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Exploring Social Networking

Other Web 2.0 Tools 

Water_drops_on_spider_webSocial networks are not new.  From earliest times humans have worked and lived in groups as an efficient and effective strategy for survival.  Most humans today are part of social groups which began in school, university, church, and many other social situations that fostered relationship connections.  These connections and interconnections are the networks we are all a part of.  As well as personal networks business people have also cultivated networks as part of their business strategies.  In a recent C.B.C. podcast of the program Quirks & Quarks, Dr. Nicholas Christakis was discussing his and Dr.  James Fowler’s new book, Connected, The Surprising Power of our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives (2009).  In their book the researchers argue that social networking defines and shapes us as human, and that all humans are participants in social networks.   Our lives are shaped in every way not only by whom we know but also by the friends of those we know. A person may feel like they have six friends but in fact they are truly connected beyond that, to many others through those six friends.  Christakis and Fowler found that it is these complex and far-reaching networks that affect almost every aspect of our lives including our health and happiness.  In a social network, people are able to influence those in their network and they, in turn, are able to be influenced by their friends.     

Christakis and Fowler found that traditional networks and online networks are similar in two ways.  The first is that both are driven by the basic human desire to connect with others.  The second similarity is that in both face to face networks and online networks the participants have the ability to influence others and to be influenced by others.  The primary difference between the two is that an online network has the potential of being much larger.  For example one can have hundreds and thousands of “friends” on Facebook, something that would rarely be possible in face to face networks.  In the same way only a select few could write something in hard copy that would be read by many others.  In online networks one could write a piece, such as an entry in Wikipedia, which could be read by, and impact, thousands.  Online networks are also different in that they allow us to find others with similar interests and ideas quickly and easily. A few simple key strokes can connect a person to many others who might be interested in a particular topic. (Christakis and Fowler, 2009)

Having a better understanding of the role of social networks in our everyday lives has been helpful in understanding the shift from traditional social networking to online social networking. 

My Reflections on the Process of Learning About Social Networking

I am part of a variety of social networks some of which I am an active participant in some on a daily basis, some on a weekly basis, and some yearly.  I also have a few social networks that I developed in places I lived for a time but that are, for the most part, dormant.  However I still feel a connection with them.  All but one of my networks began as face to face connections.  Of these, almost all are primarily maintained through face to face interactions (some more frequent than others) and telephone interactions.  Only a few are maintained only online.  The one social network that has been exclusively created and maintained online has been the one for this course. 

Until I started this course the only kind of social networking tool I used was email.  I did have a second hand benefit from my wife’s use of Facebook and the travel blogs she set up for us.  This low level of connectedness suited me just fine.  So it was with some reluctance that I created a blog and signed up for a Facebook and Twitter account.   Photobucket, YouTube, Google Reader, and Delicious are also tools that I have signed up for and am using.  They also might be considered social networking tools in that they connect me to others and give me an online presence.  However they are a more passive connection and therefore did not create the same level of reluctance in me. 

Learning the technical aspects of these tools has taken a certain amount of playing and fiddling but overall it has been straight-forward.  The tools have been well designed and are easy to use which has, most likely, helped make them as popular as they are.  There are also many helpful resources online to walk a person through the setup process.  Understanding how to use these tools most effectively, however, has been and will continue to be the challenge. 

facebook banner

I have now had just over nine weeks to test-drive Facebook and Twitter. Although my use of Facebook has slowly been growing, email continues to be my primary connection to others.  I have a work email account, a hotmail account, and a U. of A. student account.   My work email account is the one that I use most often.  My hotmail account and my U. of A. account I check every few days.  Email has served me well as a way of communicating information back and forth with others.  Facebook, however, has opened another level of ‘in’ to the lives of my friends.  In addition to sending messages back and forth to me from time to time, I am able to see some of what ‘friends, are sharing with each other. This has connected me second hand with the friends of my friends.  As I have said before, I am more of a quiet listener than a center stage personality so I have not yet jumped in fully with my own contributions but I have been monitoring and observing.  I have noticed that some people use Facebook like Twitter and update what they are doing on a regular basis. Others participate less.  It seems that most share pictures and video regularly which does not happen as often with email or Twitter.  I have made some connections with people from the distant past although with most of those our connection is limited so our interactions have been limited.  The friends I am most active with on Facebook are those that I have the most connection to from my face to face relationships.  From my experience so far with Facebook I feel it is a tool that I will continue to use after this course. 

