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Jason Downs teaches Strategic Management in the RMIT College of Business. Jason himself is an excellent strategist. For example he arranged with a campus coffee shop near to class, to provide 10% discount to students prior to attending a late afternoon workshop. Not only did attendance increase but it became another example of business strategy for the class. Jason kindly made himself available for the following interview.

Do you use Blackboard?
I use it for the intention for which it was probably designed. Everything is centralised around that one particular place so students have one place to get the info they need. But it’s not the only space. I have figured out ways to use all the other tools and bring them all back to Blackboard. There are lots of course announcements, email, learning materials and embedded videos which they probably use.

So you use it as a learning management system rather than as a learning delivery system?
Nearly all the learning happens in face-to-face workshops. Lecture slides are put up in advance as support materials. In the workshops is where we do all the work. We don’t use some of the features like discussion boards or blogging because from our point of view, there are about 300 students, and each workshop is unique. The learning is problem based and depending on how the students are going in the workshop shapes the what and how of teaching. The first class could be at an advanced level and then later another class needs more support. That is where Blackboard falls down as a mechanism to communicate on that personal basis, especially for the type of work we do industry and for real world problems. Running workshops is messy, intensive work and Blackboard doesn’t facilitate this type of learning all that well.

What other tools do you use?
Twitter predominantly. We also have a Facebook page. Students weren’t engaging on Blackboard. Facebook is more immediate in that the students may have notifications set up on their phones etc. Blackboard has too many steps to get to anything useful. Due to the nature of the real-world/real-time issues that we deal with, at any time the problems we are working on can change. I need to share/highlight changes as they arise and I can share quickly on to Facebook, Twitter etc. I also use as an aggregating tool RebelMouse. It can collate hashtags from any of my accounts, whether it’s Twitter and Facebook or Instagram and it sucks it all back to the RebelMouse site. And you can embed that back into Blackboard! Every time I send a tweet with the #stratman hashtag IfThisThenThat (IFTTT) pushes it to my RebelMouse page. As soon as it hits RebelMouse that gets mirrored back to a page I have built in Blackboard.

The beauty of RebelMouse is the metrics. It counts click-throughs so I can measure engagement. The Facebook page does the same sort of thing at a much more aggregated level. There are Twitter analytics as well.

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This gets mirrored back into the Blackboard environment. All of the links are clickable allowing the students to go straight to the article.

What do you like about Twitter?
What I like about Twitter is that it is short, sharp and focused. Because of the class hashtag (#stratman) and because I know it eventually ends up in Blackboard, it is a focussed conversation. As well, I can do a search for my strategic management hashtag and pull up all of my tweets over time. With Twitter search students don’t have to suffer me posting ‘lolcat gifs’. The aim is to make it friction free for students. They still have to click and look and think about it but they don’t have to go searching for the material. In terms of engagement back from students in Twitter there are only low numbers. I let students know about it on slides and announcements, but it seems they are reluctant to enter a conversation even though I would love them to do that.

Why do you think the Twitter engagement is low?
I don’t know. There are high levels of uncertainty – it’s in the nature of the strategy discipline. I think it’s about students having to have an uncertain conversation where they are not sure, and are looking for clarification. There is a social risk that they might appear “dumb” in public, even though not all answers are known and to be a good strategist means asking lots of questions for which you don’t know the answers. Partly that’s why I use the RebelMouse site to bring it all back into Blackboard. It’s a bit safer.

There are about 300 in my class. Twitter is used by between 10 and 15 percent of people in Australia. If I get 30 students on Twitter that’s good. Are they brave enough to tweet me something on a given night? The ‘rules of engagement’ needs to be negotiated constantly and that is done through social interaction. Sometimes students take it on and sometimes they don’t.

I promote a connectivist pedagogy in my teaching. By the time students get into third year, they may not have had experience of what this style of learning looks like. If they haven’t had exposure before they get to me its a big learning curve. It takes time to build a learning community. Often it takes time for me to contribute to my own Twitter learning communities (for example #phdchat when I was doing my PhD). All of it takes a while to negotiate what the ‘rules’ are. We don’t have the lead in time with semester timing and for students to learn to know how those relationships are appropriate.

The audience for the strategic management hashtag is the students. I also push posts to LinkedIn and a professional version of a Google Plus page, to show engagement with industry for future industry partners. For example this semester we are working with Red Cross Blood Service and it is important for them to know I have their interests at heart. A lot of good stuff goes out through my networks. I talk with Red Cross and they talk back on Twitter. Last weekend I did my first blood donation. I took a photo of me and my son going to give blood (to be clear, I was giving blood, not him). They wrote back and said thanks for helping save three lives. That engagement sits on my stream. On Monday I can bring up the stream in front of my students as an example of activity that can contribute to an organisation’s strategy. This will open up lots of conversation about what is occurring.

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For example, in the context of our #stratman students coming up with a ‘new’ strategy for @redcrossbloodau, one of the very early solutions the strategy students come up with is “better social media”. It’s shiny and they can see big numbers. I can use the twitter conversation between me and @redcrossbloodau as a way of showing how that actually works within a strategy of an organisation. We can then have a critical discussion about how, say, social media might be part of an overall strategy and how a company might want to use it. We can also unpack how effective it really is and how that might be measured in a meaningful way, and whether or not this activity contributes to an overall strategy or sits apart from or alongside it.

