Weeding, Seeding, and Feeding Social Educational Designs

This post examines the implications of a post at the Harvard Business blog by David Armano titled Debunking Social Media Myths about social business design. He points to three labor-intensive activities that are necessary for a profitable social network: weeding, seeding, and feeding. We examine these three considerations for social education design, and how they are necessary for a worthwhile social network for educators.

First some background and context. One of our primary interests here at Re-Mediating Assessment is how innovative classroom assessment practices can be shared over digital social networks. By assessment practices, we mean both particular assessments for particular activities, as well as expertise associated with those practices. Of course, we know that most efforts to create collaborative networks for educators don’t take hold (Check out the 2004 book Designing Virtual Communities in the Service of Learning by Barab, Kling, and Gray, and a special issue of The Information Society they edited for a good discussion of some pioneering efforts).

We have previously written about the value of insights out of media scholarship for thinking about the sharing of educational practices. In particular Henry Jenkins’ notions of "spreadable" practices have prompted us to launch serial posts at Project New Media Literacies introducing the idea of Spreadable Educational Practices (SEP) and to juxtapose them with the doomed distribution of centrally defined and "scientifically" validated scripts, what we label Disseminated Instructional Routines.

We are currently outlining several new proposals to expand the nascent networks that are forming around various efforts. We also want to design and test strategies for helping other nascent networks succeed by helping to foster spread of effective practices and the necessary social bonds.

Media scholars inevitably consider the for-profit nature of commercial media. Of course, not all media scholars care about markets and eyeballs, and the nature of media markets are undergoing tremendous change. In our prior posts at Project NML, Henry's descriptions of failed corporate efforts to create "viral" messages and "sticky" websites seemed to describe some of the failed efforts to create educator social networks. The point here is that educational social design can be informed by business social design.

Armano’s talk at the Conversational Marketing Summit pointed out something that is easy to underestimate: "Being social means having real people who actively participate in your initiatives." Because educators tend to be so overwhelmed by the daily press of teaching, worthwhile social education design must find ways to get teachers actively involved. And this takes resources. Building a network will require significant support at the outset, likely sponsoring leading participants to welcome newcomers and foster effective practices. As Clay Shirky wrote in Here Comes Everybody, the founder of Flickr said that she learned early on that "you have to greet the first ten thousand users personally.”

Here are three things that Armano says that successful networks must plan for, and what they might look like in an educational network:

Seeding: Someone has to seed a network with resources and practices that your particular users need. In the Participatory Activities and Assessment Network we are trying to build out, we will budget quite a bit of time for research assistants to work with lead educators to identify interesting and engaging on-line activities for their students. However, the participatory assessments that educators can use to implement those activities in their classrooms and refine them over time will likely have to be constructed by the research effort. So we are budgeting for that too. We will work with heavily subsidized and fully-supported lead teachers for the first year to seed the network with useful activities before bringing on less-subsidized and partly-supported teachers. Only then do we think that the network will be sufficiently seeded to expect unsupported users to start participating in large numbers.

Feeding. The network needs a steady stream of content. By content, what we mean is information--information that other participants will find useful. In our case, the most useful information will be the anecdotes and guidelines for implementing participatory activities with actual students, and sharing the "low stakes" evidence obtained from participatory assessments for improving success. For example, we view the posting of accounts, videos, and artifacts from the enactment of successful implementation as crucial content that needs to be fed to the network. It is our job to make sure that there is both a source and an audience. Our lead teachers will need help posting accounts of enactments to the network. For example, most teachers know that they themselves can't post video of their students to YouTube (as researchers we are forbidden from even thinking about doing so because of Human Subjects constraints). But there is nothing to stop us from giving the lead teachers several inexpensive flip cams and letting students post accounts of themselves to YouTube (if the school allows access; they may be better off with SchoolTube which is less likely to be blocked).

Once accounts of practice are up, it is also our job to ensure that there is an audience. In this case, we will have paired teachers up to select activities to complete with their classrooms, and then asking one of them to implement first. This first lead teachers’ posted accounts and informal guidelines will be immediately useful for to second lead teacher. One or two simple successes like this will create a powerful social bond between two otherwise isolated participants. Because this interaction will take place via public and persistent discourse in the network, the accounts will be immediately useful for other participants wishing to use the activities; this discourse will be crucial for helping that newcomer locate and access the informal expertise that is now spread across the network in those two lead teachers.

Weeding. Armano points out that productive social business design must prune content that inhibits growth. This might be the most challenging aspect of a productive social education design. This partly refers to getting rid of problematic content. One of the lessons we learned in our collaboration with Project New Media Literacies working with Becky Rupert at Aurora High School is that need for involving students in helping keep offensive or objectionable material off of school related networks. If the students find the networking activities an enjoyable alternative to traditional activities the quickly become a powerful ally in minimizing transgressions. This is crucial, as teachers simply won’t have time to do it, and will be overwhelmed with the nuanced decisions between creative expressions and those that are patently offensive.

Another important part of weeding is getting rid of stuff that does not work. As educators we have a tendency to hang on to everything and make it available to all. Thus we create a huge obstacle for other educators who have to weed through endless list of resources looking for the right one, and then implement it and hope it succeeds. Our network assumes that most web-based educational resources are not very good at fostering worthwhile classroom participation. This is not because the resources are inherently bad, but because participatory classroom culture is so challenging to attain. Our Participatory Activities and Assessment Network will start with a carefully catalogued and tagged set of activities that have been initially vetted and aligned to one or two Relevant Big Ideas (or RBIs, which in turn can be easily aligned to content standards). As lead teachers select activities for further consideration, they will be tested by research assistants before participatory assessments are created and released along with the activity. If the activities and assessments don’t foster worthwhile participation for the first two lead teachers, it will be tagged as such.

Importantly, the network will contain useful information about the nature of that “productive failure” that will be useful for others. Consider that it may well be that the activity turned out to be too easy or too hard or required too much background knowledge for the particular students. Rather than labeling the activity as “useless” it should be tagged in a way that another teacher who works with students for whom it might be “perfect” can find the activity, along with the information and distributed expertise for using it. It looks to us like building information systems for accomplishing this will be one of our major challenges.


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