Twitter banner

My experience so far with Twitter has not been as rewarding.  I live in a relatively small compound where everyone is within a 5 minute drive of each other.  We work together, socialize together, and see each other at the gym, dining hall, or grocery store.  No one here uses Twitter.  I also found out that none of my main social group outside of Saudi use Twitter and if they did we would be on opposite times.  As I have explained I tend to not interact with those I have little or no connection with.  As a result I have sent or received very few Tweets.  However I have been following over 30 people or organizations on twitter but again, with no real connection to these people, I have not found it to be a very stimulating exercise.  I do find people’s ideas stimulating but I have preferred to find them through Google Reader where they are not mixed in with the other less interesting tweets.  Initially I was thinking that I would probably not use Twitter after this course but having listened to the Elluminate session with Mack Male I have decided to reserve judgment on Twitter.  Perhaps in a different life situation Twitter may become more useful for me.

Social Networking Tools for my Own Personal Learning

The value of email for us living away from home has been immeasurable.  I am sure that if we weren’t able to stay in touch with people so easily and immediately we would likely not be living here.  It allows us to experience many cultures and adventures while staying connected to friends and family back home.  Facebook for my wife particularly, has greatly added to her quality of living overseas and I too am starting to appreciate it.  Pictures, video, and regular messages combine to give us a real sense of all that is going on back home.  Our Blogs, and more recently our Wiki and Photobucket sites have, in their own way, also helped to strengthen our social connections. 

Social networking tools have also made online courses possible.  Both my wife and I are working on masters programs and we have both benefited from these and other online tools.  In addition to Blogs and Wikis we have both benefited from Google Reader, Google Scholar, and Delicious.  In the masters program that my wife is a part of, students are located in 14 different countries around the world.  She is finding it to be an enriching experience to interact with and collaborate with such a diverse group.

In the article, 100 Ways You Should be Using Facebook in Your Classroom, the author suggests some other possible benefits to personal learning.  One possible use of Facebook would be to connect with other masters students in the class or students in other similar masters programs who would be interested in forming some sort of resource or study group.  Through Facebook we could tag books for a class reading list, exchange ideas, post interesting links and other resource information, and notes.  Webinars lectures could also be recorded and posted on Facebook for others to see.  Calendar and SlideShare are other features available through Facebook.  The article also mentions other Facebook applications such as, JSTOR, WorldCat, Zoho Online Office, and Google as tools for finding relevant research material. 

Social networking sites can also help with a job search.  In the past 4 years my wife and I have gone through the process of looking for and finding out of district teaching positions.  Although this is unusual for teachers it is a common process for international teachers.  In this process social networking is important.  As we will undoubtedly have at least one more move before we settle down, online social networking tools could help us.  Creating a positive online professional presence, including our resumes and professional profiles on Facebook, getting the word out that we are looking for positions, and gathering information about various school are some of the ways these tools could be of use as we look for teaching positions. 

Although I have yet to explore all the possibilities these social networking tools offer I have begun.  And as I start this new journey as a masters student, I am sure I will become more adept and find them valuable.

Social Networking Tools for Teaching and Learning

Changing Social Dynamics

The first implication social networks might have for a learning community is in the way students interact with each other.  In their study Drs. Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler found that genetics plays a role in a person’s placement within a traditional social network.  This is not surprising as we can observe that an outgoing, gregarious personality might likely be at the center of a network and shy personalities might be on the fringes.  Online social networking might work to change some of this traditional dynamic.  Stereotypically it is the jocks and the cheerleaders that hold the social power in a high school.  In his article The Facebook Generation vs. the Fortune 500, Gary Hamel describes the changes to the social structure of a company due to the Web.  Although his points refer to a business situation some of them may also be relevant in an online, school-based, social network.  Through online social networks those students who are traditionally on the fringes are given equal opportunity to voice ideas, opinions, and thoughts.  “…more people are now able to participate – and more types of people can be involved – those who know about many things other than Technology.” (Davies and Merchant, 2009, p.3)  Ideas, contributions, and initiative are what give a person social standing and not social politics.  These new networks may also foster unlikely collaboration across the usual boundaries of traditional face to face social groups; that is, collaboration based on shared interest not on social status. 

