Building an Online Community: Know Your Audience, Then Choose the Right Tools

When I’m working with students who are interested in going into professional communication positions, they often express concern regarding the amount of time it takes to keep up with social media.

In the United States, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and LinkedIn tend to be the most popular social networking sites. However, in the last year Google launched their social networking site Google+ to much fanfare. Quora, the questions and answer social network, has made a major splash in Silicon Valley, and the online virtual world of Second Life has over 20 million live accounts. Wikipedia provides a list of social networking sites with more than 200 examples of popular online communities. If we add the various Ning communities that develop around organizations or areas of interest, the number of social media platforms extends into the thousands.

Although I primarily discuss teaching and technology on this blog, I also spend a great deal of time researching the use of social media for targeted communication projects. However, that doesn’t mean that I think it’s necessary to be active on every new social network or master every new media tool that’s out there. Instead, I spend most of my time researching my intended audience, and then I look for the best tools to communicate with that group.

For example, there is a very active education community on Twitter interested in new technology. Also, LinkedIn has become a destination for individuals who want career development information and for discussions on professional topics. So, it’s no surprise that I get much of my information on hot topics in ed tech for ISTE through Twitter and the ISTE LinkedIn group. Given how wide ISTE’s audience is, we also have a presence on Facebook and feature both an ISTE Community Ning and ISTE Conference Ning.

The biggest issue I see with groups or organizations interested in getting started involved in social media networks is that the first question they ask is “what tool should we use?” The better question would be “what tools does our audience already use?” The Pew Internet & American Life Project offers a wealth of data regarding social media use among different segments of the population. In addition, Forrester Researchers has created a social technographics tool to show the different ways people use new media.

There aren’t enough hours in the day to actively participate in every social media network out there. However, instead of trying to be an expert in everything, communicators must work to become an expert in only one thing: their audience.

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Incorporating Students in Class Planning

Across the country students and educators are making their final back-to-school preparations. Next weekend is Labor Day, the unofficial end of summer, and if they aren’t open already, schools will be welcoming students back soon.

The college freshman we’ll be welcoming to school this fall were born the same year that Mosaic launched the browser credited with popularizing the World Wide Web. They are the Millennial Generation – comfortable with new technologies, close to their parents, active on social media, and willing to share a great deal of personal information publically.

Some colleagues of mine at the University of Oregon recently completed a study into the mindset of Millennial’s who work in professional settings. They surveyed young public relations professionals who were born after 1982, asking them to respond to several ethical quandaries related to decisions they may need to make at work. This project on Millennials in the workplace also provides some fascinating input into the mindset of  Millennials in general.

Students today see information as extraordinarily valuable. They appear to believe that there is always a right answer and with enough information they can solve any problem. Furthermore, autonomy is highly valued but they want consistent feedback on their work. Believing that their voice is respected and valued in work situations plays a major role in job satisfaction.

These traits have left some older generations bemoaning the sense of “entitlement” they observe in members of the Millennial Generation, but I prefer to view this as a desire of collaborate.

When I teach courses to Millennials, I take a few minutes on the first day of class to ask students what their skills are, what they hope to learn, and how they prefer to communicate. Using the free tool Survey Monkey, students are able to make anonymous suggestions regarding the structure and content of the class. I go into each term with a general outline of what needs to be conveyed through the class and what the students need to take away from the experience, but there is still a great deal of flexibility in how the information is presented and how we structure the class environment.

The survey process usually takes less than 10 minutes. We then have a brief group discussion on interests and learning styles and I later revise and update the class syllabus based on the survey responses and discussion. In less than half an hour, I set the tone for the entire term. Instead of going in the first day, handing around a finalized syllabus and laying out the class rules, my students have an opportunity to help develop their learning experience.

I’ve seen this quote attributed to a number of different people and it’s one of my favorites: “If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.” We can fight the traits that make the upcoming generation unique and try to force them to fit existing structures, or we can embrace the characteristics that many Millennials exhibit and find ways for students to use them to best advantage.

Posted in Uncategorized

Promoting Innovation by Teaching Kids to “Think Different”

“You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.”

 Steve Jobs

Although a contentious figure in education for his staunch opposition to teacher’s unions, educators can learn a lot from former Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs. The news that Jobs was stepping down from his position as the head of the most profitable company in the world  set the Internet buzzing – I found out about the announcement on Twitter about half an hour after Jobs sent his letter of resignation to the Apple board.

It would be fascinating to talk to one of Steve Jobs early teachers. He has a reputation for being difficult, contentious and a rule-breaker. Employees who have worked for Jobs report that he often interrupts people, frequently misses meetings, and has trouble fulfilling commitments. Jobs is also creative, innovative, driven, persistent and wildly successful.

For many years, Apple’s slogan was “Think Different.” Brigham Young University professor Jeff Dyer, Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School and Hal Gregersen of INSEAD spent six years studying the way innovators think and he found that Apple’s slogan was right, they do think differently.

