkedIn Groups include:

  • Group home page: A private space for your members on LinkedIn.
  • Discussion forums: Simple discussion spaces for you and your members. (You can turn discussions off in your management control panel if you like)
  • Enhanced roster: Searchable list of group members.
  • Digest emails: Daily or weekly digests of new discussion topics, which your members may choose to receive. 
  • RSS News Feeds--Managers can  create customs news feeds by adding an RSS feed, an Atom feed, or just a Web site URL.

Anyone can start a LinkedIn Group. You just need to have a free LinkedIn account. Check out the LinkedIn Superguide if you're new to LinkedIn and need to get yourself set up.

Once you have your account, here are some resources for creating and managing your Group(s)

Course Community Building with Ning

Alisa Cooper of South Mountain Community Colleges has produced a great narrated presentation on how she uses Ning to build community in her courses. She's also using podcasts, live streaming video and And check out her Voicethread on using Ning, which she said she started using because she thought the usual online offerings were "a little sterile and boring." Good stuff.

Deconstructing the Work Literacy Learning Event

The Work Literacy online learning event is over and Harold Jarche has posted some of what he learned from our facilitation of the course. Time for me to share some of my thoughts. .  

Using Ning for the Course

Our first big decision was what platform to use. We ended up going with Ning because it integrated several different tools (blogs, forums, video and photo-sharing, social networking profiles, groups) at the right price (free). We also wanted to use something that would give people a true flavor of Web 2.0 learning. While Moodle would have been a potential choice, it's still a CMS and we wanted to see what would happen with a tool that was set up for social networking rather than for course management. We also considered using a blog platform (like Wordpress) and having people participate via comments and their own blogs, but decided that Ning might give us a fuller experience of using social media tools in a more integrated way.

From my perspective, Ning seemed to work well. It was more chaotic than if we'd used a structured tool like Moodle, and I know that some people struggled a little with feeling that they couldn't quite connect with what was going on. There was less of a step-by-step feel and more of a networked approach that, at first, was disconcerting.  But I also think with Ning we did a better job of helping people to form more social connections. The profile pages gave a good sense of who people were and I felt like I had more of a handle on having specific people involved in the course, rather than a list of names.

One thing that I think was a MAJOR asset of using Ning was the fact that it made it very easy for people to assume responsibility for different aspects of the course. We saw several people start up smaller study and interest groups and various forum threads that really added to the overall learning. Many people seemed to take ownership of the course in a way that wouldn't have happened with a CMS. That was one of the most positive benefits from my perspective of using a social networking platform--it really did a much better job of creating a community of practice/peer-to-peer learning environment. 

Facilitating the Course

In setting up the course, we focused on a topic per week, with different levels of involvement in the assignments--Spectators, Joiners/Collectors and Creators.  One thing we heard repeatedly was that people really liked the idea that they had permission to be spectators, dipping in and out of readings and forums as they wanted to. This kind of "lurking" behavior is the hallmark of any online course, but I think that participants were happy that being a spectator was a more "official" and sanctioned way of participating in the course, rather than a cop-out.

As Harold pointed out, the Ning platform did require us to act as synthesizers and information connectors  because great nuggets of conversation started in various locations (in individual blog posts, on forums, etc.) and they could easily be lost in the discussions. We tried to stay on top of that, though, and to pull those nuggets to the forefront by posting them on the main page, adding them to assignment pages and/or sending out blast emails to the entire group to let them know what was happening.

What was interesting for me as a facilitator was that I found myself paying much more attention to creating a particular kind of environment and trying to facilitate dialogue in ways that it's harder for me to do in a face-to-face setting. When I'm doing stand-up sessions, it's easier for me to fall into the "sage on the stage" kind of behavior, even when I'm actively trying to avoid it. But in an asynchronous, social environment like we had with the Work Literacy course, I couldn't be everywhere at once and I found that many other people stepped up to "teach" to others. I also found myself paying more attention to how I framed questions and assignments so that they encouraged thinking and dialogue. Not that I don't do this in face-to-face, but there was a different quality to my thinking in this setting.