Another effect of social networks is the power it provides individuals to influence others.  Just as we are influenced by others we also can influence others in powerful ways.  The actions that individuals make can and do affect other people.  This means that my positive behaviors such as kindness, respect, generosity, and so on, can influence and affect hundreds and perhaps thousands of others through the network.  But in the same way social networks can be used to influence others in negative ways.  As Cory brought up in our discussion #2, understanding the social dynamics of a school is an important step to managing the school culture.

The Whole is More Than the Sum of its Parts

A second benefit of social networks is explained in the idea of emergence, which describes the whole as having properties in it that are not present in its parts.  (Christakis and Fowler, 2009)  For example the ingredients of a cake are not very interesting separately, but together they make something very delicious and very different from its parts.  In the same way the efforts of a social group (unified around a project) cause, or idea, are able to do much more than the same number of people working individually.  It is the connection between the individuals that draws them together to form something with unique properties, properties that don’t exist in the individuals.  It is this property that makes the Web 2.0 social networking tools powerful educational tools.  “…peer interaction can play a very important part in learning.  If communication lies at the heart of the educational process, then new technologies present exciting possibilities.” (Davies and Merchant, 2009, p.2)  Social networking tools such as Facebook, MySpace, Linkedin, Twitter, and Ning are how students are communicating.  These tools allow students to do things like spread information, collaborate with each other, or learn about things that are happening distantly even though they don’t have direct knowledge of it themselves. 

Social Network tools in Schools

There are many Web 2.0 tools which could be considered social networking tools.  However in the following discussion I will be focusing primarily on the social sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Linkedin, and Ning.  Before I started my reading for this week I could think of only one way of using these social tools in a classroom and that was to help students understand how to use them safely and ethically.  I have since seen some other possible benefits of their use and possible classroom/school applications.

It is important to note that most of the online tools discussed in this post (as well as many of the other online tools presented earlier in this blog) are only available to persons 14 years or older.  However, sites such as Webkinz and Club Penguin are two very popular social networking sites for younger ages.  (Abram, 2008)

Benefits to Student of using Social Networking tools for Learning (Taken from Blanding, 2009)

1. By using social networking students are able to hone their technology skills.

2. Using these tools can serve to motivate students.

3. Writing stories and poetry to post on blogs could help develop students’ writing skills.

4. Social networks provide a means for students in difficulty to reach out for support.

5. These social interactions provide a simulation of situations which students may encounter in the work world.

6. Social networking sites can help students develop social maturity by fostering “empathy, appreciation of diversity of viewpoint, and an ability to multitask and collaborate with peers on complex projects.” (p. 4)

7. Social networking sites provide more opportunities to students from lower-income or immigrant situations.

(Points 8 – 11 taken from 100 Ways You Should be Using Facebook in Your Classroom)

8. Social interaction through social networking tools can promote collaboration.

9. Social networking helps to keep students current on issues, trends, and technologies.

10. If class content is available outside of school through a social networking tool students may be more engaged in the lessons.

11. Social networking sites can help students get to know each other better and in more meaningful ways.

Benefits to Teacher of Using Social Networking Tools (Taken from 100 Ways You Should be Using Facebook in Your Classroom)

1. Social interaction through social networking tools can promote collaboration among colleagues.

2. Social networking helps to keep teachers current on issues, trends, and technologies.

3. Social networking sites can help teachers get to know each other better and in more meaningful ways.

4. By using social networking teachers are able to hone their technology skills. (Blanding, 2009) 

Ways to Use Social Networking Tools With Students (Taken from 100 Ways You Should be Using Facebook in Your Classroom)

1. Through Facebook students are able to follow feeds providing them with current information on class related topics.

2. Students can write and post book reviews on their site for other students to read and comment on.

3. Encourage students to use each other as resources regarding questions, ideas, or homework clarification.

4. Teachers can use the tools as a way to share interesting media items or websites with students.

5. Teachers can use it to distribute messages and reminders of upcoming tests, assignments, or events.

6. Use these tools as a way to create and facilitate group work.

7. Through Facebook students can take advantage of various applications and groups. weRead allows students to manage their reading list and connects them to others reading the books.  Using Flashcards students can make flashcards on any subject. Hey Math! Challenge explains math concepts.  SkoolPool would be useful to our grade 9 students as they look into various boarding schools for next year.  Students can offer and receive help with homework through Homework Help.  With the app CiteMe students can properly cite sources in various formats.

