Using Twitter to make you a more credible instructor

Just reading a piece of research by Kirsten A. Johnson from the Department of Communication at Elizabethtown College titled The effect of Twitter posts on students’ perception of instructor credibility (academic paywall) which illustrates some of the positive teaching benefits of not only using an open social network like Twitter, but using it in a very personal way.

Building on results of previous studies that show that instructors perceived as highly credible can have a positive impact on student learning, this study looked at the impact using Twitter might have on an instructors perceived credibility with students.

One of the factors that can increase the credibility of an instructor with learners is self-disclosure of personal information. You straddle a fine line with personal information. Too much or the wrong type and you can hurt your credibility (the phrase creepy treehouse just popped into my head as I wrote this). And indeed, many of the participants in this study expressed concerns about the appropriateness of instructors using social networks:

When participants in the study were asked why it is not appropriate for teachers to have social networking site accounts, many worried that they would not post appropriate information, thereby causing possible awkwardness in the student–teacher relationship. This feeling among participants supports previous findings that show it is important for teachers to disclose only appropriate information.

But as this research shows, when you hit that sweet spot, social media can help you make some very real connections with your learners, which can translate into improved learning.

The research looks at three different Twitter scenarios and how each influences a students perception of the instructors credibility.

  1. The instructor posts nothing but social information on Twitter
  2. The instructor posts nothing but scholarly information on Twitter
  3. The instructor posts both social and scholarly information on Twitter

120 undergrads from a small US college participated in the study. Interestingly, 81% of the respondents were female while only 17% were male and while the gender balance of the institution where the research was conducted did skew female (64%-36%), the author does acknowledge that this imbalance may alter the generalizability of the study.

The students were divided into three groups. One saw only tweets that were social, one group saw scholarly tweets, and one group a combination of scholarly and social tweets.

The results showed that the students who saw only the social tweets of the instructor rated that instructor as more credible than the group that saw only the scholarly tweets. Interestingly, there was no differences found between the group that saw the combination social-scholarly tweets and the other two groups, which runs counter to how I think Twitter should be used by College level educators since so much of an instructors credibility with students at this level is tied directly to their subject-matter expertise.  The authors of the study were also surprised by this result.

It was surprising that there was no significant difference between the scholarly group and the social + scholarly group. Since the dimensions used to measure credibility have both a caring and a competence component, it was interesting to note that the scholarly tweets, which were included in the study to raise the teacher’s level of perceived competence, did not significantly raise competence ratings in the groups that saw the scholarly posts. This could be an indication that caring, not competence, is the most important dimension when it comes to assessing perceived credibility on social networking sites.

The researchers conclude that:

No longer do teachers need to use class time to reveal bits of personal information about themselves: instead, this revelation of information can take place outside of class in a forum where students can choose whether to look at it. The nature of Twitter with its short updates, options to share pictures, and to easily post links may make it the ideal place to share information and carry on conversations with students outside of class. The use of social networking sites allows conversations to continue and can enrich a student’s perception of the teacher. As previous studies show, this personal communication can develop trust and lead to a productive learning environment

One of the bits about this research that I wasn’t keen about was that the fake instructor Twitter accounts did not contain a photo of a person, or even an avatar, but rather a generic photo of a sunset. I understand that the research didn’t want to bias the results of the study based on physical appearance, but to me if you are going to examine the issue of credibility on social networks, then not having a photo could very well flip the bias to the other end of the scale.

Ah well, at least it wasn’t Old Twitter default avatar


3 research studies on potential advantages of using Twitter in the classroom

Three academic studies are cited in this article about Twitter, and how it can increase student engagement, enhance social presence, and help develop peer support models among students through the formation of personal learning networks.

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A small but impressive study of students at Lockhaven University in Pennsylvania found that those who used Twitter to continue class discussions and complete assignments were more engaged in their classwork than students who did not.

Four sections (70 students) were given assignments and discussions that incorporated Twitter, such as tweeting about their experiences on a job shadow day or commenting on class readings. Three sections (55 students) did the same assignments and had access to the same information, but didn’t use Twitter.

In addition to showing more than twice the improvement in engagement than the control group, the students who used Twitter also achieved on average a .5 point increase in their overall GPA for the semester.

An earlier study [pdf] by Joanna C. Dunlap and Patrick R. Lowenthal from the University of Colorado at Denver found that Twitter was able to “enhance social presence” and produce other instructional benefits in an online course.

Another experiment into the use of social media at the University of Leicester found that tweeting helps to develop peer support among students and personal learning networks and can be used as a data collection tool. Read a more detailed description of the experiment here. [via Faculty Focus]



What Do Students Learn Through Discussion?

I went through asynch discussion burnout during my Masters. 5 courses back to back where the main tool of interaction with classmates was an asynchronous discussion board. Some tips that I appreciated as a student – faculty limiting us to postings of no more than 200 words, and breaking us into smaller groups to keep the conversation more manageable. I also appreciated having those groups mixed up during the course to keep it fresh and to introduce new ideas and ways of thinking into our discussion.

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What Do Students Learn Through Discussion?

Using a qualitative design, researchers identified four different ways students reported they were using discussion to promote learning.

  • To challenge ideas – both their own and others with the goal of arriving at a more complete understanding
  • To develop ideas – using the ideas of others to improve their own thinking
  • To acquire ideas – using discussion as a way of collecting ideas
  • To check ideas – making sure that their ideas were the right ones; that they were learning the right things

The researchers identify the first two approaches as deep learning methods and the last two as more typical of surface learning approaches.