Another interesting aspect was finding the balance between being an "instructor" and being a community facilitator. As an "instructor," I think that there's a tendency to want to comment on every blog and forum post. But in doing that, I'm reinforcing this idea of me as "expert" or "teacher," that I wanted to avoid. I really wanted to try to move out of that more traditional role and into a facilitator/community-builder role. I will say that in a lot of ways it was harder to do than I'd thought. There's a certain level of backing off that's necessary, but overall I think the community is better for it. 

Was the Course a Success?

I wondered before the course ended if we'd been "successful" and this was one of the questions we asked in the final week. We got some excellent feedback from participants on this issue that primarily indicated that people had defined for themselves what success would be and then participated in activities accordingly.

One big aspect of thinking about this was the level of participation. We saw a drop-off in the number of people contributing to forums, blog posts, etc. as the weeks went by, so we naturally had to wonder what this meant. I'm still not sure (Harold wonders if the course lasted too long, something I've asked too), but I'm not sure that participation is really the true measure of success anyway. Or at least it's not the only measure we could use.

What I do think we managed to do was create and foster a community of practice that, for a period of time, brought together a large group of people who wanted to work together on learning about using Web 2.0 tools for learning. Through this network of connections and discussion, we also created an excellent resource that will be available to other people who may want to explore these tools on their own, at their leisure.

I know that for myself, I "met" and had an opportunity to engage with the thinking and ideas of some really smart, interesting people--and even had an outstanding lunch with one of the participants, Catherine Lombardozzi, who happens to live in the Philadelphia area. So for me, at least, this was definitely a successful and enriching experience.

What Would I Do Next Time?

  • I say this every time I do an online learning event, but I think that I'd shorten the course. If you're doing activities every day (like we did for the Comment Challenge), I think it needs to last only a week, maybe two. If we're doing one topic a week, I'm thinking that it shouldn't go longer than a month. More chunking and some breathing time in between might keep energy levels up.
  • I would definitely do the three levels of activities again, at least in circumstances where that's possible. I think that explicit permission and encouragement for lurking really helps people. At the same time, I have to then be prepared for the fact that they WILL lurk.
  • I will be more consistent with some of the structural aspects of the course. One strategy we used was to set up a forum to ask people what they wanted to learn about the next week's topic, but we didn't do that every week. I was trying to fit in the course around work stuff and some weeks were better than others for keeping up with different components. I need to be a little more planful on some of these pieces the next time around. There's only so much "building the plane while you're flying it" that I should do.
  • I would definitely use Ning again for a project like this. Overall there was a lot of flexibilty and functionality that we were able to access and I do think that it encouraged more group ownership than we might have had using a blog or CMS platform.
  • Related to the group ownership idea, I will be more explicit next time about inviting group ownership and suggesting that people feel free to take the learning in directions where they'd like. Paul Lowe volunteered to run a webinar (which was excellent), but he volunteered on his own. Next time I'd have explicit invitations for people from the outset and provide ideas and instructions to encouraget that thinking. (Although is there an advantage to waiting for things to evolve organically?) 

Overall, this was an excellent experience. I will say that I'm ready for a break though. :-)

Some Video Advice from Two Companies On Using Online Communities of Practice

A couple of short videos on communities of practice. The first is from Dave Vance, former president of Caterpillar University, who shares some of Caterpillar's experiences in facilitating online communities of practice. His advice?

  • You need to have a sharing culture to build from--communities of practice don't work in organizations that have a culture of hoarding information.
  • It isn't about capturing the knowledge, although that can be a good side benefit. It's about facilitating the conversations between people.
  • Caterpillar makes their communities as de-centralized as possible. They provide people with the tools, the guidelines for using them and some idea of the potential and then they leave it up to employees to develop their communities. One full-time staff person supports 4,000 communities of practice that include 40,000 Caterpillar employees.
  • Don't worry that people will give bad advice. There are enough people participating in the conversations that if someone says the wrong thing, it will quickly be corrected. "You have to let it sort itself out," says Vance.
  • Don't put knowledge through a vetting process. Again, because there are so many knowledgeable people, the system is self-correcting. Plus having to always vet information will certainly hamper any kind of sharing.