The authors conducted a six-year study, during which they surveyed 3,000 creative executives and conducted an additional 500 individual interviews. The findings, published in their 2009 book The Innovator’s DNA, found that innovative executives exhibited five “discovery skills” that distinguished them from the crowd. These skills are:

Associating – the process of making connections between seemingly unrelated ideas, topics or problems.

Questioning – the ability to ask questions that go beyond the norm and challenge the status quo.

Observing – being able to closely observe details, particularly of people’s behavior.

Experimenting – innovators are not only willing to experiment, they do it constantly and are passionate about exploring the world.

Networking – but not the traditional networking where you make connections with others in your industry. New ideas come from meeting very smart people who have little in common, but from whom you can learn new things.

Interestingly, young children exhibit these skills in spades. Kids are naturally inquisitive – in fact, in the last 24 hours my toddler has asked me “why cats have tails,” “how the sun shines,” “why the car makes noise,” and “if we can get a shark as a pet.”

My son isn’t looking for the right answer to these questions. He wants to talk about the topics, consider the possibilities of various answers, and maybe figure out a few possible answers of his own. I’m worried that I only have a few more years before the interest in creating an answer is replaced by a drive to find the right answer.

Highly innovative adults had often been raised in environments where inquisitiveness was encouraged. Many of the participants who showed highly innovative tendencies had been students at Montessori schools where they were encouraged to investigate topics that interested them outside of a strict curriculum.

In most classrooms the teacher asks the questions and students struggle to find the right answers. Let’s work towards shifting that paradigm so that kids ask the questions and teachers help guide them to develop their own answers, many of which could be acceptable.

This is a highly idealized view of education, but the pendulum has swung so far in the direction of high-stakes testing that a step or two toward open-ended questioning and unguided brainstorming could have enormous benefits for the future of innovation in this country.

Posted in Uncategorized

As Mobile Phone Use Grows, Opportunities in Education Abound

I got my first cell phone in 2000 when I started college. The were still relatively new at the time, but it made sense to purchase a basic cellular phone to avoid the long distance cost of using landline. This original phone was good for one thing, making phone calls. Ironically, I almost never use my current phone (an iPhone 3G) to make calls.

The mobile phone has come a long way since the first call was made from a handheld device in 1973 by Martin Cooper, a researcher at Motorola. A fun trivia fact: this original call was made to Cooper’s rival, Joel S. Engel who worked at Bell Labs. So, even at the start of cell phones, people were being bothered by calls they’d rather not pick up.

Early this week, the Pew Internet & American Life Project released the results from their most recent survey on the ways American’s use emerging technologies. Apparently, American’s are not only using mobile phones more than ever before, but we’re also using them for a wider range of tasks. You can read the full report here, but below are a couple of facts that I found particularly interesting:

  • About 83% of American adults (18 and older) currently own and use a mobile phone. According to a 2009 survey, 75% of teens (age 12-17) own and use a mobile phone. The data regarding teen cell usage is two years old – it’s likely those numbers are even higher today.
  • Mobile phones are information sources for people on the go. Half of all adult cell owners (51%) had used their phone at least once to get information they needed right away.
  • Ever pretended to be on the phone to avoid a conversation? You’re not along – 13% of cell owners pretended to be using their phone in order to avoid interacting with the people around them.
  • One third of American adults (35%) own a smartphone of some kind. About 90% of these smartphone users take pictures and sends texts using their phones and eight in ten use their phone to go online or send photos or videos to others.
  • About half of all cell phone owners who are active on social networking sites use their phone to access sites like MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Despite some pretty extensive searching, I wasn’t able to find hard numbers on the percentage of schools that currently ban cell phones, but a 2010 survey shows that about a quarter of U.S. teens attend a school that forbids having a cell phone at all times and more than 60% attend a school were they are not allowed to have a cell phone in class.

I understand the frustration teachers feel when they are speaking to students who are staring down at their laps texting away or browsing the web. I’ll sometimes lecture to classes of 200+ students and it’s tough when it’s obvious that members of the audience are ignoring the work that I spent hours preparing. It’s even more difficult when I know I’ll be judged based on my students’ performance on upcoming exams.

However, I have also seen students in large lectures engage in vibrant backchannel presentations using the Twitter app on their mobile phone. I’ve sent students on a QR Code scavenger hunt where mobile phones allowed me to bring learning outside of the classroom. I’ve texted homework reminders and class announcements and I know at least a few students watch required videos on their mobile devices.

Cells phones can be distractions, but they can also be valuable learning tools and they aren’t going away any time soon. Instead of fighting the inevitable increase in mobile device use among students, let’s embrace the possibilities that these tools offer in education.

Posted in Uncategorized

A Teaching Moment: Planning a QR Code Scavenger Hunt

Oregon has finally been seeing some good weather lately, so last week I decided to give my class of college juniors a break from the traditional class structure and send them outside for a scavenger hunt across the University of Oregon campus.

