Monday, July 14, 2008

Variations in Online Communiities

Social media is all the buzz, but it may be useful to look at the variations in the types of online teams and communities because this may influence the design and development of these efforts.

In virtual teams and communities Pat Sobrero presents a typology that distinguishes between work teams, communities of interest and communities of practice. She then notes the differences of each type in terms of focus, membership, trust, motivation and so forth.

The differences between communities of interest and practice is particularly useful in regards to thinking about whether people are focused on the content or problem or on the social process or community. In short, a community of interest may be more interested in getting more information about a topic than participating in a social learning or networking process. These differences in the focus, motivation and trust in these types of communities suggest that educators who are interested in developing a community of interest should create ways for people to stay up to date about the topic, new information on the topic, create methods of obtaining deeper, richer and more complex information the the topic.

In developing a community of practice, the focus should be more on the "social" aspects of learning and developing relationships between participants. Learning tools would involve group engagement and group problem solving. Many of the roles described by Aaron Ebata in Essential Roles for Communities of Practice would need to be considered in order to develop an effective community.

Sobrero doesn't comment on whether "communities of interest" can grow into "communities of practice" and/or whether there is a developmental relationship between these two types of communities.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Tranformational Education for Engaged Universities

"Transformational Education is the conceptual model that Wisconsin's Cooperative Extension Service (CES) uses to work with communities tackling complex issues in ways that transform these same communities in powerful and long-lasting ways," write Blewett, Keim, Leser & Jones in a recent article in the Journal of Extension.

They state, "educational programs that exhibit both high content transmission and a high level of process are the most effective in helping people and communities to solve problems or address issues." They argue that the major issues and problems of society require transformational education which they suggest includes:
  1. Engaging people who are interested in the issue, developing trust-based relationships and developing a group vision and plan for resolving a problem.
  2. Empowering people to develop knowledge and skills including "group leadership" to address an issue or problem.
  3. Creating feedback processes by using data and other monitoring methods to determine whether progress is being made in regards to putting knowledge and skills into action.
These ideas are similar to my own thinking in regards to engaged universities and my suggestions for how to create a global campus at the University of Illinois.

However, to create "transformational education" in 2008 and beyond we have to talk about how we are using the web, Web 2.0 tools (blogs, social networking, wikis, etc.) and linking this to laboratories, classrooms and outreach activities. This is the "transformative" aspect of an "engaged" university.

Here are the questions that we should be asking ourselves:

1. How do universities open their laboratories, experiments, data collection instruments, data, and data analysis tools to others (including the public)?

2. How do universities open their classrooms, lectures, discussions, forums, homework assignments, etc. to others (including the public)?

3. How do we create learning communities that span scientists, students, practicing professionals, and interested amateurs in solving problems and addressing issues?

Developing structures, tools and processes that address these questions will create the foundation for new educational opportunities that expand knowledge.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Science as the Evolution of Structuring Knowledge

"Science, says Kevin Kelly, is the process of changing how we know things."

So begins a lecture by Kevin Kelly in 2006 that is available in a 1 1/2 hour podcast that provides a very interesting look at the history of the development of the scientific method.

For a shorter but still interesting summary of his ideas Kelly has written about the evolution of the scientific method and gathered the views of scientists about the last 50 years.

Kelly gives an interesting perspective on the development of scientific methods. He is less interested in the minutiae of specific scientific findings, but more interested in the broad trajectory. He notes that inventions about how we store and communicate scientific information has been critical to the advancement of science.

He notes that the library with an index emerged in 280 BC, in 1410 the first cross-indexed encyclopedia was created, in 1750-1780, journals and peer-review became a part of our scientific knowledge system. In more recent times there are the developments of scientific abstracts and the electronic indexing of scientific abstracts within the last 20 years.

He summarizes the views of several scientists about the most recent developments in communicating about science noting:
"E-print -- Electronic publications and dissemination by PDF files is a major innovation. (TE) This really speeds the process up. LANL's x-server and archive of not-yet-published work was a truly revolutionary innovation. (GD) Downstream, we might hope of getting rid of proprietary, expensive journals that limit the flow of knowledge. Varmas’s technical journal for the web funded by the Gordon Moore foundation could be a biggie in this regard. (GB) A more recent and more benign change is the publication of research papers on the web. This practice is rapidly making printed journals obsolete. It has the great advantage of making research results more promptly and more widely accessible. It has the disadvantage of depriving the learned societies that publish the printed journals of their main source of income. (FD) The biggest change I experienced is the enormous increase in accessibility and speed of scientific information through the Internet (papers' immediate availability on for example, which thereafter may still be published in regular journals. (GB) Electronic publication. (BS)"
Kelly also speculates about the next level of communication in regards to what he terms "wikiscience" which he describes as "perpetually edited papers." Obviously, there are increasingly online communities of scientists working in new ways and creating new ways of communicating about their work.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Learning about your online clientele

One of the challenges of online delivery of information is that you seldom know who is "hitting" your website. A variety of techniques have been tried for feedback involving monitoring web logs and using brief "did you find what you wanted" surveys, but these techniques have limited value.