This second video is an example of the benefit of online communities of practice in the mining industry at Rio Tinto. It shows how through an active online CoP, one Rio Tinto division saved over a year's worth of work and headaches because they were able to quickly connect with another division that had experienced and solved a similar problem.

Both Caterpillar and Rio Tinto mention that their communities of practice save considerable time and money. What's also interesting is that these online communities are being fostered in heavy manufacturing types of industries where you'd think that maybe uptake would be slower. Not the case, though.

Negative Online Behavior is a Product of Culture, Not Your Social Media Tools: What I'm Learning from the Work Literacy Course

One of the questions I'm most frequently asked when talking to people about using social media for learning in organizations is how do you "manage" comments and how do you deal with people "being negative." There's a general fear that once you open the floodgates to participation, you're going to be inundated with people acting inappropriately and unprofessionally.

Although I think this is a fair question I think that 1) it says more about the organization than its employees and 2) my experiences have not borne out the idea that using blogs, wikis, and social networks is an invitation to unrestrained nastiness or anarchy--unless that's the culture in which your employees are already operating. 

Now that we're winding down the Work Literacy course, I can see one more example that offers additional insight into this issue.

Over the past 5 weeks, we've had almost 3,000 unique visitors to the community.  As of today, 749 people from around the world created profiles, wrote on each others walls, "friended" each other and sent private messages.  Sixty forum threads have been started with hundreds of replies. Forty five blog posts have been posted to the network and countless others have been posted on people's personal blogs outside of the Ning. We've created a Work Literacy wiki and set up a Delicious tag where people were invited to contribute their links. Seventeen videos/presentations and 34 photos have been added to the site. Four groups have formed and they are having their own active discussions through forums and on wikis they've created outside the space. We've also held two "live" events online.

I've personally read through just about every forum and blog post, except for those written in a language other than English. I've also visited many members' profiles and checked out the photos and videos. Despite all this activity, nowhere in any of this has there been an "inappropriate" or unprofessional exchange. That's right. I haven't received a single complaint from a participant about "bad behavior" nor have I seen anything myself.  That's saying something, especially when you consider that these people are essentially strangers to one another and could behave inappropriately with no real ramifications.

Now why this is the case. Is it because I just haven't seen anything? I doubt it. I think that with this many members, if there was some kind of problem, we'd know about it.

Is it because participation is voluntary? Maybe. That would certainly contribute to an overall sense of positive participation if you know you're doing this because you want to, not because someone told you you had to. But just because participation is voluntary doesn't mean that people won't break out into flame wars, etc. Look at TRDEV.

Is it something about how we've framed discussions and the fact that positive culture begets positive culture--that is, people are modeling for each other what is considered to be acceptable behavior in the community so anything different would be incredibly jarring? Is it because we're showing respect for each other as a community and not assuming that people will behave inappropriately?  Definitely. I don't think that there's the space for negative or unprofessional behavior at Work Literacy because everyone who is participating is a professional and is committed to creating a particular kind of learning environment. Further, as facilitators, Tony, Harold and I didn't expected anything different. We just assumed that we were all here to learn, so how could we find the best ways to do that?

Here's a story about the community  culture that has developed that further illustrates my point. One member of the community was clearly there to sell a product. To the extent that he participated, via a few forum discussions and sponsorship of a webinar,  it was to push his own agenda.

When I saw how this person was interacting, I was at first tempted to say something, especially when he posted an event to do a webinar on his product. But then I decided not to do anything about it. I wanted to see what would happen. Maybe people were OK with what he was doing and were interested in what he was selling. I figured that if someone complained about it to me, then we'd deal with it, but as an experiment, I was curious to see how things would play out.

What happened was this. People totally ignored him. No one signed up for the webinar. No one responded to his discussions. They simply didn't engage. And as a result, he became a non-entity on the site.

Now that may sound harsh, but I think it's a great example of the positive self-policing quality of these communities. When people behave in "inappropriate" ways, the community members often handle it themselves. In this case, a member "selling" something is relatively innocuous behavior, so ignoring it is the best approach, which is what they did. I suspect that if something more overt had happened, they would have shown equal wisdom in how to handle it. This kind of behavior is what I've seen repeatedly and the Work Literacy project is just one more example.