The researchers also point out that students don’t always see the potential for learning through discussion—it’s just another one of those things some teachers have them do. You think the reason for having discussions is obvious to students? I’d encourage you to test that assumption. Next time you’ve had a discussion, ask students why you had them discuss the topic rather than simply lecturing on it or have them read about it in the text. If I had to guess, I’d say that question will first be met with silence, followed by some glib answers, “You didn’t have time to prepare a lecture,” followed by other answers, none still very insightful, “It’s a way to keep us awake.”




The brain and social connections

Research on how a larger amygdala region in the brain may make it easier for some people to maintain a large social network.

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People with large, highly complex social networks tend to have larger amygdala regions than those with fewer friends, according to a study published in Nature Neuroscience.

It’s the first study to demonstrate a link between amygdala volume and social network characteristics within a single species.

They found that the gregarious types, those who reported having regular contact with comparatively large numbers of people from a variety of social groups, tend to have larger amygdala volumes.




There’s something happening here

Something happening here

Something is happening at my institution. I seem to be connecting with more of our faculty on Facebook and Twitter. Interest in blogging among faculty is growing, and every week I am hearing of another faculty person starting to blog or tweet.

What is both interesting and encouraging is the topic of conversation in these spaces. They are talking about teaching and learning. They are sharing links and resources. They are connecting with each other and talking about their craft. They are developing their PLN’s, and it is very cool to see happening.

One striking example of what I am seeing occurred recently where I took part in a conversation on Facebook with an instructor who posted the following status update:

How do I measure student engagement in my classroom? How would I evaluate them if I decide not to use exams anymore?

There was a great response from his colleagues and a rich discussion ensued. But then something interesting happened. It wasn’t just other faculty who were responding. There were staff, his friends, his Dean — and students. Students who he was FB friends with weighed in with their opinions on what kind of strategies they thought would engage them. His students were responding to his question, and posting their responses to what others were suggesting.  Talk about a rich formative evaluation, done completely informally and naturally, prompted by a simple question posted as a status update.

I am not sure what is going on. Perhaps we are reaching a tipping point where there are enough people now engaged with social networks that  where this type of interaction is possible. Perhaps it is because we have a new Dean in Arts and Science. He blogs. He tweets. He connects with his faculty in Facebook. And I think he is setting the tone for his School. Perhaps his presence in these social spaces, talking about both professional and personal things, is making it somehow more inviting for his faculty. I’m not sure. But whatever the reasons, it is great to see and be able to take part in these conversations without having to wait for a once a year conference, or a chance hallway encounter.


Delicious – the place I got it

Delicious is dead.

Er, sorry. Delicious is in the sunset column.

I don’t know if I could write a better eulogy to Delicious than Marshall has at ReadWriteWeb. He hit on so many points and ways in which the service was so valuable to so many people. Me included.

I started experimenting with Delicious in 2005 after hearing a hallway conversation between Scott Leslie and another of my BCcampus coworkers at the time. They were talking about these things called folksonomy and tagging. I was intrigued.

Delicious was the place where so much of the Web 2.0 world first made sense to me. With Delicious, I got it. I got the power of networks. I got social learning. I got tagging. I got the cloud. I got transparency. I got open. I got web as tool. I got what a “social” network was, even though I was still years away from joining Facebook or Twitter. Delicious armed me with enough conceptual knowledge of what a social network was that I was able to scaffold that knowledge and easily “get” the value of Facebook and Twitter when they arrived a few years later.

Today I kinda feel like when AOL announced they were killing Netscape; a kind of melancholy sadness at the passing of something that was once so great.

But what makes this different from Netscape is that Delicious is still great and remains one of the most valuable tools in my network. It did what it did extremely well. Sure there was the convenience of storing your bookmarks on the web and having them accessible from anywhere, but that wasn’t the real value of Delicious for me. The real value is its transparency in that I am able to see what my network is bookmarking. Delicious gives me a glimpse into what they found important on the web. What they bookmarked helped me focus my attention on what was important. It helped me learn. Delicious was a small piece of social learning in action. I was observing skilled practitioners in my field through their bookmarks, and was able to follow their links and find out why they felt this article or this link was important to them.

Oh sure, there is that Twitter thing where links are shared all the time.  But Delicious is different. Beyond the realtime stream of what my network is bookmarking at the moment, I also had access to everything they had ever bookmarked in the past. Through the Delicious search engine, I was able to search through hundreds of  thousands of links curated by the members of my network. The people who I connect with in Delicious are dealing with the same problems, questions and challenges that I do. When I needed to recommend a new tool for a job, I would go to my Delicious network first and search what my network had squirreled away there. Being able to have access to this collected archive of links vetted by people I trusted? Invaluable.

Rarely did a conversation happen “on Delicious”. It wasn’t that kind of social network. It was a lurkers paradise. Not that I didn’t contribute. I bookmarked and annotated, passively adding to the collective knowledge (so I hoped) of my network.

Yeah, I know Diigo is there. That is probably where I will end up. But I always found Diigo too heavy, too feature rich. In Delicious, there was simplicity. It was the journeyman of Web 2.0 tools. Dependable, gets the job done, no nonesense. But yet flexible enough that you could mash it and collaborate in numerous ways.

