I was recently asked to put together some thoughts about the potential impact Social Networks could have on education by a really savvy M.D. over at Cerner, and I thought this audience might be interested too. I have not seen too much about this topic, and would really like to hear your thoughts.
Social Networking sites simplify conversations by lowering the cost to communicate to large groups, both for the speaker and the recipient. Accomplished by enforcing small messages, recipients can easily consume or ignore the content with trivial effort. This in itself has some pretty interesting impact on one’s social network. But, the messages are also semi-permanent, consumed at leisure, and are often open to any interested peers, not just the intended recipient.
Open recorded dialog offers a unique value in communication: the conversation doesn’t end just because it has stopped. This persistence and openness in the dialog has some interesting conceivable implications for education:
Participants can join into the conversation, well after it’s stopped. This is a biggie. This open availability allows individuals to pick up the conversation where it left off, taking it in new directions their own context brings with them. It is this factor that not only contributes to many new ideas, but also helps drive quality by squeezing the most out of existing ones..
Discuss once, available to all. The SN creates a naturally accumulating body of knowledge, available to all with thanks to your favorite search engine.
Record the process, not just the answer. Following along with a conversation, you can actually learn with the participants, not just gain from their answers. Further, many times the conversation is not going to answer your specific question, but you can gain insight from the ideas already discussed, and get pointers to more places to look.
Don’t have to know conversation partners in advance. In conjunction with (1), you can put a question out to your peers, and see who responds. Find experts, even when you don’t know where to look.
Much of the above is available to any generic SN, from MySpace to any online forum. But, what SNs offer over and above online forums, is trust. The who you are carrying on conversations with, you know. You know whether the respondent is knowledgeable or guessing, and can more likely read into the subtlety of their responses. Couple this trust with focused goals, as SERMO has for the medical community, and you open the pool even wider for advice.
You’ve noticed that the language I am using is around conversation, dialog, and advice. Because of the short-form messaging, SNs are much more suited to peer-based education than seminars. I have yet to see anyone artfully present more than maybe 1,000 words on the Internet; it’s no substitute for medical journals. It is, however, an excellent place to discuss the journal contents, grind out all the last subtleties, and come up with ideas for your next article.
It is the pressure of our peers, after all, that gives us the support to try things we otherwise wouldn’t have. — BILL TREASURER, Right Risk
In addition to these benefits, there are the possible benefits of all of this being a social venture: cultural norms. If you, the educator, control a network, there’s a lot you can do to build group behaviors to reinforce whatever you are trying to teach them: group rewards if 90% of the class does their homework, peer pressure to go outside and exercise for asthmatics, peer support in the middle of the night not to give in to that nicotine craving, or even just introducing icebreakers prior to a convention.
Each of these has been around long well before the prevalence of SNs. But today, SNs now provide an easy platform that automates much of the hard work, and create a reason for pools of trusted colleagues to come together spanning many timezones. From your colleagues, and from their colleagues, ideas and new perspectives arise. It requires motivation on your part, but this is prime time for peer education.
So, how have you used SNs for education? Constructively used peer pressure in an educational setting? What’s your example of peer pressure helping you?
Integration of Email, Contacts, Tasks, and Calendar. Supporting your network requires all of those, so a tool to help you manage it should too. (I refer bellow to an entry in any one of these as an event.) My favorite piece of integration is the automatic add of new contacts to my contact lists.
Reminders for events relevant to your contacts. Any good calendar should do this. Unfortunately, most require the calendar to be open to perform this. Hosted calendars like Google’s and Yahoo’s, allow you to be reminded by email. A handy function for those of us on the run.
Reminders to reach out to your contacts. You can do this manually now through tasks or using your calendar, but this is ripe for automation.
Provide context about each contact. This should be presented when you are reading or creating a task/email/meeting in your system. How you know the person, and the last time you saw them, etc., are usually available through searching your contacts and calendar if you keep track of these, but again, ripe for automation.
Provide context about each conversation. Latest emails, events, etc. each time you are creating a task/email/meeting in your system.
Show tasks outstanding and recently completed for the individuals in each action. A summary of the tasks you owe someone can help define a productive conversation.
Show tasks outstanding and recently completed by the individuals in each action. A summary of what you are owed, similarly can help define a productive conversation.
Automatic tagging of actions and participants. With all of the natural language processing developments over the recent years, it would be relatively simple to pull themes from the content of each event and record those along with the participants. When you create new events, the tag database could be polled as you are creating a new event to recommend people who may be interested, and other relevant topics. Would be a helpful plugin for your word processor too.
Most of these are available today, but not in an automated fashion and often not available at the same time. I primarily use GMail with a Firefox plugin called GTDInbox which together provide good integration of email, contacts, tasks, and calendar.
Google Calendar provides good reminders of events relevant to my contacts, but requires me to set them up.
The more recent version of GTDInbox provides an increasing level of context about the participants, and I hope they keep pushing in that direction. The unfortunate thing today is that it does this by learning association of special labels it uses. This is indeed helpful for labeling, but the more I communicate with someone, the less I need the context. Since it’s a Firefox plugin, they could create a side panel, which would also allow showing the tasks owed and outstanding.
As for autotagging? Please, this is a desperate cry for help…. If there are any creative programmers out there, take a look at OpenCalais, and make a pluggin for FireFox + GMail!