This is the conclusion I'm drawing from using social media for learning. If people have negative experiences with using social media in their organizations--if people are behaving unprofessionally or inappropriately--I think that there's something a lot deeper going on that social media is simply bringing to the surface.

I think you're right to question "will I get negative comments on a blog" or "what happens if people say bad things about our organization on our social network?" Those are good solid questions and you should have a plan for dealing with them.

However, unprofessional behavior does not arise in a vacuum. It's a product of organizational culture. Social media will make that culture visible, so when you ask "will people vandalize our wiki?" what you're really asking is something about the quality of your organization's culture.

Now, you could let your fear of negativity hold you back from implementing the tools,  or you could decide to dive in and see what happens. You may be pleasantly surprised (which is more often the case). Or you may unleash a storm of problems. If the storm is released, however, it might be the best thing that could have happened for you.  You've been fortunate enough to find out exactly where the pain is in your organization so that you can begin talking about how to address it. 

Saying "We won't do a blog because our employees will leave negative comments" is simply saying that you don't want to know what people are already saying. Because believe me, if they're going to be negative on a blog, which is a public forum, you can only imagine what they're saying behind your back. 

The other thing I'm realizing as I continue to participate in and manage these social media-enhanced learning events is that, if anything, social media brings out the best in people. There is an inherent sense of sharing, transparency and community that these tools can build that I've seen over and over again. Yes, in the wrong hands you can have some serious problems. But those problems existed before you started using the tools. If you really want to address what's happening in your organization, I'd suggest that you actually delve into the positive uses of social media because they may give you one of the best opportunities for ongoing dialogue and problem-solving that you'll ever see. 

Some Observations on Getting Value from a Social Network

Networks For the past few days I've been working with a group of grant-funded projects from across Pennsylvania who are evaluating whether or not to form a state-wide network and thinking through what such a network could do. One of the issues that came up (as it inevitably does) was how to share information, which naturally led to a discussion of social media and networks.

Last year I'd set up a Ning network for this group to use to share information and ideas. It never took off and we continued to send group emails and do phone calls and face-to-face meetings where people lamented the fact that we didn't have a better way to share information.

Yesterday when the issue came up, I reminded the group that I'd set up a site last year and described again what they could do with it. The response was somewhat warmer, but then we got into whether or not people wanted to visit one more information portal. Which led to a deeper discussion about whether or not people had the time to share best practices. Which led into a discussion about how to get "value" from networks.

What I realized was that people were looking at the Ning network as a respository for information, not as a vehicle for conversation. To them, it was basically a library that could hold everyone's tools and resources and to which they could go if they needed to look up some piece of information. While that can be one use of a network, I don't think that's the most valuable part of it. In fact, it became clear that although people said they wanted access to best practices, researching best practices wasn't really part of their work process. What they really want is access to people, something a social network is designed for, but that requires you to participate differently.

When the web is a destination for information, then you can visit a site as often or as little as you want with no appreciable difference in the qualtity and quantity of information you access. You can dip in and out and your visits do not impact the information you encounter. But when the web is a place where you're engaging in conversations, you can't jump in and out in the same ways. You have to put some effort into engaging with other people, into being social, asking questions, giving answers, even participating in "small talk." Using the web for conversation is not an event, but a process and, at least initially, it requires a fairly significant investment of time.

My personal opinion is that this initial social investment can have incredible benefits. By connnecting to other people, you start to get quicker answers to your questions and you are able to more easily find the RIGHT information, rather than a ton of resources you have to wade through. You also learn from the process of conversation with other people, answering their questions, seeing the kinds of questions they ask that may lead you to ask additional questions of your own.  Again, this requires an investment of time, so that's a major hurdle.

By the end of the meeting, the group had decided to try using the Ning network, but I can tell we have a long way to go. The members are going to have to make a major mental shift in recognizing that this network is about people, not information, and that they will have to put some initial effort into connecting with each other, rather than just connecting with the information. Should be an interesting process. Any suggestions on how I can help them make the shift?

