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My life as a gardener

Golders Hill GardenersI suck at (real) gardening (the kind related to botany). If there’s an opposite to green, that’s what color my thumbs are.

I fear that my inadequacies are bleeding over into a metaphorical form of gardening. Nancy White, co-author of Digital habitats: Stewarding technology for communities, has written about online community building as gardening.

I have informally taken on the role of online community manager for our department. Nobody appointed me as such; in fact, nobody even asked me to do this work. However, I feel strongly that there is value in wrapping social media around our department. My main goal in doing so is to break down traditional barriers to learning: time, space, etc.  Our learning together as a department of educational leadership no longer needs to be confined by classrooms, courses, semesters, meetings, etc. Also, as the coordinator of the educational leadership track of the Ph.D. program in education, I have worked really hard (with my colleagues) to build a real sense of community around the doctoral program. We have f-2-f colloquia, social events, etc., all in the name of community-building. So, my current online community management efforts are complementary to that work, and extended beyond the doctoral program to the department as a whole.

I’ve tried the “one at a time” approach before, and I’ve tried to find the “one best tool.” Fruitless; both of those (see e.g. this nearly empty rundown garden…) So, I decided to go “all in” and build an online community that’s multi-faceted. I’m taking my cue from this post about building a knowledge ecology. That is, I’m using a variety of tools with no clear idea where I am headed… I know that post is about an individual’s knowledge ecology rather than a collective community, but I think the advice applies to what I am trying to accomplish. So, here’s what I’ve done:

Department Facebook group – if Facebook is good at anything, it’s community. I know that many of our students have Facebook accounts, so I’m partly trying to meet them where they are with this group page. I envision the Facebook group page as a space for interaction, both social and professional. We’ll list events here, make announcements, etc.

Department Twitter account – I can count on one hand the number of faculty and/or students associated with our department that have Twitter accounts. But, Twitter is a fantastic way for those outside the department to become connected to what is happening within the department. For example, whenever one of our new Ed.D. students publishes on their blog, it is automatically broadcast through the department Twitter account. Now, anyone (any where at any time) who follows our Twitter account is alerted to the blog post and can choose to comment and engage with our students.

Diigo group – I’ve named this our doctoral group, but I’d welcome any student in our department (or outside…) as a member. I regularly bookmark sites/articles relevant to the work of educational leadership, and now, by adding them to this group, I’m curating those resources for the members.  But, I shouldn’t be the only curator and I don’t have to be; that’s the beauty of “social bookmarking.”

Ed.D. blog – we have three new cohorts of students in our Ed.D. program. As part of our assessment of their learning, we are asking all of the students to maintain a digital portfolio using WordPress. Part of that digital portfolio is to be a blog page where students reflect on their learning. Purposefully, there are no minimums or guidelines with respect to the blog. Students were told to post to their blog as often as they feel moved to do so. I aggregated all (currently 38) of the blogs into this single blog using FeedWordpress.

I’m working to integrate these tools and build in purposeful redundancy. So, for example, the Ed.D. blog auto-posts to the Twitter account (I’m working on getting it to auto update to the Facebook group…). I also use the Diigo group to bookmark some of the articles I share via Twitter and Facebook. I don’t expect everyone to adopt all of these technologies. In fact, I want students and faculty colleagues to be able to find the tools that work best for them; this redundancy, it seems to me, makes that more of a possibility.

Early returns are not great. I did manage to get 21 students to join the Facebook group, but only a couple have responded to anything I’ve posted so far. One of my newest colleagues wrote on the Facebook page “I tend to use my facebook for personal reasons…I don’t envision using facebook to do more work, sorry!” (In her defense, she’s a brand new hire who doesn’t technically start until the fall semester and she doesn’t have the context from which the Facebook group idea surfaced…but, still…). A good month or so after working with the Ed.D. students on their portfolios (with associated blogs), only a handful or so are actually blogging. And, nobody is commenting on the other posts. One of the Ed.D. students has (appropriately) pushed back by saying, “…We have an aggregate blog that will divide conversations between two places, in effect replacing the “one stop shop” aspect of Blackboard’s discussions or Facebook” and “…listening to so many channels is both confusing and frustrating.” Ouch!

Alright, then, let me have it. It’s early, but what am I doing wrong? Got any good “gardening” tips for me?

Creative Commons License photo credit: garryknight