8. Facebook has a number of applications that can help students access documents, research materials, and presentations.

Keeping It Safe Onlinekids safety

As it is a certainty that most students are using social networking sites it is important that they and their parents know how to use them safely and ethically.  Even younger students are online through sites such as Webkinz and Club Penguin so learning can start early.  Whether these tools are used in schools or not the schools can play an important role.

Perhaps even more important than the impact of social networking on the classroom, however is the impact that the classroom can have on social networking, by teaching students how to be responsible “digital citizens” online.  At their most basic level, these sites can be launching points to discussions on Internet ethics.  …most schools do the exact opposite, actively discouraging students’ use of social networking sites by blocking them on school computers – sending the message that they are dangerous or inappropriate.” (Blanding, p. 6-7)

There are dangers associated with being online.  However rather than putting up barriers to protect students, we can use the teachable moments to equip students to negotiate these dangers on their own.  “…we do need to start earlier on teaching privacy and adept handling of personal information.” (Abram, p. 3)  Working with students at an early age can equip them for when they are old enough to be on-line.

How, then, can schools create a consistent system to allow the use of social networking sites yet limit the risks to the users and the school?  In her article, Should Your Library Have a Social Media Policy?, Ellyssa Kroski argues that because both students and teachers are using social networking sites schools need policies in place to provide ground rules that can guide the safe use of these resources.  In addition she recommends that teachers need training in the use of the social Web. 

References

Abram, S. (2008, March/‌April 18). Scaffolding the new social literacies [Web log message]. Retrieved from Sirsidynix: http://www.sirsidynix.com/‌Resources/‌Pdfs/‌Company/‌Abram/‌MMIS_23.pdf

Blanding, M. (2009, January 21). Thanks for the add.  now help me with my homework. Ed.magazine, 1-7. Retrieved from http://www.gse.harvard.edu/‌blog/‌news_features_releases/‌2009/‌01/‌thanks-for-the-add-now-help-me-with-my-homework.html

Davies, J., & Merchant, G. (2009). Education and web 2.0: Transforming learning – an introduction. In Web 2.0 for schools (pp. 1-9) [Introduction]. New York: Peter Lang.

Hamel, G. (2009, March 24). The Facebook generation vs. the Fortune 500 [Web log message]. Retrieved from The Wall Street Journal: http://blogs.wsj.com/‌digits/‌2009/‌03/‌25/‌the-facebook-generation-vs-the-fortune-500/

Handman, J., Lebans, J., Crawley, M., & McDonald, B. (Producers). (2009, October 17).  Quirks & Quarks [Radio broadcast]. Toronto, Ontario: Canadian Broadcasting. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/quirks/archives/09-10/qq-2009-10-17.html

Kroski, E. (2009, October). Should your library have a social media policy? School Library Journal, 55(10), 44-46.

No author given. (2009, October 20). 100 ways you should be using Facebook in your classroom [Web log message]. Retrieved from Online College: http://www.onlinecollege.org/‌2009/‌10/‌20/‌100-ways-you-should-be-using-facebook-in-your-classroom/

Photo Credits

Spider Web Covered with Dew Drops. Creator: USFWS Photo. [http://images.fws.gov/default.cfm?fuseaction=records.display&id=CBDA095C%2D65B8%2DD693%2D78B4E9C2D03A4786] {{PD-USGov-Interior-FWS}}

Kids internet safety photo: http://kidsafecomputers.net/sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderpictures/kidsmyspace.jpg

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Jackie
    November 17, 2009 at 9:25 am

    Thanks for the reference to the Quirks & Quarks program Bruce, I am intrigued to listen to this one in particular. I used to be a huge fan, but have had less & less time to listen to CBC this semester (sadly).

  2. Kathy
    November 17, 2009 at 8:12 am

    Your international perspective always intrigues me. It prompts me to see ideas from a much wider lens.

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