Monthly Archives: October 2009

How to Create a Useful Social Network

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The last time I took a written test, I found myself very frustrated. I was sitting by myself in a room, answering questions on a sheet of paper, cut off from the large network of people I have digitally gathered around me over the years. The questions were testing my knowledge, not how I could put knowledge to use with the help of my extended social networks, which, practically, is how I would solve the problem. We are increasingly living in a world where our general understanding of things is more important than the particular details we can remember; we are using our brains more to make sketches of how things work and letting things like Google and our social networks fill in the blanks. Rather than spending time memorizing, we are jumping up the ladder and processing meaning and use. We expand our understanding knowing that the details will come via our always-on internet connections.

And this is why your social networks are important. You store information in your social networks, in the people you trust and communicate with. One of your friends reads a lot of historical novels; when you need to know the name of Henry VIII’s second wife, you can ask him. Or you can just Google it. You don’t need to store that name in your grey matter. You know you don’t need to; you know Henry VIII had a second wife. And that’s largely enough. Your friend would be happy to chat with you about English history, and when your friend stumbles into an area you’re interested in, you’re happy to chat with him about that. Reciprocal information-sharing. Two heads are better than one!

Step one in creating and using a social network is to acknowledge that it’s there. Asking a friend is something they let you do on TV game shows, but we often don’t see that knowledge network as real or valuable in our professional lives. But it’s probably the biggest asset we have. Your social network is your living library. You are part of other people’s living libraries. One of the best things you can do is to contribute to your network when they need your obscure knowledge and educated opinion. Engage with your network; provide ideas, thoughts, where required. Let your network shine by employing your knowledge. Then you can do the same.

I would comfortably posit that people at certain stages in their lives don’t have functionally useful networks. This might be because your network isn’t comfortable in its knowledge yet, or that knowledge isn’t yet solidified, or that the individuals in your network haven’t had a chance yet to set out on its own and develop knowledge and experience independent of their peers. If everyone in your network reads the same books, has similar summer jobs, and lives in the same town, that network isn’t going to be terribly useful to you. So branch out a bit: cultivate difference. Embrace it. Share your experiences. Become expert at something. It doesn’t have to be something lofty; it could be about gardening in a micoclimate, or knitting, or the history of a pop band, or the works of Margaret Atwood, or doing laundry. Become the go-to person. Everyone has expertise in something; if we pool all that expertise together, we get a really interesting resource that makes us all better people.

I’ve found that the deeper I dig into my passion (which is my work: internet apps in academia), the more obscure my knowledge and expertise gets. And so does that of my friends and my peers. So my networks have become really interesting and rich. I know that if I announce an opinion on a social network (facebook, twitter, my blog, etc.), I will surely get some diverse responses. Because the people I care about are coming from so many different spaces, I am enriched by interacting with them.

We largely categorize this kind of interaction as “social” and therefore “fun” and therefore “not work/serious”. But interacting with our networks is often the key that opens up whole new worlds for us. Our friends and our peers shape us, just as much as official, serious education and information do (likely far more). Let’s just acknowledge that while our friends are great and fun and we blow off steam with them and have fun with them, they are still valid sources of information and growth for us. Often when we’re working on a thorny problem, and have a few IM windows open, and Twitter, and Facebook, and are composing a blog post, we’re not just messing around on the internet. It might be fun, it might be building our friendships, it might look like we’re not paying proper attention, but in actual fact we are learning and processing and drawing on the collective knowledge of our networks. Even pure socializing, pure “not-work”, is part of building a real and useful social network. We are laying the groundwork to trust and share with our peers.

So: is it a bad thing to have facebook open at work? It can be if it’s distracting you from getting something done. I remember back at library school everyone would open up their IM clients and complain about the assignment we all had due. It can distract, it can act as the thing you do instead of doing what you need to do. Or, we can use these tools to build ourselves. We can use them as our interactive library. The thing itself isn’t the problem; it’s how we use it.

This is largely why I like to share what I’m thinking about or experiencing via social networks. I know that many of my friends and peers find it engaging and thought-provoking professionally, and I find the same when they share their work with me. I get to benefit from their learning when they share it. My professional development expands via sharing. When I attend an event about a subject I’m only passingly familiar with, I go to that event with the collective knowledge of my network, who correct my assumptions and add colour to the details I learn.

So embrace your social network. Cultivate it. add to it the people who challenge and inspire you. Let your network build you into the sort of person you want to be, and return the favour.

Laptops in the Classroom: A Dialogue

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Below is an email exchange about laptops in the classroomI had recently with a friend of mine who teaches undergraduates in a university setting. I wanted to share it because I don’t know that we’re addressing these issues with faculty as effectively as we might; people like me, who work with collaborative applications and the internet, aren’t always invited into the spaces where these conversations occur. I’m aware that there is a vocal and adamant contingent of faculty at most if not all Canadian and American universities who are seriously distressed by the way students use laptops in class; I also know that there is another contingent, perhaps less powerful, perhaps less vocal, who are uncomfortable with the arguments in play and don’t necessarily want to ban laptops from class.

I’d like to engage in this conversation more often.