At Oregon State, Pat Herring and her colleagues developed an "ask the expert" system in which people who had questions about agriculture, horticulture and family and consumer issues could ask specific questions. In addition to answering the questions, they recorded information about the topics people asked about and their email addresses. Later they sent surveys to these individuals to find out more about their experience. Their survey was short and did not ask very intrusive questions. They asked the following questions:
  • age group,

  • size and location of their community,

  • How familiar they were with Extension before they contacted us online,

  • How satisfied they were with the information they received online, and

  • If they would recommend Extension's online resources to others.
They obtained a 40% return rate with their follow-up survey. This is a very respectable return rate for an online survey. Another recent paper reported a mean return rate across numerous surveys of about 50%.

This several aspects of this strategy that are notable. First, it reminds us to use data and information that we already obtain in the normal course of conducting online activities to create new information. Second, they developed a short, non-intrusive survey. This is a reminder that a little bit of information is better than none at all which might be the case with a longer survey. A series of repeated surveys with randomly selected users may be a better strategy that a long survey. Third, this work reminds about why interaction with users rather than passive participation may lead us forward. Had this group not developed an "ask the expert" system it is quite likely they would have never gotten the email addresses in the first place. Interactivity is at the heart of engaging online clientele.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Reading Social & Behavior Research for Application

In our efforts to translate scientific findings into useful applications and information for the public we need to translate "research information" into useful bits for the public. In preparing for an upcoming graduate course on program planning, I have been trying to recollect how I read research in order to apply it. Here are the questions I find myself asking when I read research for application. I would welcome comments, revisions, etc.

Research Findings

What are the main findings in this article?

How important are these findings? Major new idea? Contributes to what is generally known?

What implications do each of these findings have for individuals, families, schools, etc.?

Who would be interested in these findings or who would benefit from learning about these findings?

How do these findings fit in with other research findings in this same area? Similar? Contradict? Add new information?

What is the general theoretical or conceptual rationale underlying these findings?

How robust are these findings? Are the methods and results adequate and appropriate?

Are the findings qualified/limited in any ways? (For example, by specific population characteristics, age group, setting, etc.)

Application Possibilities

How could these findings be taught or communicated?

Are there any special/unique ways that these findings could be taught?

Are there any data collection methods or other procedures that could be converted into a teaching tool?

For quantitative studies are there specific data, charts, or graphs that could be included in the teaching or presentation of the material?

For qualitative studies are there quotes, stories, or examples that could be included in teaching or presentation of the material?

Program Design (Program Logic or Change Model)

How do these findings fit into a theory of change or into a logic model for a particular issue or problem?

Do these findings change your understanding of the major or minor causes or contributors to a problem or issue?

Do these findings modify the behaviors or conditions that you plan to affect with your program?

Do these findings suggest additional conditions or contexts to consider in your program model?

Program Evaluation

What outcome variables from this research study might be used in evaluating your program?

What measurement techniques or tools from this research might be used in evaluating your program?

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

JITP Needs Interactive Content

I wish all of the JITP CoP members could have attended the latest eXtension meeting in Louisville. Compared to the pioneer days in 2006, a lot of very useful information has been developed to help CoP's do the work that needs to be done.

One of the most critical pieces of information I gained was that of developing content which will be interactive for the end user. This is critical at this point in time because as we build content, we can be more efficient and more effective if we adapt our existing content in a way that is really web-friendly and useful. Some of our members have been suggesting this for some time now, and I think I finally get it.

These are the questions I have. Would it be more effective if we provided a short interactive quiz or activity at the beginning of each newsletter which led the reader to content that related to the activity, thereby engaging the reader in a meaningful way. This is similar to the way we teach... by helping the audience focus on content and then providing information that relates to the topic. If this approach makes sense, do we want to start provding this interaction in the year 2 and 3 newsletters.

Presently, we have a lot of good content for year 2-5 that will have to be re-designed anyway. It makes sense to me to re-design it in a more interactive way. What do you think?

Essential Roles for Communities of Practice

At the recent National eXtension Meeting, several representatives from the “pioneer” eXtension Communities of Practice participated in a panel to discuss “lessons learned”. As I reflected on our experiences the last few years, and on the talks at the meeting, a lesson that popped into mind was “Letting people lead in their areas of passion”. This gets at the need for shared or distributed leadership in important roles within the CoPs.

What are these roles? Here is what I came up with:

  • Community Minders
    Those who focus on keeping CoP members engaged and connected. They would pay attention for the need for communication, and would be the first point of contact for those needing information. They would help recruit, welcome, and orient new members by formal (e.g., newsletters) and informal (ad hoc emails and phone calls) means, and would help plan virtual and face-to-face meetings.

