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Thursday, 5 July 2012

Gaining Consciousness - How the Social Web Opened us up to Ourselves

Posted by Andy

Gaining Consciousness - How the Social Web Opened us up to Ourselves

This is an article I wrote for the excellent University of Sheffield Learning Technologies Blog
Anyone who has ever played the classic computer strategy game Civilisation knows, once you discover the technology advancements to circumnavigate the virtual world it is only a matter of time before you discover a new island or continent. It is this discovery of new lands that invariably leads to new opportunities, riches and occasionally threats. The ability to explore in the game is only possible by developing and utilising a collection of technological advancements, such as mathematics, fishing and a compass. The development and employment of these tools then leads to even more technologies and once that first boat lands on a foreign shore more connections can be made and more resources found. 


At The University of Sheffield we’ve utilised the technologies available to us such as social platforms and those afforded by social media sites such as Twitter and Google+ to build up our own learning and research civilisation. These technologies are now being used to build a more coherent organisation, not unlike the technologies that connected the various civilisations in the aforementioned game and in real history.

uSpace (a social networking platform from Jive), Google+, Twitter, Google+ Hangouts and LinkedIn are just a few of the tools we have access to that have brought together like-minded people from across the four corners of the campus together. Before then the vast majority of staff worked within their own departments and faculties, with connections being sporadic and fragmented, vary rarely did anyone travel to the distant shores of another department or faculty. There are of course exceptions to that with mostly core staff transcending departments, usually those focused around technology, library or support services. 


From my own perspective, I’d worked at the University for 11 years and for the most part I did not operate outside of my department, or certainly had connections that permeated its 4 walls. Connections were limited to the physical location that is Regent Court and opportunities to discover good practice happening elsewhere was down to the odd expedition to University of Sheffield and national conferences and seminars; again there was not much of a legacy from these trips. These expeditions usually resulted in returning with copious notes and leaflets, most of which were added to the growing pile of paper and folders from previous trips on my desk, again there was not much of a legacy.



Pre-2008, cross-departmental communications were limited to emails and mailing/discussion lists and events- again there was little scope for expansion or more importantly a legacy of connections. These experiences led me to believe that going beyond your department was not something people did, we all stayed in our own bolt holes, doing our own thing. It was while we were doing our own thing that there was a shift in the Web in that it suddenly became more social. Of course it had always been social with discussion lists, instant chat and forums, but then uSpace came along. uSpace brought so much of what a lot of staff at the University had been using for some time: blogs, wikis and discussion lists, and placed it into one convenient central hub. Even though uSpace wasn’t the prettiest, most modern looking platform, it did serve a big purpose in that it started connecting people. It not only allowed staff to see who else was out there, but what they were like, what they were doing and what they thought. From having limited connections across the University I was suddenly finding myself talking to people from across my own Faculty (the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health), the Library, CiCS and the English Department. I was able to find answers to questions, see what great ideas people had and what they were working on, and see how they were using uSpace.

My boat had just landed onto the main continent, and luckily for me the natives were friendly!


The initial connections that were made were invariably informal, very much unlike most initial connections I’d made in person across the campus. They were in essence no different to ice-breakers or the coffee-break at a seminar or workshop. Even better still, some of these electronic connections soon led to meeting these colleagues face-to-face. The connections I made with people I didn’t know, but shared the same ideas with, were very easy to take forward as we already had a common ground whether it be learning, teaching, social media, the Web or technology. 
'Earth from Mars'
Image from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center,
under a CC BY 2.0 license
Once these contacts were made and often taken forward to actual meetings it led to more connections and once I became aware of a person and made a bridge it would lead to another connection. Since uSpace’s inception in 2008 I have made dozens of such connections, which in turn has given me an excellent contacts list covering a wide variety of useful topics. Hopefully in return I’ve become a useful contact for these people. It was one of these connections, Mark Morley from CICS, that introduced me to the term PLN, personal learning network - something I’d built without really realising it. I also came across the idea of the Hive Community- that at the University we are a hive in that we all work together with one goal, to make the University of Sheffield excellent in what we do, whether that be research or teaching, that by being aware of what was happening elsewhere on campus  we would pick up on good ideas and practices and in turn achieve that greater goal for the organisation.


It was not just uSpace that allowed this growth of connections across the University. Twitter, LinkedIn and academic tools like ResearchGate enhanced the network. These tools opened up to me the wealth of knowledge being shared across the campus and much further- I was now aware of the world beyond my continent. This new world offered a constant stream of knowledge that was no different to a communications wire where I dipped into and out of the chatter.


