3 C’s of Social Networking in Education: Context

To conclude my series on the three C’s of social networking in education, I will now attempt to examine a rather ambiguous concept: context.

Context is pretty ambiguous because I can’t really give you a range of steps on how to determine what the context is in your particular educational situation. Your context is your context, and it is different from my context or anyone’s for that matter. But those differences are important and crucial in determining which social networking tool you use and how you use it.

For you theoretical types out there who think I have missed the big “P” word, I hate to break it to you: I am using the term “context” in place of the term “pedagogy.” I’ve noticed that recently I’ve been growing tired of the word pedagogy, even though for a while I couldn’t tell you exactly why. Then George Siemens published a blog entry called “Pedagogy First? Whatever” that pretty much helped me realize what my problem was. I can pretty much sum up my feeling with one quote from Mr. Siemens: “if you want to create your very own pedagogy, you can likely find research that supports it.” I can create a sound pedagogy for flogging students with a rusty slinky if I tried hard enough. So just asking if a certain social networking tool is pedagogically sound will really mean nothing.

What you really need to ask yourself is: “will this tool be the right option for the context of my class and the outcomes that I desire for this activity?” Hopefully Mr. Siemens is not as uptight about the AP is with quoting, but here is some more meat from his excellent post:

“Few Utopian situations exist where our decisions on how to teach can be based exclusively on pedagogy. Resources, expertise, technology, needs (of learners, educators, society), and funds impact what we choose to do. In a world: context. The mix of multiple, mutually influencing factors determine what we types of technology we select.”

Determining your particular context maybe easy in some cases and difficult in others. See this page on Evaluating Context for some helpful guidelines.

3 C’s of Social Networking in Education: Community

To continue my series on the three C’s of social networking in education, I will turn my attention next to the one that seems to get overlooked the most: community.

The web has long been dominated by a “Field of Dreams” mentality: if you build it, they will come. Now that we have the ability to publish our own sites, blogs, videos, micro-blogs, etc – we tend to follow that line of thinking. If I put up a blog or FaceBook group or even create my own social networking site, people will just start showing up and using it.

But then a scary thing happens – few people show up and fewer even do anything when there.

Creating your own corner in some social network is just the very first step. People won’t come unless you get out there and invite them. In education, this usually is not that much of a problem because most educators will tell students and colleagues where to go. But regardless of whether you have a captive audience already or are just opening up a general site for anyone to come along, you have to spend time getting the word out. This is just the first step in building a community.

The next step is probably the most important one. Building a community takes consistent action and activity. You have to consistently give people something to socialize about. This is where I see many educational social networking activities fail. People set up a new blog or FaceBook group or other tool and then use it as if they are still stuck in Web 1.0. To use a few buzzwords, they use a “red/write” solution to publish “read-only” content. They don’t ask questions, start discussions, or even put anything worth commenting on. This is what many blogs tend to do – some even intentionally shut off the comments feature. Even some micro-blogs are not worth checking more than once a week at the most.

So, when you are thinking about setting up some social networking site or group, think about what people who come to your network will actually do or discuss. Give them something to socialize about. Give them a reason to network with others. Don’t just use it to show off your own witty statements or thoughts. Make it an actual activity to join in, not just another site to read. Thousands of new blogs and sites are started every week online – so give your small niche of visitors some reason to stick around. Think of a reason for them to socialize and build a community.

This can even be a problem in educational settings where students are required to visit. If you don’t do something interesting and educationally valid with the network, students will be tempted to just contribute the bare minimum and hit the road to a more interesting site or network.

3 C’s of Social Networking in Education: Consistency

I thought I would start my look at the three C’s of social networking in education by tackling the hardest one: consistency. I know I made that sound like I had a choice on which one of the three to start with. And the truth is, I did – I don’t think these three C’s go in any order. We really need to consider them all at once, and also work on them as they come up. You can look at the context first, or community first… but you need to look at all of them before jumping in.

So, consistency. You need to think of your social network as a television show. If you watch a television show that starts out on Monday nights, then goes off the air for a few weeks, and then comes back on Saturday afternoons, and then goes away for a while, and then comes back once on a Friday morning – you would give up watching it after a while. The same is true with any social networking site – be it a blog, or a podcast, or a wiki even. You need to look at your site visitors as an audience – if you aren’t consistently giving them new content to read or look at, they will check out after a while.

This gets hard for the working professional that is attempting to social network as part of their job. The modern mindset is that when the deadline is on, then that is ALL you can focus on and nothing else. Even five minutes spent off task and you will miss the deadline.

We know this isn’t true – but that is how we work sometimes. And I think we are seeing subtle changes in the younger generations – they value networking as much as the older generations do, but they are more willing so carve out a few minutes each day to do it.

So, that is what you have to commit to if you want to get some type of social network going – you have to make the time for it, even of the deadline is looming. The amount of time you commit would be in proportion to the size of your networking tool and also the expected update frequency. Micro-blogs and FaceBook take less time to update, but need to be attended to daily or every other day or else people will start to lose interest. So set aside 10 minutes a day to update those. Blogs and wikis take more time, so they probably need to be updated weekly – either at least once or maybe a few times a week. So find that 30 minutes to a couple of hours each week that you can update these. Set aside this time as almost sacred – you will do something no matter what the deadline crunch is (even if it is a short “Auuhhhh – deadline!” update).

I also need to point out that consistently also applies to your actual content – make sure that it is interesting and applicable to your target audience.Your online history students don’t want to read about your newest toothpaste adventures in your micro-blog.

Coming up next: Community

The Three C’s of Social Networking in Education

Here is a typical scenario in education when an instructor or administrative person decides to explore some online social networking tool. Let’s take micro-blogging for an example. You sign up for Twitter, learn to use it, and then Tweet away for a few days or even weeks. They you get busy and disappear for about the same amount of time – a couple of days or weeks (or months). Then you magically appear online again, apologizing profusely for your absence and Tweeting away… but for a shorter period of time than your first episode of activity. Then life creeps back in and you disappear again for a while. You come back to Twitter when life settles down, take a good hard look at it, and decide to give up. “No one was commenting on anything I read” or “no one seemed to respond to me or post on my wall or whatever” is your typical response, depending on the tool.

Sound familiar? I was pretty much describing my experience with several programs. The problem here is that we are applying an older educational paradigm to a new educational tool. With the old “sit and soak” educational method, your audience was still going to be there when you came back to that cool idea because, well, they had to be. You can start a cool new idea in class, then put it aside for a few weeks to get the “real” content in, and then come back to the new stuff when you get time. In the traditional educational setting, many things can be put off so that we can focus on “the basics.” Your audience – your students – will still care about their test grade even if you got to busy for a while to get it graded.

Online social networking is different. You have to look at it like building a successful television program. You have to make choices that will give people a reason to tune in… and sometimes, you may have to make a sacrifice to get that done. The sacrifice I am talking about here is not as painful as you would think. I am just talking about making some changes in mindset to get social networking happening in your educational setting.

Over the next three blog posts, I will take a look at the three C’s of online networking in education:

  • Consistency
  • Community
  • Context

Stay tuned!