  • Evaluation Wonks
    Those who serve as the “conscience” of the CoP, who remind us of the overall goals of the program and the need to be accountable by documenting our impact.

  • GuruGeeks/TechnoTerrors
    Those with an affinity and aptitude for tinkering “under the hood” (i.e., in the Wiki). They might facilitate or take over the entering and formatting of content, lead the development of new applications, or be the liaison with web designers and programmers in applying technology to the CoP’s content.

  • Google Juicers
    These may be GuruGeeks/TechnoTerrors, but their specific mission would be in the area of “search engine optimization (SEO)” – they would put content into web form, and monitor and modify content to conform to SEO “best practices”.

  • Web Evangelists/Net Nobbers (for “Network Hobnobbers”)
    Those who would focus on external communication (with Communities of Interest) by participating in online social networks using Web 2.0 tools. They could have two related goals: (1) dispel myths and misconceptions about child development and parenting by promoting research-based information, and (2) promoting the CoP as a source for research-based information.

There are other important roles, of course (e.g. fund raising!) but I offer these as starting points. Where do you fit in?

Youtube University?

What are the possibilities for YouTube content? We have seen some interesting entertainment emerge out of this work. What about teaching and learning?

If you are a skateboarder trying to learn a new trick, this is very hard to communicate in words. It is more possible with video. Here are some example of a fakie kickflip and frontside noseslide with fakie.

These are quite good instructional videos. The skaters provide a good explanation of the trick, how it is done and how it may fit with other skating tricks. They have also broken up the content into small, useful chunks-- one trick at a time rather than all the tricks packaged together. I can watch the one trick over and over until I think I have it, then try it out... watch again, see what I am doing wrong and keep practicing. The bad news of course is that you don't have a coach on hand to diagnosis what you are doing wrong. So could I upload video of my inability to do a trick in order to get feedback from a "skateboard coach?"

Here are some thoughts from Henry Jenkins on YouTube.

"While most people can read, very few publish in print. Hence active contribution to science, journalism and even fictional storytelling has been restricted to expert elites, while most of the general population makes do with ready-made entertainment. But the internet does not distinguish between literacy and publication. So now we are entering a new kind of digital literacy, where everyone is a publisher and whole populations have the chance to contribute as well as consume.

We can certainly use the internet for daydreaming, mischief and time-wasting, but it is equally possible to move on to other levels of functionality, and other purposes, including science, journalism and works of the imagination. You can already find all this on YouTube.....

As they say in The Matrix: `I don't know the future. I didn't come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it's going to begin.'"

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

More Michael Wesch

Here is another presentation by Michael Wesch, The Future of Education.

The machine is them/us/you/me

What the heck does this web 2.0 social networking stuff have to do with us anyway?

I’ve been reflecting on the place that the “social networking” phenomena has in the online world, and what that means for our work. After hearing presentations by Dr. Michael Wesch, Andrew Barnett, and our own Dr. Bob Hughes, Jr., I’m convinced that we need to pay attention to playing the social network game for two major reasons.

Playing for for fame and fortune

  1. If you don’t show up in the first page (and actually the first 5 entries) in a Google search result, you cannot count on being found.

  2. A relatively small number of web-savvy geeks are determining what gets to the top of the Google food chain. These folks are dedicated participants in the way of the (social) network, and they determine what everyone else is most likely to find on a particular topic.

  3. In order to appear high on the search list, we have to capture the hearts and minds of those who play in these social networks.

  4. In order to capture their hearts and minds, we need to play in same playgrounds, and be willing to figure out the rules and join in their games. Standing on the periphery and pouting will not get us noticed.

Playing to spread the word

In his talk, Bob used the controversy surrounding vaccinations and autism as an example of how “experts” have failed to engage in the kinds of conversations (in blogs, etc) that would counter unsubstantiated beliefs that have draw enthusiastic support from non-scientists. The public does not pay attention to research-based outlets - blog entries or videos that “go viral” have a greater chance of getting widespread press and public attention. We need folks who are willing to spread the word in personal and public arenas so that our views can be “part of the machine”.

What does this mean?

Does this mean that we ALL need to dive immediately in the world of Twitter, Facebook,, Digg, etc? I don’t think so – but it means we need to find CoP members who could and would! And we need to provide some support for CoP members who would like to join this brave new world and give them concrete suggestions for how they can promote JITP (or any other website they might support). These “web evangelists” could be:

  • writing their own blog posts or commenting on others’
  • linking on their own websites
  • providing links and tags in social networking sites like
  • providing ratings in sites like Digg
  • creating or linking to media content in sites like YouTube or Flikr

But how do we find these people? What kind of characteristics or qualities should the have? How do we recruit them? How do we provide initial guidance?