ELearning 2.0 Survey at eLearning Guild
Courage Comes with Practice

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

Comments

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No good answers, but a very good question, and one that students and faculty are struggling with right now. Many still view the web and their learning management systems as simply extensions of libraries. That is, the perception is one of information storage.

Even with required participation, the conversations came seem forced, not spontaneous and genuine.

But, the web, especially with networking tools and applications, is all about communication among groups with similar interests.

Looking forward to the suggestions!

Within a group like that, you'll find particularly passionate people who like having conversations and making things happen. These would be your influencers. Reach out to those people, help them get on board, and show them the value of having those conversations on Ning instead of through countless e-mails and phone calls. They'll serve as a magnet to bring other people in. =)

I completely understand where you are coming from. In fact, I wrote about this exact topic last week! (http://bethstill.edublogs.org/2008/07/23/the-value-of-plcs/)

I am at a very small group with just three other teachers. I am trying so hard to get them to join the Online Learning Group in the CR2.0 Ning. It has proved much more difficult that I expected. I get so much out of networking that it is impossible for me to see how anyone can brush off this important activity. One of my goals this year is to set up a Ning for teachers in western Nebraska. Setting up the Ning will be easy. Getting people to participate may be a lesson in futility!!!

I think the most important thing to remember is that we cannot push people too hard or they will shut down. I am NOT a patient person so this is very hard for me, but I am trying!Just keep talking about all of the awesome things you have learned through networking and how connected you feel to the people you have met. The more my coworkers see me reaching out to my network the more they see the value in the process. The initial investment of time is where the hang up is for the other teachers at my school.

Observing Nings in action I think you have clearly highlighted one of the biggest issues with it especially for newbies - they see it as a source of information not conversation. For the people who normally post the information this is very crippling because its the conversation that makes us want to share and post information.

I'm beginning to think that Nings work well in certain circumstances e.g. Classroom 2.0 due to large number of members and classroom situations where their use can be scaffolded. Perhaps they don't always work so well with new people with the f2f guiding. Perhaps in these situations a blog may be the better tool where you set up an email subscription and slowly guide them into how to interact.

Another idea that worked pretty well was setting up a group for learning only, just so people can try out the tools without looking foolish in front of their colleagues. You'd be surprised how that stops people from using great tools. Before we launched a new community site at my last job we all joined different networks just to learn what to do so we wouldn't make rookie mistakes out of the gate. We made plenty of mistakes (and learned a lot!) but not the ones we would have made if we hadn't practiced on our own.

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