Flickr photo via Nimages DR

Ninging It

Conversation Jen of @injenuity is feeling frustrated with Ning:

It pains me to say this, but I am no longer a fan of Ning for community building. It has been a year since I created my first site, a network for moms that has grown to 200 plus members, but I have no time to maintain. The network I created for faculty at my campus plugs along, but isn’t functioning the way a social network naturally should. I feel like my members are trapped! It’s no better than an LMS. . . .

People are distributed everywhere, yet all accessible from anywhere I have connectivity. We don’t need to congregate on a single platform. Everyone knows where to find me. The tool doesn’t matter. We can use whatever tools we like, as long as we take the time to learn more about the people in our network and how best to communicate with them.

Since I'm in the process of considering Ning for some other projects and have had my own experiences with running Ning communities, this got me thinking about when/if Ning is a good idea. What occurred to me is that maybe Ning is better as a sort of "gateway" tool for those who are relatively new to social media, rather than for connecting with those who are more experienced in using Web 2.0 tools.

After you've spent some time functioning with social media, like Jen, you begin to figure out where your contacts are and you'll "meet them" at their blogs, on Twitter, through their tags, etc. Having to go to a single destination like Ning feels limiting and useless because at that point, you've tended to develop a more fluid, connected notion of what it means to network with people online. But as I've said before, we're the exceptions. I think we're a particular kind of user who's comfortable with the more distributed nature of connection online and we've become unconsciously competent in working those networks. For us, our single point of contact is through our RSS feeds, not through a particular website.

This isn't true for most people, though. Power RSS users are still a decided minority and reality is, a LOT of people want and need a single location for accessing information and conversations that interest them. Most people do not have a blog, so the blog function in Ning is a way to help people get started with the idea in a safe environment, surrounded by people who share their interests. Many people don't get the idea of social bookmarking or tagging, so being able to share videos, etc. and tag them in Ning is another way to practice new skills.

Yes, I believe that the tools that exist outside of Ning for these purposes are superior to running them within a Ning community. But the reality is, Ning can also be a good set of "training wheels" for helping people try out some things before they are set loose into the wider Web 2.0 world. For beginners, they can be a great way to get a sense of the possibilities of social media within some kind of bounded arena before launching themselves into signing up with Blogger or getting a Twitter account. I think that this may be one of the reasons that Classroom 2.0 is so active--beside the fact that it's now large enough for the 1% rule to mean there are a ton of people participating, it's also filled with people who are beginning to get their feet wet with social media.

This isn't to say that I don't see issues with running a Ning community. Jen is right when she says that they can require a lot of facilitation, especially in the beginning stages. I also think that they may work best for time-limited purposes (such as planning for a face-to-face event or to facilitate a class) or when the focus is broad enough to invite a range of active participants. They can also work, I think, when used in combination with more traditional tools, like email, to help ease the transition and drive traffic to the site.

I haven't given up on Ning, but I definitely see its limitations. One of those, I think, is that it's probably better suited for "newbies."

What do you think? Are you with Jen in thinking Ning is too limited or do you think that there are times when Ning is the right tool?

Flickr photo via eye2eye.

You Say "Tomato," I Say "Tomahto"

Organic_tomatoes_2 I'm working with the folks over at the e-Learning Guild on a project and had the opportunity yesterday to get a guided tour through their incredibly rich data. One of the practice searches we ran was to look at which online conferencing tools were being adopted in different sectors. What was interesting was that the tools being used by most businesses were NOT the same as the tools being used by education and government. It was like every sector from aerospace to retail was on the same page and then there were the two outliers--the educational community and government agencies.

This got me speculating on not only why this occurs, but, more importantly (to me) how this illustrates a gaping chasm between what happens in business and what's happening in education and government. Now I'm not suggesting that businesses, education and government should all be using the same tools. I recognize that different sectors have different needs and, therefore, might be more likely to use different tools. But what I wonder is if this doesn't contribute to a communication gap? Using the same technology tools tends to give us a common frame of reference. When we don't have that, it becomes more difficult for us to communicate. Might this kind of thing be both a symptom and a cause of communication difficulties between business, education and government?