To: Rochelle Mazar
From: [REDACTED]
Subject: Lament for the iGeneration

You may have seen this, but I thought of you. I just CANNOT DECIDE if banning laptops in the classroom is the answer. It feels like a hostile, uncooperative, fatalistic, pessimistic move when laptops are only going to become MORE pervasive and part of our daily lives, not less. However, even my best students are often giggling away on IM’s instead of participating in a classroom discussion. I am really torn. I know some universities have tried to ‘unwire’ just lecture halls, but now students can use iPhones or other devices for WiFi, so it really is moot. However, even if they claim to just use their laptops for notetaking, how can they resist surfing? I couldn’t! I need to figure out how to simultaneously embrace the information age and keep my students tuned in at the same time!


To: [REDACTED]
From: Rochelle Mazar
Subject: re: Lament for the iGeneration

It’s not exactly a zero sum game. I think we’ve been teaching the same way for so long, and isn’t really terribly effective. So students have been finding other ways to entertain themselves in lecture since…well, probably since the beginning. There are really good ways to use even things like IM as part of the experience…better to be active while listening than passive. So one way to deal with it is to accept that it’s there and use it. Twitter could be really good for that; collective note taking. (There’s a variety of collaborative note-taking applications out there now, too.) Another is to target the people who are using their computers a lot during class and get them to look things up and report back to you. The OED is aweesome for this. Yet another; send someone to the library’s website and ask whatever vital infomation questions you have ongoing on virtual reference. Get the library into your classroom in every possible way.

But in the end: it’s not your job to make sure they pay attention. You can only do your best. If they choose to check out, whether with IM, facebook, crossword puzzles, etc., that’s their decision. Teachers generally have a lot of control/power issues around “what’s done in my classroom”, and I understand that there’s a certain policing role involved. But a long as someone isn’t actively distracting others, I think they’ve made a personal decision that you just can’t hold yourself accountable for. They’re adults, after all.

That said: I’m someone who can’t attend a lecture without communicating what I’m hearing and thinking about it in some way while listening. If I have an internet connection, it will be via Twitter, IM, or both. Sometimes also IRC as well. If I don’t have an internet connection, I will whisper to the person next to me. I don’t know if people think I’m not paying attention, but I surely am. In fact, if I’m completely silent, I’m probably not paying attention or didn’t learn anything that interested or inspired me. Engaging in some way with others online is actually the best way for me to learn. It took a long time for me to figure that out!

Not that most undergrads are as engaged as I am. But they could be. And the internet connection in the room could be the thing that helps foster that engagement just as much as it could be the thing to distract from it.


To: Rochelle Mazar
From: [REDACTED]
Subject: re: Lament for the iGeneration

Ah, I wish you could come into our faculty meetings! There is a huge faction now who literally view laptops as devil that are luring their otherwise interested students away from their brilliant and riveting lectures. They whine, “What are we going to dooooo about this laptop PROBLEM!” About half the department now has BANNED laptops in class. They stroll in, drop the briefcase and announce, “Hello class, laptops away, let’s start!” It’s ridiculous.

As for me, I have never commented on people using laptops during class, because I have NEVER had a situation in which someone was disruptive or bothered anyone! A lot of them take notes, others chat/facebook, etc. I would be thrilled if they tweeted ideas, but for some reason I think this is rare in my cohort here — I mentioned twitter once last term and asked for a show of hands and 1/80 used it. They seem more into facebook — they are still quite young (most 2nd year). I really do like the idea of asking someone to look up a definition or check a statistic for us — I think I may do this tonight! I also show video clips online and look up things on my own laptop during class, and we’re all in the same boat. I’m definitely looking into the collective notetaking — I think many of the students would be very interested in this, and i like the idea of a backbone of ideas flowing around and holding the class together during lecture! I also like the image of someone tweeting thoughts quietly instead of poking their neighbour — after all — engagement with the subject matter IS supposed to be the goal!

Perhaps soon I’ll try to allow a sort of alternate assignment were students could keep a little blog of thoughts built during lectures and earn some marks for that… though I wouldn’t want it to keep them from participating out loud! That’s the hardest part. For the ones who are genuinely engaging and tweeting thoughts, I need to get them to share them with the class!

So much to think about, but I think banning laptops is ridiculous and will not bring about instant engagement with the same ol’ lecture format… 🙂

Thanks so much for your thoughts!


To: [REDACTED]
From: Rochelle Mazar
Subject: re: Lament for the iGeneration

It’s a huge sea change that involves bringing students into the process, and that’s really threatening. I understand that.

Yeah, people 30+ are into twitter, not really the 25 and under set. They don’t really get the idea of sharing your big ideas to make them better…yet. Things to remember: just because they don’t do it in their personal life doesn’t mean it can’t be something they can do for class. 🙂 In my dream world I have a twitter install with a school login I could use just for classes. I don’t care if the behaviour translates into regular twittering (I’m not really into pimping any particular applications), but it would be great if it helps them to learn to listen and read critically and actively.

Oh also: I find writing the ideas out makes me more likely to contribute them in person, especially if I’ve “tested” them online and gotten good response first. It’s kind of a confidence-builder.

Most undergrads don’t develop the kinds of online networks that are particularly interested in revelations from class, which is a tragedy. Would be a great project to help them build some.

I guess that might be my job. 😉


I really love the idea that it might be my job to help students create and nurture useful networks. That would be wicked.