In some respects, Delicious is just a tool. I mean, I still have those connections, and I can and will recreate them in other venues and services. My network will survive. I’ll find ways to continue doing what I do. That’s what distributed networks do. Survive thermonuclear bombs to rebuild and thrive again. But it was this tool (and, more specifically, the architects of this tool) who taught me so much about how the web works that calling it “just a tool” seems cheap and demeaning. It deserves more respect from me than that. A shovel is a tool. Delicious was disruptive and changed my view of how things worked.

Sometimes it IS about the technology. And I can’t give it much higher praise than that.


Network vs Community

A post by George Siemens on PLN’s earlier this week has really pushed my thinking about legitimate peripheral participation, lurking, and the differences between a learning network and a learning community with respect to social expectations and identity.

I don’t like to think of myself as a ‘taker’, yet I do often consider myself a ‘lurker’. I do not equate ‘lurking = taking’. Sometimes I lurk, sometimes I take. Sometimes I feel I don’t have anything to add to the conversation, so I just like it as a way to acknowledge that I have been there and send a signal to my connection to keep those weak ties bound. Sometimes I contribute something back.

I still find myself uncomfortable. The dialectic nature of learning does not always come easy to me. Even posting my response to George made me uncomfortable, to the point where I was almost apologetic to George for bringing the whole issue of lurking up in the first place as I felt that it distracted from the important point he was making about the need to act by contributing something to all these connections we are busy making.

The reasons why I felt uncomfortable are complex and personal, primarily centered around my own issues of often feeling like I am an imposter at the table. It’s a feeling I have often, even in f2f social situations. I don’t bring this up as a way to exercise my own personal issues as some sort of angst-y therapy blog post, but rather to highlight the complex and highly personal nature of why we may choose to contribute or not contribute (and while reading comments like “Lurking in the physical world is done by thieves, spies and ethnographers” makes me smile, it also doesn’t make a self-proclaimed lurker feel anymore comfortable about contributing). I still feel like something is at risk when I post something. It is a barrier for me, and one that I can’t (or choose not to) always overcome.

I think the fact that I “sometimes” feels like a lurker illustrates the fluid nature of our own personal identity on the web, a point underscored for me when I read George’s reply to  Tannis Morgan’s comment in which he was articulating the differences between identity in a network, and identity in a community.

Hi Tanis – identity and positioning are very different things in networks than they are in community. I don’t want to get into the whole community/network debate here (we do that annually in CCK courses), but networks have different social structures than most communities do. A community has general rules, guidelines, and soft social pressure. We get these in networks to a lesser degree. In networks, for example, we can have parallel conversations where I follow you, I know what you’re writing and thinking about, it forms my development, but I don’t have to focus explicitly on what you (and others) say. Conversations are abundant, diverse, fragmented, and complex. In a community, stronger protocols exist. For example, in a virtual community, if everyone is blasting out random thoughts and ideas, we conclude there is no engagement. On Twitter, I can contribute, create a few resources, post them…and maybe people will respond. Or maybe they won’t. But it’s ok, in a network, to contribute and not be explicitly acknowledged. In a community, contribution has stronger social norms – i .e. it needs to be acknowledge, discussed, and so on. As a result, the identity of individuals in social networks has a different impact than it does in communities. But I need to think a bit more about what exactly that difference is…at this point, it seems to me that identity is more fluid in networks and therefore has less requirements of expected behaviour or roles than we find in communities.

Reading this was a bit of an aha moment for me (and a duh moment as well). A learning network is not a learning community. There are differences, both subtle and profound, between the two.

Which brings me back to Wenger & Lave’s legitimate peripheral participation, and how my thinking got shifted by this post. LPP is a concept that is very much tied to communities, specifically Communities of Practice. But, as George points out, a network is not a community. They are two different entities, and the social expectations for involvement in both are different. In my attempt to understand the nature of networked learning and PLN’s, perhaps I am transferring too much from the Community of Practice model, and not fully acknowledging that there are fundamental differences that exist between learning in a community and learning in a network.

Which makes me wonder at what point do our models of thinking – models that have served us so well over the years – begin to get stretched too far? At what point do our models begin to hold us back instead of give us the foundation to move forward? At what point does our scaffold begin to fall down and need to be rebuilt again?

Finally, this all makes me think that we do a disservice to both the terms “lurking” and “legitimate peripheral participation” when we use them interchangeably (guilty). They are different things, and I sometimes think the (undeservedly) pejorative nature of the term “lurker” often gets dressed up with the much more acceptable term of legitimate peripheral participation. Legitimate peripheral participation may begin with lurking, but there is an expectation that this is the first step in a continuum for a learner in that they will eventually move out of the lurking phase and take a more active role in a community.


Academics work around the paywall

Academics are finding ways around paywalls to provide access to academic research for colleagues. That’s one of the findings of research conducted by Jason Priem and Kaitlin Light Costello of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on how and why scholars cite on Twitter.

In the research, Preim and Costello analyzed the links tweeted by academics. They  broke the tweets down into 1st and 2nd order tweets. 1st order tweets were tweets that contained direct links to peer reviewed resources. 2nd order tweets were links to a web page (like a blog) which contained either a link or description of a peer-reviewed resource. The tweets analyzed were almost evenly split between 1st and 2nd order links (52%-48% respectively).

What is interesting about this is the reasons why academics link to 2nd order resources. Some found that it fit their workflow better. But others said that it helped them get around paywalls to articles.