I suspect that this is on my mind because I've been doing some thinking about something I noticed during the Comment Challenge. Several of the Challenge activities provoked some surprisingly (to me) negative reactions from participants, which, upon further investigation, seemed to indicate that we were having some issues with the language I used.

The first time I noticed this was in the activity where I suggested that people create a comment "policy" for their blogs. Several participants indicated that they didn't like the idea of a "policy" governing comments--they wanted people to be free to say whatever. This caught me off-guard. I personally hate policies (when used in the sense of rules) and I was thinking more along the lines of guidelines when I came up with the activity. But since most people call it a "comment policy" and I knew what I meant, I didn't think twice--just used the commonly referred to concept. That clearly didn't go over well, though.

This happened a few other times, too--on the activity where I asked people to consider how commenting impacting their personal "brand (another word people hated) and the next day when I suggested developing a commenting "strategy."

What I observed in this process was that the people who didn't care for these words tended to come from education, where "policy," "branding" and "strategy" may have some more negative connotations than I intended. It got me to thinking about the issue of culture and communication and how when we don't share a common framework of understanding--when discussions are framed using words that carry powerful positive or negative emotional weight--they can seriously impact communication and trust. (Read George Lakoff's article on framing and politics to see what I'm talking about).

One of the benefits of homophily, of course is that it creates this common cultural language. If I say "brand" to a group of marketers, that's a really positive word--everyone understands and supports the concept. As soon as we start trying to expand beyond our usual circles, though, (like using the word "brand" with educators), issues of language begin to loom larger, even when we think that we all mean the same thing.

All of this has me wondering what we can do to encourage cross-community conversations by being more purposeful in our discussions about language. I can see, for example, that I should have explained in more detail what I meant by some of the words I used during the Challenge activities. This might have prevented some misunderstandings and helped me be clearer myself about what I meant. It also, presumably, would have improved the learning experience for Challenge participants.

It also has me realizing that one of the key work literacy skills we need to cultivate is cultural competence, and not just in the traditional sense of being able to work with people of different racial/ethnic backgrounds or with people from different countries. There are cultures all over the place--in different professions, organizations, and communities. They may or may not give the same emotional weight to certain words that we do. It becomes critical for us to be able to recognize when language is impeding our communications and find other ways to operate within the same frames of reference.

What do you think? How can we address these kinds of issues to improve the quality of our communications with others who may not share our same frames of reference? How can we nurture these skills in cultural competence to improve both our personal learning as well as our interactions and work?

How I Got Started with Social Media

California_dreamin0 Karyn Romeis is wondering how people got started with social media and what it's meant to their professional practice. This is part of her dissertation, which she is actually writing on a wiki--a strategy I think is pretty interesting. So here's my story. . .

I've been online since 1995, participating initially in email listservs and forums. I also dabbled in teaching classes with what we, at the time, called a "virtual office"--a website we set up where people could download class documents, listen to "podcasts" (although they weren't called that then) and discuss issues in forums.

  In October 2004, I became deeply immersed in creating art. (The illustrations here are mine--you can see I was a little angsty then).  I spent a lot of time online looking for techniques and resources and in that process, stumbled upon several artists' blogs. These intrigued me, so I got myself a Blogger blog and started sharing my own art online.

Through that process I got comfortable with the conventions of posting, commenting on other blogs, etc. It was a "no-risk" environment because I blogged anonymously and I was blogging in an area of personal interest, not in the professional realm. I felt little pressure to "produce" daily posts, in part because my posts were based on whether or not I had art to post, which tended to happen in spurts.

Interestingly, I was not at all intimidated by the technology. I had glitches and frustrations, but they were problems to solve, not barriers, and in some ways they drew me in more deeply. I also didn't do a lot of reading about blogging, so what I was learning was through trial and error, without measuring myself against some yardstick of how to run a blog or how it should perform. This was probably a good thing because I felt no pressure and could see each thing I learned about what to do on my blog as a little personal triumph that I'd figured out myself. 