Next up in 2011 the University moved part of its platform over to Google Apps - opening up Docs, Hangouts and Sites. Yet it is Google+ and Hangouts that are helping proliferate the growth of cross-departmental idea and practice sharing. Google+ was different from uSpace for one very big reason, that the networks were already there, many of us already knew about each other. So contacts were made much quicker than before and the stream of wonderful ideas has picked up where uSpace left off. uSpace has not gone, but it’s becoming old money and it’s shame that it was not used by more staff and students in its heyday, but it did serve one very big purpose; it showed a core of staff what was possible within the academic setting. The tools we had all being using on the fly had set the foundations for many of my colleagues to move onto a Google-hosted platform.


Google+ has been picked up quicker by more staff than uSpace was but there is still a long way to go for most. Much of the chatter and information is still being created by the usual suspects but that will change in time. The thing Google+ has over uSpace is that the dialogue has been opened up beyond the University, as external Google+ users have the ability to interact with us - the possibilities for collaboration and networking are potentially endless. 


Questions need answering:

What is Google+? Why should I use it? I have a Facebook account and don’t want another social media presence. I just don’t have time to interact with these tools. There is too much information for me to filter. They are just a reason to muck about and not do ‘proper’ work.

To answer these questions fully would take some time as we all do different jobs, so an answer that works for one person is not applicable to another. As with most social and Web 2.0 technologies it is a simple case of ‘horses for courses’. 


In short, here are a few ideas and suggestions with regards to the above questions - they are by no means comprehensive.


Why should I use Google+? There are many reasons to use Google+: to stay abreast of what your colleagues are doing, to see what resources they are finding useful. It is a great way to communicate with your peers or students using Google Hangouts. It allows you to create events and advertise them within your circles. It is a social network you can use with your students - in case you want to keep Facebook a personal presence and keep your students out of there. It opens you up to the world and make connections beyond the University. 


I have a Facebook account and don’t want another social media presence. That is a tough one to answer as Facebook is without the most popular social networking site and getting people to post in two places can be a lot to ask. I treat facebook as a personal presence and don’t refer to work there as it is the place where most of my friends are right now. Whilst Google+ is where all of my colleagues are and where a lot of my peers outside of the University frequent, I treat it in the similar way to that of Twitter. I accept that some staff use Facebook for work, but in essence the switch to Google+ is an easier one. After a while using both and others such as Twitter, you get a feel of what to post where. There is no reason to believe that Facebook or Google+ will be here forever, they could be gone within a decade, we have to accept that shift does happen.


I just don’t have time to interact with these tools. This statement applies to pretty much all technologies I employ and promote. Google+ does not require a lot of time investment, just a few minutes here and there to share and collect resources. It is an alternative to email as is Twitter, as a communication tool it is very much with the adage ‘horses for courses’
What you put into Google+ and other such social sites you get back in the long run. As an information professional I find that it is not always a case of knowing the answer but knowing who will know it. That is the power of the professional social network.



There is too much information for me to filter. This is a perennial problem for everyone, with much debate on the issue of information overload with some arguing that it does not exist, whilst others say it has been about since the dawn of civilisation. Nevertheless most people find staying on top of all their information a case of fire fighting, so the idea of another information stream can be off-putting. Yet this is a stream that offers two way communication with your peers that builds a long-lasting legacy. Again, only by using these tools can you start to gauge what is best for you, simply not engaging in our line of work is not sustainable for all of us.


Image from James Jordan, through a
CC BY-ND 2.0 license
They are just a reason to muck about and not do ‘proper’ work. Yes they can be, but so can the telephone, email, the Internet, so on and so forth. They are just another form of communication, but one that potentially creates an archive of knowledge, a pattern of dialogue, an informal alternative to the formal. Yet the way such tools work can reveal much about a person. Facebook and Twitter are a prime example of how people use it to bully, abuse and hang their dirty washing out in public. They do this for various reasons. Using these tools correctly requires a good degree of information literacy, and once we learn how to use them we can engage with ourselves and more importantly our students better, whilst hopefully passing the good practice on to those who don’t know how to properly use them. No one can stop you from using the like of Google+ or Twitter to mess about, but they can potentially see you.

The more people that use the tools we now have at the University, the better, as in the long run it will make us more aware of this huge, changing, living organisation we are part of. It will bring new ideas to our own tables, make new connections that will begin to stretch beyond the University and beyond our time working here. Technology drives much of what we do and how we work these days: harness it correctly and it will pay dividends for all of us.

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