That second point bears repeating. It helped them get around paywalls to articles.

[Armando] I’m much more likely, if I see an article that I think is really interesting, to blog about it myself and post a link to that or to link to someone else’s blog about it. Because you can provide a little more substance that way, even to people who do not have access to it behind the paywall.

The quantitative data support this interview finding. While 56% of first-order links were open access, only 25% of second-order links were free to access. This significant difference (p < .001, ?² = 12.86) suggests that scholars may prefer to link directly to the article when it is open access but will resort to second-order links to bypass paywall restrictions. Participants were attracted to open-access articles for Twitter citations; Ben said “I would certainly be much more likely to link to things if they were more readily available.”

Now, I am no academic. I am clueless about how the inner machinations of academic publishing work. But something tells me when academics are finding ways to work around the restrictions put in place to prevent access the research they are creating – well, that tells me something is not quite working with the current system.

Thanks to Tom Fullerton for sending this article my way – via Twitter – a first order citation of the highest order.



I’ve signed up for Personal Learning Environments Networks & Knowledge, a Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) from Stephen Downes, George Siemens, Rita Kop and Dave Cormier. I am not sure how much I will be able to participate, considering I am already in the throes of a thesis, but the topic is so perfectly aligned with my thesis research on PLN’s, informal learning and the role of microblogging that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to participate at some level.

Conceptually, there is a pretty clear distinction in my head between PLE’s and PLN’s. In very broad terms, I think of PLE’s as the technology, with the PLN being the people. The PLE enables me to build a PLN. Not that everyone who is part of my PLN requires technology to connect with, but technology has made my PLN much richer, more diverse, and instantly available.

Personally, I am more interested in the PLN than the PLE. Considering I am primarily a technologist in my day job, this is probably a bit off-kilter, but while I use a PLE (built primarily in Netvibes and good ol fashioned, still alive and kicking butt in my little world RSS) and find it invaluable to my learning, I realize I am not a typical user. I do wonder how viable the idea of learners constructing their own environments really is within the context of higher education, which is one of the things I hope this course will help me come to terms with.

But the PLN – I am much more interested in the PLN as a learning construct, both formally and informally, and how it is similar or different to other learning constructs, such as networks of practice and communities of practice.

About a year ago, I wrote about my casual search on trying to historically define the term Personal Learning Network, and came across a 1999 article by Dori Digenti called Collaborative Learning: A Core Capability for Organizations in the New Economy (pdf) in which she noted that reciprocity and trust are two crucial elements in constructing a PLN. I have thought about, and referred to, this article a lot in the past year, specifically when speaking about the idea of reciprocity and how it manifests itself in a network enabled PLN. The more I have thought about it, and the more I examine my own use of a PLN, the more I realize that the reciprocity in a PLN is not so much between myself and individuals within the PLN, but between myself and the PLN itself. I find myself both answering and asking questions to a relatively anonymous group of people whom I have weak ties with, with whom I have developed a certain level of trust with, based primarily on the ambient exposure I have to them and their ideas as a result of them being open and transparent on the web. How did I get to trust these people? Why do I think they know something that will help me? And what are the expectations of me of the people who choose to include me in their PLN? What are my responsibilities? Or are there even any responsibilities?  Oh, the questions.

The other point on PLN’s that I am interested in is a bit more grounded, and that is whether people who use PLN’s use them as a general tool, or segment them to professional development. In my view, a PLN is a general learning tool regardless of what I want to learn, yet I often see PLN’s used primarily as tools for professional development. But I realize that I only get a small glimpse into other people’s PLN’s based on who I am and the role they believe I play in their PLN, so this is probably not the case.

Okay, I need to wrap this up. Hopefully I’ll be able to articulate some of this more clearly in the coming weeks, and be able to contribute to your PLN’s in a meaningful way. At the very least, I am happy to be along for this PLENK2010 ride.


An Amazing Story of Openness

More reading for my thesis lit review has uncovered a story that would fit nicely into Alan Levine’s growing collection of Amazing Stories of Openness; “personal stories that would not have been previously possible, enabled by open licensed materials and personal networks.”

This one involves Twitter, and comes from a research paper called How and why people Twitter: the role that micro-blogging plays in informal communication at work.

The open subscription feature in Twitter not only allows users to find interesting people to follow for exchange of information and thoughts, but may also help to establish valuable personal relationships for future collaborations. Tom told us an amazing story about such an experience. A while ago, he tweeted about a book that he was reading and liked a lot. Natasha, a social constructer, was reading the book at the similar period of time. She found Tom’s tweets about the book very interesting and they started following each other on Twitter. Natasha worked on a project with the Kenyan government working to pull Kenya people out of poverty through ICT. Several months later, Natasha sent Tom a message on Twitter asking whether she could talk with him to learn more about Tom’s company before her meeting with executives of the company about the Kenya project. After the meeting with Tom, Natasha invited him to the executive briefing and also invited him as a representative from the company working on the Kenya project. In Tom’s words:

“So, that’s the type of relationship that can be built simply through Twitter. I never knew Natasha, and haven’t been knowing anything about Kenya. She finds me because our common interests and developed a positive relationship that I am very proud of and very interested in continuing.”

Later in the paper, the researchers elaborate more on this relationship.

In the story that we have described previously about Natasha inviting Tom into her Kenya project, Tom told us that this collaboration opportunity not only came through a personal relationship built between him and Natasha, but also because she was able to get to know him from his Twitter updates.

