Leveraging the power of the network

School of Fish

I’ve been thinking about the network effect a lot recently, and how this ability to create and leverage a large network of peers is really one of the most powerful affordances of the web that we, as educators, have at our disposal.

I marvel at how someone like Alec Couros can, with a couple of tweets, leverage his network of 12,000 educators to engage with his students, and have them leave comments on his students blogs.  A student taking an education course from Alec gets connected to his global network of educators. Alec’s students don’t have one teacher – they potentially have 12,000.

But it has taken time for Alec to develop this network. You don’t get connected to 12,000 educators overnight by using some kind of automated process. You get connected by engaging with the network, by participating and contributing. That takes time and effort. It’s an investment that is sometimes a hard sell to people who cannot see the benefits of developing a network.

But I’ll bet it is an investment that a group of scientists in Guyana are happy they made.

You see, by making the investment to develop their social networks and connect with other ichthyologist (scientists who study fish) on Facebook, this particular group of scientists was able to tap into that Facebook network and use that network to help them identify 5000 species of fish in less than 24 hours. I’ve added the emphasis.

Last month, a team of ichthyologists sponsored by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History performed the first survey of the fish diversity in the Cuyuni River of Guyana. Upon their return, they needed to identify the more than 5,000 specimens they had collected in less than a week’s time in order to obtain an export permit. Faced with insufficient time and inadequate library resources to tackle the problem on their own, they instead posted a catalog of specimen images to Facebook and turned to their network of colleagues for help.

In less than 24 hours, this approach identified approximately 90 percent of the posted specimens to at least the level of genus, revealed the presence of at least two likely undescribed species, indicated two new records for Guyana and generated several loan requests. The majority of people commenting held a Ph.D. in ichthyology or a related field, and hailed from a great diversity of countries including the United States, Canada, France, Switzerland, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil.

This is such an incredible example of what social networks and networked learning are capable of doing; connecting large groups of people in diverse locations together to do amazing things. I mean, they used Facebook to identified 2 new species of fish! That’s a pretty dang impressive feat.

But this project would not have been possible if this group of scientists had not invested the time beforehand to develop a robust network of scientists within their social networks.

The network is a powerful, powerful thing.

Note: I am not clear as to who the project lead was for this project, it was a bit unclear in the Smithsonian article, but I believe it was Brian Sidlauskas at Oregon State University. And a tip of the hat to All Points West on CBC for this story.

Photo: School of Fish by wizetux. Used under Creative Commons license.