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. :-)