“One of the things that I said to [Natasha] is that I am not an executive and I don’t have any related to executive pool. She said, yeah, I know, I have been watching you for 4 or 5 months now, I understand who you are and I understand your position, but I still want you to be part of this conversation because I know you understand [the technology]. She didn’t care whether or not I had any executive poll, she knew from following me on Twitter, what I was interested in and she knew how I could help her.

Would this type of opportunity come about for Tom BT (Before Twitter)? Perhaps, if Tom and Natasha were in fairly close proximity to each other, and had the opportunity to interact on a fairly regular basis in such a way that Tom could showcase his expertise in an area that Natasha was interested in. But the fact that Natasha was able to follow Tom’s work for such a long period of time, and observe, in such an unobtrusive, ambient way, the level of Tom’s abilities and understanding on a topic Natasha was interested in says to me that there is a different form of relationship building happening here. And, more importantly, a different measure of how we determine who the “experts” are who can provide us what we need when we need it.

Zhao, D., & Rosson, M. B. (2009). How and why people Twitter: the role that micro-blogging plays in informal communication at work. In Proceedings of the ACM 2009 international conference on Supporting group work (pp. 243-252). Sanibel Island, Florida, USA: ACM. doi:10.1145/1531674.1531710


How students benefit from open networked learning

Helen Keegan is a Senior Lecturer in Interactive Media and Social Technologies at the University of Salford, UK, and recently wrote a post outlining one particular experience in using social media with her grad class. Working with MSc. students, Helen had the students blog and use Twitter as part of an exercise in developing a digital identity. She goes on to describe “the eureka moment” for the students on how powerful these tools can be in connecting and engaging with people who are working in their field of study. For some context on the excerpt below, Jeremy Silver is (among other things) the acting-CEO of  the Featured Artists Coalition in the UK and a prominent figure in the UK music industry.

There were some hugely influential and heart-warming examples of the benefits of students developing a professional online ID. One of these took place after our IP/Digital Rights week, when each student was asked to write a post in response to Jeremy Silver’s blog. Silver had found this post (pingback?) and left a really positive comment. That was a eureka moment for all – the idea that they could write a post, and one of the industry’s leading figures value their perspective, treat them as peers, and take the time to enter into conversation with them. This was soon followed by one of the group telling me how he’d tweeted his Audioboo blog post, and ’this guy retweeted it, said something really positive about my post – think he might actually work for Audioboo’. It was Mark Rock, the CEO…

When Jeremy Silver and Mark Rock took the time to read the student blog posts, comment positively and re-tweet, they added so much to the learner experience and i’m pretty sure they won’t have realised just how influential those acknowledgements would be – not just to the two students, but to the whole group. They were the missing link between our students seeing themselves as apprentices and professionals, the whole ‘linking education to industry through social software’ idea, which although we have been focusing on for a few years now, has never been experienced in such a potent way.

As a student, I have experienced moments like this. It is an exhilarating feeling to see that your words and thoughts have moved someone you admire or respect to action, and provide a response. It is a highly validating and motivating moment as you begin to realize that you are moving beyond being a student of a subject to being a practitioner in a field.


Will Facebook Questions mainstream crowdsourcing?

Facebook announced a new feature called Questions this week that might be the tipping point that makes technology mediated crowdsourcing a commonly accepted everyday occurrence as a way for individuals to find answers and solve problems.

Now, crowdsourcing is not all that new, but for most people I suspect crowdsouricng as a personal activity with a large network isn’t really on their radar. Sure, when you look for information, you might ask your friends or family for advice or post a question in a forum on the topic somewhere, but I suspect for most people harnessing the network effects of a large distributed mass of people isn’t really something they take part in.

Questions just might change that. Post a question using Questions (you can add a photo or a poll to the question – nice touch), and not only will your friends be able to answer it, but you can also send the question out to the FB network. Further target your question by tagging it with a subject keyword, and only people who are interested in that subject (I assume because they have declared it somewhere in  their profile) will get the question, giving you access to a bunch of people who have some (granted self-declared) skill and expertise in this area.

I haven’t seen the feature yet (it is being rolled out by Facebook as a beta to some users), so I am not going to speculate much more on it. And I am not sure how the questions will be posed to the network in an unobtrusive manner. If unsolicited questions just start popping up in people’s news streams, I suspect there will be a few upset users complaining about the added noise. But at first blush, it seems like the kind of feature that a social learning enthusiast can get behind.

EduDemic has an early look at how Questions could be used in the classroom.

Image: Share your ideas by Britta Bohlinger used under Creative Commons license.


I'm not ready to commit Facebook harikiri yet

There is a lot of talk right now about quitting Facebook in response to concerns about privacy and how much personal information their recently introduced platform Open Graph releases to other websites. Concerns over privacy with Facebook are nothing new, but there seems to be quite a bandwagon developing this time as some people contemplate deleting their Facebook accounts. I’m not quite there yet.

Far be it for me to provide a defense for Facebook and their practices, but part of me wonders if Facebook opening up the data stream might actual have some positive benefits. I mean, isn’t openess generally a good thing? Isn’t this the kind of stuff that we in education want to see happen? Doesn’t this mean the walls around this garden are falling?

Take instant personalization for example. Imagine as part of my profile I list that I am interested in education and I go to a site that might have this kind of information on it. Wouldn’t it be useful for the website to automatically be personalized to present the specific information that I am looking for?  Perhaps I go to the CBC site and am greeted with all the most recent articles about education from that site. If I were a student studying a topic, instant personalization may be yet another guide  that helps me find the information I am looking for.

