Not all schools and districts using social networks are using Facebook, despite its meteoric growth. One of my own examples pre-dates Facebook and continues to grow today, six years after we created it.
In 2006, we undertook a genuinely pioneering experiment to scale the use of weblogs amongst teachers, as a means for them to chart their personal learning and seek online “critical friends” in the continuing professional development. Some of the most pioneering work in understanding the wider potential of social media, which led to the introduction of a social network of learning, is in the entire school district of East Lothian, Scotland. Since 2003 students, teachers, and parents have used weblogs to share the learning going on inside classrooms with the wider world. In 2006 all of these were brought under one, memorable web address (eduBuzz.org) on a WordPress multi-user platform, and in 2008 a social network-like homepage (with the BuddyPress plugin) was introduced that shows the latest comments and uploads from the whole network. Every day you arrive on the homepage, you are faced with yet more marvels of learning from across the district’s 45 schools and headquarters.
Now, around 300,000 unique visitors every month see what is going on in East Lothian schools, and teachers and parents alike report feeling much more connected to each other and to what learning looks like in each classroom. It delivers over 4m pages a month; that is sticky, even if it’s not a big-name social network. But what eduBuzz did achieve was a place on the favourites menus of the teachers and students in the district, something that today would be ever harder to achieve were we starting over again.
But there are lessons from this process that are worth bearing mind as rules of thumb, whether or not you use Facebook, your own blogging system or some other means of binding your learning community through technology.
1. Identify Key User Groups
The first step is to identify which potential user groups within the Local Authority could most benefit from using social software.
- What are the different groups of people in the authority? Find as many as you think are out there: parents, supply teachers, student teachers, middle managers, principals …
- What needs do these people share? Group them together; find common ground.
- What are their day-to-day aims? This is not aspirational pie-in-the-sky dreaming, just what people are trying to get done for their day job, which later you could look at making more efficient through the collaboration of a social network.
- What projects are they working on together?
- What information flows between them, and how? Why do they choose to do things this way? Lack of choice or because a Chinese meal is a nicer way to do things than simply hooking up on Facebook?
- If they’re using some social media tools, which one or two tools are they already using to make things possible?
2. Understand Key Users
Once you have identified key user groups, you need to know which users within that group are both influential and likely to be enthusiastic. Then consider how social networking fits in to the context of their job, their daily working processes, and the wider context of their group’s goals.
- What specific problems might social networking solve based on your earlier discussions?
- What are the benefits for this person?
- How can the network’s use be simply integrated into their existing working processes?
- How does social networking lower their work load, or the cognitive load associated with doing specific tasks?
Ideally, key users will be “supernodes” — highly connected, in contact with a lot of people on a daily basis, and heavily involved with the function of their department and the transfer of information within the group and between groups. This may not be the principal, but could well be his PA. Frequently, people’s supernode status is not reflected by official hierarchy.
In education there are already strong links to explore: Look at bringing on board alliances that are already in existence.
At this stage, where you have around 20 key users who kind of know their stuff, it’s essential to get the technical support side hooked in. Bring the IT managers in on the meetings you have about pedagogy. Get some of the educators in on meetings the IT managers have about filtering and blocking. It doesn’t matter if the IT managers say “no” immediately, or if the educationalists can’t find some convincing arguments to bring the IT guys around. This is about helping people understand how others work and what might need some thought later on. For the moment, we’re just using third party tools outside the ‘official’ network.
3. Convert Key Users into Evangelists
Training in the form of short informal sessions (face-to-face or online) and ongoing on-demand support are the basics for encouraging adoption. Too much training or too formal a setting will put users off, and is usually unnecessary.
More important is that the information gathered in steps 1 and 2 are communicated to key users. They need to understand:
- What their own needs are
- How those needs are going to be met by the software
- What the benefits are of using the software
- How they can integrate that software into their daily routines
This requires face-to-face, personalised sessions, which won’t happen unless this initial group of key users feel empowered and a part of something. That means it’s a great help if more senior managers are part of this, too, and even better is when the IT managers, the “corporate” people, are involved. This is the point where practical issues such as access might be considered. It might seem late on in the process, but with the understanding of how these technologies can help reduce workload and improve learning there is more ‘ammunition’ to help convince those blocking services, sites, or technologies. If there are hardware or software procurement issues now might also be the time to show the benefits in relation to the cost.
The aim is to convert key users into evangelists who can then help spread usage through their own team, encouraging the people they work with to take the training and use the tool themselves.
4. Turn Evangelists into Trainers
The advantages of having evangelist-trainers are immense:
- They understand the day-to-day needs and working processes of their colleagues far better than an external trainer can.
- They can communicate with their colleagues more easily, in the same language.
- They have the opportunity to provide effective training on a far more informal, ad hoc basis.
- Given enough support themselves, they can then support their immediate colleagues.
5. Support Bottom-up Adoption and Emergent Behaviours
Training and support should not be limited to named groups, and should be made available to all users. “Volunteers,” especially, should be encouraged. The most influential people in a wiki or blog community are not those with official status but those who engage most enthusiastically.
If people start to use social networks in an unexpected, innovative, or informal manner, this should also be encouraged. If a user begins by putting their team’s coffee rota on the wiki, for example, this will help them understand how the wiki works and what benefits it brings.
Managers and team leaders could:
1. Lead by example – By using the social network themselves for team- and department-wide projects, managers can encourage their colleagues to also use social networking.
2. Lead by mandate – If the manager makes clear that this social network is to be used for a specific process or task (e.g., sharing one great thing from your classroom every week), it can help foster adoption and encourage reluctant users to learn how to use the tools.
3. Lead by reminding – Managers can also increase usage by reminding colleagues to use new technology instead of old (e.g., when a colleague e-mails with a great example of practice, the manager can reply with a request to post it on the social network).
4. Ensure there is adequate support – Managers must accept that their staff may require support, and they must be willing to allow staff to take time out to do training.
5. Ensure personal and business benefits reflect each other – Management plays a key role identifying and communicating the business benefits of social software adoption. When users understand these benefits (e.g., reducing e-mail volume, speeding up projects, improving productivity, encouraging innovation), and see that the education benefits are in line with the personal benefits (everyone likes to get less e-mail), they will have greater confidence that the software is worth their own investment.
In education, one of the biggest challenges is encouraging teachers and students that reading each other’s work is beneficial and important for development and innovation. Unless we are doing something (i.e., not reading) then it appears a waste of time.