As I continued to blog, my posts began to evolve. I went from simple uploads of art with a commentary on what media I used and the circumstances under which I produced a piece into more contemplative posts on the nature of creativity and how to handle dry spells (which should sound familiar to readers of The Bamboo Project). Blogging became not only a way to share art, but also to reflect on the artistic process.Driven_3 

Fast forward to Summer 2006 when I started The Bamboo Project. Initially I ran the blog with a friend, but eventually I took it over myself. I think one of the first places I landed when I started blogging professionally was at Beth Kanter's blog. This immersed me immediately into a whole new world of Web 2.0 technologies. Within a few weeks, I was into RSS, tagging and all things social media. Within a few months, I had started my first wiki and was blogging almost daily.

I think the next evolution in social media and my professional practice occurred when I wrote about my PLE in April 2007 and began exploring the whole issue of personal learning environments. That's when I first started to get more deliberate about using social media for learning.

Things went to the next level with my participation in the 31 Days to Building a Better Blog Challenge. This was my first major learning experiment. It also connected me to a world-wide community of bloggers from a variety of niches that I've continued to build upon and learn from in ways I never imagined when I first started blogging in 2004. Part of what has happened is that their comments and posts have pushed me to continue to examine my own professional development and practice on a regular basis. When I run out of questions to ask or things to think about, I can always count on my network to push me along.

How0_2I can't even begin to describe how this process has transformed my professional practice. Through it I've met amazing people who have wonderful ideas. But in some ways even more importantly, social media has made me far more reflective and deliberate about ongoing learning. Having a blog has encouraged me to write daily. To do that, I've had to read and research more and interact with the ideas that I'm encountering in order to write my posts. I've become more aware of what I do and why I do it and better at articulating those things for myself and for others.

Social media has made me more experimental, too. I make up projects for myself or join what's going on with other people. I play around with new tools and processes to see how they might work in a number of different settings. I've always been a learner, but I think that social media has made me be a more deliberate learner. Instead of just reading a book or magazine article, I actually interact with what I'm reading and seeing--writing posts, commenting on other people's posts, and creating various projects that allow me to further explore aspects of my profession and various ideas that emerge.

At this point, I can't imagine NOT using social media. Although I burn out from time to time, the benefits far outweigh the problems. Social media has become an integral part of how I do my work and has made me a far better practitioner and thinker in the process.

So that's my story. . . what's yours?

Combating "Birds of a Feather" Syndrome

Marbles For the past few days I've been deep into thinking and learning about homophily, our tendency to connect to people who share similar backgrounds, experiences, interests and values. I've been excited to see a conversation beginning to occur both here in comments and at other blogs. It's interesting to see the conversations evolve and new pieces being added to the puzzle.

As I continue my reading, discussions and thinking, I've delved into some concepts I haven't visited for awhile, most particularly the nature of networks and two types of behaviors that occur to build them--bonding and bridging activities. I think that these offer additional ways to think about the issue of homophily and give us some strategies for creating a better balance for healthier network growth.

Adaptive Networks and the Role of Bonding and Bridging Activities
If you believe in the value of networked learning, it's because you've observed that there's value in the social capital that we develop through our participation in networks. In other words, we benefit from our connections to the people in our network.

However, as Lenore Newman and Ann Dale observe in their paper on Network Structure, Diversity and Proactive Resilience Building, not all social networks are created equal:

". . . networks composed of "bridging" links to a diverse web of resources strengthen a community's ability to adapt to change, but networks composed only of local "bonding" links which compose constraining social norms and foster group homophily can reduce resilience."

This paper raises a couple of issues for me--the idea of bonding and bridging activities and the notion that we need a healthy balance of both to create resilient networks.

Clearly it's the bonding opportunities that attract most of us to social media and the development of our personal networks. How excited we become by finding legions of like-minded people who finally "get us." It's the many instances of "me too" and "I've had that experience" that seem to most draw us together. They are a big part of what makes learning through social media so rewarding--we feel part of a large learning family.

These bonding activities help us build strong networks, but how resilient are those networks in adapting to change? Again from Newman and Dale:

"A densely developed social capital network can, for example, lead to the exclusion of outsiders, make excess claims on group members, and restrict individual freedom (Portes, 1998). Bonding capital has the potential to hinder social innovation by 1) cutting off actors from needed information and, 2) imposing social norms that discourage innovation.