And what about my network as my filter? I like the idea of my network as my filter, and appreciate it when I go to a website and see the comments my Facebook network have left there, just like I appreciate the comments Diigo users leave with their annotations. It helps me validate the information I am reading. By having access to their opinions about what I am seeing, I learn. Vetted comments from my network, even something as simple as a like or dislike, are observational learning and useful pieces of information for me.

Finally – and a bit more technically – one of the principles of Connectivism that intrigues me is the idea that learning can reside in non-human objects. Whenever I read this, I equate it to (among other things) the semantic web where structured data can help create connections between pieces of information. To me, what Facebook has done with Open Graph is take a big step towards making these types of interactions happen. Granted, their intent is primarily for commercial gain, and there is questioning by those who know much more about this than I do about  how “open” Open Graph really is,  but Facebook has gone a long way to illustrating to the mainstream the concept of the semantic web. As someone who believes that semantic technologies have potential for learning by assisting us in making connections, I can’t help but feel that what Facebook is doing with Open Graph is a positive thing that will enable me to make connections with people interested in the same things I am. The problem is many people are getting pissed off about it, which makes me worry about how this could impact public perceptions of future high profile applications of semantic web-like technologies.

Now, I get that this is a precarious position to take, especially considering how fast and loose Facebook has been with the default privacy settings as the site matures. And there are many very good valid reasons to seriously consider your relationship with FB. But it seems like so much of the Facebook discourse is weighing in on the negative (which I do not want to downplay because they ARE serious issues), and failing to take into account some of the potential positive opportunities that could emerge from their work and the effect it could have on the social learning landscape. For that promise alone, I am willing to keep my Facebook network alive and well. At least for now


Facilitating a distributed discussion – an experiment

Get Connected!

The latest course in my Masters is Facilitation and Community Building, and I have an interesting experiential assignment this week. I am working with 2 other members of my cohort to facilitate a discussion with the rest of our cohort.

Our topic is facilitating collaboration in virtual teams and we’re trying something a little bit different and I’m feeling a tad nervous about it (I keep telling myself nervous is good when learning). In the spirit of networked learning, instead of facilitating the discussion in our closed Moodle forum, we are going to try taking the discussion outside of the LMS and onto a couple of blog posts that we found which are related to our topic.

Part of the reason why we decided to do it this way is because all three of us facilitating this week are strong believers in networked learning as a way to engage with a broad array of voices and opinions in our field. While the assignment we have come up with may be a bit more prescriptive than constructivist, it will hopefully give the rest of our cohort a brief opportunity to try their hand at network learning.

For the past couple of days, our cohort has been reading 2 articles on facilitating virtual teams in a collaborative environment. Tonight we posted the second part of the assignment and have asked them to visit (at least) one of three blog posts related to the topic and leave a comment on the blog. The posts we have chosen are:

  • Lurking and Loafing from Steve Wheeler talks about social loafing, lurking and how to encourage participation.
  • Collaboration from Ben Grey questions the differences between collaboration and cooperation.
  • Dysfunctional Teams from Tony Karrer is a nice summary of Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

Hopefully, these authors won’t mind us practicing a bit of network learning to try to spur some conversation on the topic of collaboration and virtual teamwork. So Steve, Ben and Tony, if you happen to notice a few new comments on these posts this week, take it as a good sign that you’ve engaged some of our cohort. There are 9 of us, so hopefully distributed over three blogs you won’t feel overwhelmed with a sudden influx of comments.

And if anyone in my network reading this would like to join in our conversation, that would be wonderful as well. If you get a chance, pop by these posts, respond to a few comments and help us illustrate the power of networked learning.

Photo: Get Connected by Divergent Learner used under Creative Commons license.


BC Study on RateMyProfessors

Last week I attended a presentation on some research done by one of our instructors, Dr. Janet Reagan, on informal student course evaluations, specifically focusing on the website  RateMyProfessors . Those working within the BC college system may find the research particularly interesting as the data she used from RMP was pulled from 3 anonymous BC college’s, so it is very relevant for those of us working in this sector.

One of our College’s research analysts was in attendance – someone charged with doing our in house course survey, and remarked that there was a great deal of similarity and consistency with the informal information student’s posted on RMP and the results of Dr. Reagan’s study. I am not sure what the perception of sites like RMP is with our faculty, but I think it is easy to disregard the validity of the comments made on public spaces like this as places where students vent. Dr. Reagan’s research shows that these comments are valid and, surprising to some, equally weighted between positive and negative. Very useful and relevant phenomenological information can be found on sites like RMP and there is a great deal of congruency between what students perceive is effective teaching practice and what the research literature in this area suggests.

As part of the research, Dr. Regan has developed the ACCEPT Model of Student Discernment of Effective Teaching Characteristics which can be used as criteria to evaluate student perceptions of good teaching practice.