Using a free QR code generator, I created two-dimensional codes that can be scanned by one of many different free QR code scanning applications available for smartphones. I then blew up the codes and printed them using a typical laser printer. I posted them in a few strategically chosen spots around campus. For example, the code near the campus art museum led to a link on a new exhibition. The code hidden near the school track brought students to a site where they could buy tickets to athletic events. The code posted at an outdoor amphitheater linked to a YouTube video of the popular a cappella group On the Rocks presenting a free performance at the site.

The students were given a marked up map and asked to find a total of six different QR codes that had been placed within a mile radius on campus. The first team to come back with information about all six codes and links received a small prize. When all the teams returned, we spent the second half of class brainstorming different ways QR codes could be used in communications.

Although the QR code scavenger hunt was fun, there were several learning objectives built into the lesson. First, most of the students were unfamiliar with QR codes and this project showed them what they are and how they work, and provided ideas for how they might incorporate them into future projects.

More importantly, the lesson required the students to quickly master a new tool and think creatively about ways of using the tool to achieve personal and professional goals.

I don’t teach students how to use media tools. Certain assignments require them to use different types of social media tools to complete the work, but learning the tool is not the primary objective of these assignments. Technology develops and expands too quickly.

I don’t need students to know how to use every new social media channel that develops. However, I do want them to be comfortable enough with social media to embrace new tools and be willing to experiment. I also want them to think creatively about the many different ways new tools can be used. The only way to encourage creatively is to give young people opportunities to practice creative thinking.

How do you use QR codes in education?

Posted in Uncategorized

A Teaching Moment: Survey Monkey as a Tool for Peer Assessment

Although students are traditionally assessed based on their written work, I try to challenge my students to provide evidence of their progress in a variety of different ways. The undergraduate students I teach are often headed toward careers as professional communicators, so learning how to express themselves verbally and visually is just as important as knowing how to communicate well in writing.

One of the challenges of assessing public speaking skills is finding ways to keep other students engaged while their peers are speaking. I teach in a computer lab, so students are constantly tempted by the various entertainment possibilities available through the Web.

Last week, I surprised students with an “ambush” presentation, designed to require students to think on their feet. I downloaded questions from the interview portion of past Miss America pageants, eliminated all questions that were only applicable to women, and printed them on little slips of paper. Students picked a question at random and had two minutes to present an answer.

Since I had no team of celebrity judges to score the responses, I asked the students to assess one another to determine who would be crowned the winner of this class activity. Using the free, online survey tool Survey Monkey, I created a tool for students to “grade” one another anonymously.

Students were emailed links to a Survey Monkey document that listed all the students in the class. Under each student I listed four assessment criteria: poise, content, persuasiveness, and creativity. Students could then anonymously rate each speaker on their performance. At the end of the exercise, the students submitted the Survey Monkey page and their answers were immediately tabulated by the program.

By requiring students to participate in the assessment process, they were motivated to practice active listening skills throughout the exercise. Also, by using Survey Monkey I was able to determine the third, second and first runners up quickly and objectively. Within five minutes, the class was able to crown their choice as that day’s top presenter.

How do you facilitate peer assessment? Has anyone else used a free or low-cost survey tool in the classroom? How did you use it and why?

Posted in Uncategorized

A Teaching Moment: Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Basics

With more than 1.5 billion Web sites, 400 million Facebook users, 5.5 million Twitterers, and over 100 million blogs, it can be difficult to stand out in cyberspace. While there are a multitude of tips, tricks, tools and tags that can help attract search engine traffic to a site, the process of search engine optimization is complex and multifaceted.

Last week I had two hours to share SEO basics with a classroom full of communications students. Rather than attempting a full-scale PowerPoint assault, I devised an in-class activity that would show students some of the basics of SEO implementation, but also show them the power of building relationships and earning links.

I spent about 20 minutes at the start of class giving a simple overview of what SEO is and how it works. I went over the Google Formula, keywords, tagging, headlines, and off-page factors that lead to high search rankings, then the class was put to work.

The students, each of whom have developed a blog as part of their class projects, were tasked with writing a blog post about the fantastic new (fictional) cleaning solution Flooneed produced by Bipowk Inc. “Floneed” and “Biopowk” were chosen because Google searches of the words returned only one or two results. Students were instructed to include a disclaimer (provided as a jpeg) stating that Flooneed and Biopowk were nonsense words and that the posts were written for an in-class exercise on Search Engine Optimization.

A week later we did some sample Google, Yahoo and Bing searches to see how the different blogs stacked up. Students who had Twittered about the post, or commented on another blog and linked back, shot to the top on all the sample Flooneed searches. Posts that had a specific focus, such as using Flooneed to get out tough dirt and grass stains on a sports related blog or as a heavy-duty kitchen cleaner for a food and cooking focused blog, ranked highly when we brainstormed reasons why people might search for a cleaning product and used Google AdWords to check out hot search terms.

How do you teach SEO skills? I’d like to find a good resource sheet that I could hand out to students in the future giving them a quick guide to SEO basics. Any suggestions?

*This post was originally published March 5, 2010 on ISTE Connects
Posted in Uncategorized