My interest in homophily developed as part of my consideration of why edubloggers and bloggers involved in workplace learning were not having more dialogue on 21st century literacy skills. I realize now that what I was observing was that the bonding behaviors for both groups have been very strong, creating internal cohesion, and a great sense of community. However there have been fewer bridging behaviors connecting the two communities, effectively cutting each group off from learning more from the other. This, in turn, may seriously impact both groups' abilities to adapt to the changes they are currently experiencing.

Bridging behaviors, argue Newman and Dale are what help us create resilient networks:

Bridging social capital allows actors to access outside information and overcome social norms with support from outside the local network, in addition to increasing access to diverse forms of other capital. Because bridging capital brings in new and potentially novel information, it is here that bonding capital provides the group resilience needed to absorb the benefits of bridging capital; the two capitals are complementary. The sheer amount of social capital is not likely to be a good indicator of how well a community will be able to engage problems. It is a dynamic balance of bonding and bridging social capital that builds resilience and makes the difference between a small community “getting by” or “getting ahead” (Dale and Onyx 2005).

What strikes me here is this quote: "The sheer amount of social capital is not likely to be a good indicator of how well a community will be able to engage problems." 

Right now, we have a huge quantity of social capital that is being developed every day. If I look at the communities I'm dealing with, for example, new bloggers come online constantly, adding their voices to the conversation. But the issue isn't the quantity, of course. It's the mix of bonding vs. bridging that goes on that truly is the measure of the effectiveness of the network, both on a large scale, as well as in individual personal learning networks. If my personal learning network consists of people who largely think as I do, then I'm focusing too much on bonding and not enough on bridging and need to find a way to develop greater bridging social capital. It's why sometimes I feel like I'm stagnating ("getting by") rather than growing ("getting ahead.").

Bridge Developing More Bridging Social Capital
The question becomes then, how to engage in more bridging? I actually think it begins with diagnosing my tendencies toward homophily--a homophily self-assessment if you will. This is something I've started to do here and, through comments, discovered that Tom Hamilton is doing on his own blog. The first step in solving a problem is to admit you have it.

I can also start building bridges myself between the various communities I belong to, something that Meryn Stol suggested I do.

But these are relatively simple steps that don't get at some of my deeper concerns. What I'm wondering now are things like:

  • How do I find and connect to more diverse voices online? As I said the other day, I don't know that this is an issue of me being more interdisciplinary--I already read a fairly diverse set of materials. This is more about finding the voices that don't echo what I already believe. I'm honestly not sure how to do that? How do I do a search on "the opposite of The Bamboo Project"?
  • What do I do about not having access to a lot of other perspectives? How do you connect to groups of people who are not online and who may not be part of your physical network either?
  • What are the best ways to build bridges between communities? I can do as Meryn suggested, visit various blogs and leave comments and links to pull the two groups together, but does that work? And if only a few people do it, can you really achieve the critical mass necessary to build the bridges?
  • How do you get homophilous communities to be more open? One of my ongoing frustrations with building bridges between academic and workplace learning communities (both on and off-line) is that both seem to be closed to the perspectives of the other. The work world is dismissive of education as being too "academic" and not getting the real world, while educators feel that businesses don't understand the pressures and issues that they live with. Each may be speaking some truths, but I also think that these are symptoms of the closed networks that each group has created. Homophily breeds intolerance and polarization.
  • How can we get technology to help? The current state of social media is that it tends to build strong bonds, but it doesn't necessarily contribute to building bridges. Nat Torkington has some ideas here on how to mix things up. I'd like to actually see these at work in social software.

This is obviously an ongoing issue for me, something I'm trying to understand as I honestly believe that we will not get the full benefit of social media until we can figure out how to build more resilient networks through bridging social capital.

What ideas do you have for how we could build more bridging behaviors and opportunities into our online activities? How can we find more diverse voices and create connections between different communities so we could learn from each other?

Photos via Michelle Brea and WisDoc