  • Articulate: Teachers provide consistent, clear and distinctly accurate instruction to facilitate and direct the teaching and learning process.
  • Competent: Teachers are qualified to instruct in adult education settings and exhibit skills expected of the teaching profession. They are organized and prepared for content delivery in an interactive style, and understand strategies to fairly and effectively assess learning.
  • Content-Experts: Teachers are current, informative, reality-based content experts with substantive experience in their topic areas that may include their academic research background, or their career background, or their trades or industry background.
  • Empowering: Teachers empower students in their learning to build self-confidence and assertiveness. Teachers challenge, motivate and encourage adult learners to think independently and critically.
  • Perceptive: Teachers display a high level of authenticity and credibility including insight, intuition, and humour. Perceptive teachers care about the success of their students and are approachable.
  • Trustworthy: Teachers are aware of their professional, ethical and moral obligations in relation to the trust relationship of teaching. Teachers are respectful in thought and reliable in action and have earned the students? confidence.

Dr. Reagan goes on to make 6 recommendations based on the results of the study.

  1. Explore the use of informal online student evaluation of effective teaching characteristics, to promote credible and authentic teaching practice, aligned with self-regulated learning strategies that are both beneficial and desirable to adult learners.
  2. Promote voluntary faculty development opportunities that demonstrates how humour and novelty may be used to enhance learning, as many anecdotal student comments relate to the positive effect on humour and novelty in the learning environment or, conversely, the negative effect when humour and novelty are absent.
  3. Address power relations in the classroom that interfere with learning, as voiced through informal student evaluation of teaching effectiveness, and intervene when the quality of teaching is unacceptable to students and the teaching professions.
  4. Build on the framework of the ACCPET model of Student Discernment of Effective Teaching Characteristics to develop informal adjunct to the institutional rating system. The interpretive analysis of this study revealed that students informal anecdotal comments align with empirical research on effective teaching characteristics and principles of adult learning.
  5. Build on the framework of the ACCPET model of Student Discernment of Effective Teaching Characteristics to promote and integrate effective teaching characteristics. Also, with faculty agreement, conduct regular classroom research and improve teaching practice with ongoing in-service training, student and peer feedback
  6. Improve the method of retrieving student evaluation of effective teaching characteristics by accessing informal and less traditional student communication, including data accessed from anonymous online faculty rating systems, while also acknowledging that students’ informal comments reflect credible commentary; even though possible abuses could limit validity in specific instances.

Dr. Reagan’s research was on RMP, but I suspect that similar results could be found monitoring any open social network and I believe this is a great opportunity for educators. Over the past year or so I have been monitoring keywords related to our institution on Twitter and it is always interesting when I see a student comment that I know is directly related to a class they are taking, or some kind of experience they are having with our institution. To me, the realtime web offers great potential for educators to provide immediate and timely feedback and intervention based on what our students are saying about the experiences they are having with our institution as they are having them. Many large companies are doing this kind of social media space monitoring with very positive results. Maybe it is time educators took a serious look at monitoring social networking sites as a regular part of their formative assessment strategy.

The full dissertation is available at DSpace at the University of Victoria.


To Kill a Mockingbird – Ning Style

I love it when I see teachers like English teacher Jenny Johns at work. Jenny has created a great English lesson using Ning where her students virtually become one of the characters in “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

I love this video for a couple of reasons. For one, digital literacy skills are seamlessly embedded into the assignment. This is not a lesson on how to use Ning, it is a lesson about the characters in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, yet it touches upon many issues young people face in a tech mediated landscape. The second reason I love this assignment is that it resonates with the students because it occurs in a space they are familiar with – a social network (note how the instructor has the students “friend” the other characters from the stories).

The video is from the PBS Frontline documentary digital nation.


365Retro: My 2010 Flickr project (and maybe yours)

I have a project for 2010, and I’d love it if you came along. I’ve started a Flickr Group called 365Retro. The idea is to post one photo a day for the entire year. Now, 365 groups on Flickr are not new, but this one is a bit different. Instead of taking a photo with your camera, you have to scan a photo from your pre-digital photo collection.

The idea came to me while I was going through my old photo albums, which I have done periodically over the years. Every time I do I have this little voice inside me that says “I should really scan these”. But then real life took over and I never found the time.

This year, I am finding the time, mostly because my kids are starting to ask me more about my life, pre-kids. So, once a day I’ll be scanning and adding some old photos of my life pre-digital camera. I am really using this as an excuse to do what I have wanted to do for years – scan my old photos. And maybe share a few memories along the way.

One of the other reasons I am doing this is because in the past few months I have seen how a digital artifact, like a photo, can become a touchstone that connects people.

A group of radio announcers from CFGP radio enjoying a night out in Grande Prairie Alberta. From l to r: Peter Hall, Jeff Bolt, Paul Oulette, Clint Lalonde (me), Daryl Olsen.
A group of radio announcers from CFGP radio enjoying a night out in Grande Prairie Alberta. From l to r: Peter Hall, Jeff Bolt, Paul Oulette, me, Daryl Olsen.

Last fall, a friend of mine named Peter Hall passed away. I had not seen Peter for 15 years, but had worked quite closely with him for many years early in my radio career.

I heard about his death via a post on Facebook from a mutual friend. I remembered I had some photos of Peter tucked away in my photo collection. So that night I went through the photos, scanned a few, and posted them on Facebook. Before I knew it, people I had not heard from for years who both Peter and I had worked with began to comment on the photos. I reconnected with numerous old friends I had lost track of (including one who now lives in the same city as I do and we have met f2f for lunch since), and many fun memories were shared, all spurred by these photos.

Over the past few years, thanks to social networks, I have meet a whole new circle of people. Thanks to a continual stream of tweets, status updates, blog posts and Flickr photos, I have a pretty good idea of who these people are today and what they are up to right now. But ask me about these people and their lives prior to around 2005 when I started actively connecting virtually with people, and I know squat. And I want to know. I like history and knowing what happened to people in their lives that brought them to the point they are at now.

So, if you have a scanner,  some old photos, and a Flickr account, come and connect with us in the 365Retro group. Fill in the pre-digital gaps in your life to give your friends and family a more complete picture of your life and history. These photos can be whatever you want to scan and share. If you can add some context or a story that fills in the details about the subject of the photo, all the better. Add some context and share your stories and your history with the group.

If you don’t have a Flickr account, you can set one up for free. Once you have your account, join the 365Retro Flickr group. Scan and post a photo a day to your Flickr account, and send the photo to the 365Retro Group

That’s it! You’ve participated. And don’t worry if 365 sounds daunting. Contribute what you can. Or, if you don’t want to contribute, you can pop by and laugh at the various mullets and facial hair combo’s I have spouted over the years.


What is real?

One of the (many) interesting cohort lunch conversations I took part in during my recent Masters residency revolved around how we would all maintain the sense of connectedness with each other once the two week face to face residency was over. For the next year, all our interactions will be virtual. More than a few people viewed this as a significant challenge and expressed the view that somehow a virtual relationship didn’t seem as “real” as face to face.

It’s a concern I’ve heard before. How can online relationships have the same level of depth as face to face? Well, in my experience, they are as rich and, in fact, often even richer than some face to face relationships. I’ve spent a fair bit of time in “virtual ” relationships, so much so that the line between virtual and real is nonexistent for me. Following friends online is an extension of my face to face relationship that adds richness and context to those face to face relationships, but in some cases, the online link I have to someone is the only link that connects us. Yes, I have friends that I have never met, and I still come across people who find the idea of having friends you have never met strange, especially when you begin to explain to them that most of the connections are via Twitter, Facebook and other “superficial” social network tools. How much can you know someone in 140 characters or via status updates? Well, quite a bit, actually.

The reality is that over time, this little trickle of information becomes an ocean. A Twitter update on its own is not much. But a thousand Twitter updates over a year? That’s 140,000 characters. A novel. Add in a Facebook status there, a blog post, a Flickr photo, a shared link in Delicious, a favorite YouTube video, a shared song on – it doesn’t take too long to form a pretty solid understanding of a person you have never “met”. All this information, in drips and drabs, comes together to form a whole and give me a sense of who the person is in a very real and tangible way.

It’s not like I live in the basement spending hours banging away on my computer chatting with complete strangers, but the reality is that I carry on many relationships with people I have never met that are just as rich and rewarding as my face to face relationships.

I guess what I am trying to stumble onto here is that this is not an either/or situation. One is not better than the other because in my world that “other” has all but disappeared. They are all just relationships.

A few days ago, I came across this blog post on Wes Fryer’s blog Moving at the Speed of Creativity with a great video that speaks to this question of real vs. virtual. It’s a 7 minute micro-doc put together by Dan Lovejoy, a graduate student in the Technical Communication and Rhetoric program at Texas Tech University.

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I've added Facebook Connect and Twitter login

I have been using Intense Debate as a comment system for a few months now on this blog and, after a few initial hiccups, have been happy with the system. I like the threaded comments and the ability to reply to comments via email without having to log in to my blog. And Intense Debate makes it easy for users to comment using video (which I have activated, but have yet to see an example of from readers).

But above all, I think comment systems do a better job in helping foster a sense of community in a blog. It makes it easier for me to keep track of repeat visitors and commentators, which helps me develop relationships with people who take the time and effort to post a comment.

To help with this last point, I have activated a couple of new Intense Debate options that might make it easier for people to leave comments.

You now have a number of options as to what “identity” you want to use when leaving a comment on the blog. You can do so anonymously as a guest, enter in a name & email address, sign in using an existing Intense Debate account or an OpenID account and now sign in using your Facebook or Twitter account.

What this means is that when you leave a comment using either Facebook or your Twitter account, the link back from your comment will go to either your public Facebook profile or your Twitter page. I am also hoping that it will make it easier for you to share content from the blog on either Facebook and Twitter, but at the moment I am still figuring out exactly how that part works. Still a work in progress…

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#gr8t Tweet

For the month of March, educators who use Twitter are being encouraged to share their favorite tweet of the day by retweeting it with the tag #gr8t. The criteria for what you tag as #gr8t is personal. Share whatever you find relevant, insightful, interesting, humorous or useful.

I like this idea, essentially creating a kind of “best of” filter for Twitter where anyone (whether you use Twitter or not) can track valuable conversations, links, resources, whatever being passed around by educators. Plus it is a nice acknowledgment to the people who pass on useful resources.

If you have been hesitant to dip your toes in the Twitter waters and find out if there is substance to the hype, this might be a good time to jump in to see how powerful Twitter and micro-blogging can be. Sue Waters has set up a very good resource page for educators who want to get started using Twitter.

Even if you decide not to join Twitter right now, there are still a number of ways you can follow along with what is being tagged. The easiest is to use the Twitter search engine and search for the tag #gr8t. This will give you a current snapshot of what educators are tagging as #gr8t right now. Or you can see an aggregated list of tweets on the #gr8t wiki homepage coming from a number of different sources. I expect that over the course of this month, both of these resources will yield a bevy of useful information and resources.

Photo credit: My Twitter Class of ’08 by mallix. Used under a Creative Commons license.

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