Other barriers to engagement may include that we are constrained by how we deliver our courses as face-to-face lectures and workshops; and the fact students are not used to being able to engage in an ongoing engaged asynchronous process. I tried to solve that problem through the Rebelmouse initiative, but part of the problem of keeping activity in Blackboard might mean that they don’t jump out of Blackboard to reply. I thought I was doing a really good thing there by aggregating social media into Blackboard but thinking about it as I talk, maybe I’m not.

I also need to mitigate risk, as much as I can and the related issue is around identity. These students already have personal social media identities. They are comfy amongst peers. Less so with a teacher. I have multiple social media identities for various purposes. I am not sure they would do that in the same considered way (however they might!). Perhaps that is why I am not seeing a lot of engagement. Maybe they don’t want the creepy treehouse teacher out there on Facebook!

Do you use any of the data or analytics with these tools to feedback into your teaching?
Yes and no. I have tried lots of different formats, changes of tone both personal and instructional. Because the engagement level is so low it is hard to gauge. With Facebook you are always challenged by their algorithms. The best penetration on a dedicated Facebook Page you can hope for is 10%. You can know 50 have seen a post but get no other info about who they are or their behaviour. That is the frustrating part of it. Those figures are ultimately useful to figure out whether it is worth the effort. The great thing about the interaction between Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc., IFTTT and RebelMouse is that the system takes over and does it all for you. If I had to hand curate and deliver to the students, I don’t think I would get enough feedback/stats/insight to continue, but the Rebelmouse stats allows me to see which media is working and which isn’t.

The other thing I am very conscious of is the RMIT social media policy; and that the copyright of all my teaching materials belong to RMIT. All of my course materials sit inside Blackboard, but I suppose students could still post it to wherever they wanted to. I am conscious to be seen to protect our/RMIT’s intellectual property by not putting it freely on Facebook or Twitter. So there is a whole lot of rich sharing aspects about social media I am therefore not using. For example, I have an extensive workshop guide containing a set of icons that I use as a visual language. During the workshop I may put images up to represent certain concepts. What would be useful would be weekly delivery of the relevant bits of the workshop guide via social media so they could download it as they see it. However, that would then make it a public document and my teaching materials belong to RMIT – I can’t freely share them widely. All I can do is tell the students it is in Blackboard. That creates a lot of friction for students. It would make it so much easier for students to put it in social media but I am not allowed to.

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(Thank you to @MeganJMcPherson for this idea of a ‘visual language’ – JD)

What other considerations do you have about using social media as part of your practice?

So I do use Blackboard as a management system. For learning, that design of the management system is less and less relevant in today’s environment. It is based on design decisions that were made “pre Twitter”. If we think about the workshop guide that I’ve built, why can’t I make it Creative Commons and put it up as, say, a Google Doc and invite students, and industry experts to contribute? It seems that the intersection of professional requirements around copyright attribution/intellectual property ownership and the rise of the social web is not a neat one. So from that perspective it could be seen that the organisational social media and intellectual property policies might retard the effectiveness of social media usage, and potentially the effectiveness of my version of a connectivist pedagogy. Bringing it all back into Blackboard solves that particular problem, but as I mentioned before, doing so introduces significant levels of friction for the students and anyone else who might be interested in what we are doing and who might want to contribute to the learning experience.

If we take a step up and look at my own pedagogy I identify very strongly with Stephen Downes and George Siemens’ theory of connectivism. Part of the theory is that students conduct their own personal learning network for learning. If you think of it as a metaphorical network, nodes within that network could consist of objects, knowledge (data points), people – whatever. Each learner’s network is uniquely constructed. A node could be as simple as a tweet or as complex as a lecture guide. The way students put nodes together informs their meaning of the work. For example, when I create data points and make them available as nodes in their network, students might realise if they check into Facebook or Twitter that they could use that data to build their network and therefore they my learn a whole lot more. This might lead to a realisation that learning doesn’t just happen in the classroom- it’s a lived experience. I can’t at the moment make those nodes more valuable by putting specific learning material that is copyrighted to RMIT into the public social sphere. I have to put stuff in Blackboard. Nor can I deep link into Blackboard and that is frustrating.

Since Joyce’s Workshop I have been working more on my own personal learning network. There are 3 of us at RMIT who went to hear Joyce independently, Megan McPherson, Terry Johal and myself. We already knew each other through Twitter. I know and follow Joyce on Twitter as well. Terry reached out to us all and said we could be a bit more smart about how we intersect with this stuff and think better about our practice. We’ve had one meeting so far. It’s an interesting way to think about what our identity looks like and how we are using some of these tools. We share backwards and forward and adapt feedback for our individual practice. We’ve even give each other homework! I have an audit to do about my social media usage in private and professional life and check if this is the best way to go about things. Rather than just letting it emerge I really need to think again about how I do it all. We each bring different competencies and skills. Terry teaches into small cohorts predominantly in first year subjects. I teach into massive cohorts of final year students. For example, there are approximately 900 strategy students in Singapore – each semester. We have different experiences that can be applied to each other’s practice. Often I find myself saying, “ah yeah, of course I should be doing that!” So I have started employing social media in a different context and a much larger scale. Having Megan there is also of great benefit – she has already experimented with this stuff extensively and she brings a “curatorial mind” to the process. I learn lots from both Terry and Megan – some of it face-to-face, some of it online via social media.

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There are some practical problems with using Twitter in the classroom I would like to see addressed. Dr Sheree Gregory teaches into the strategy course as a guest lecturer. I live tweeted her lecture; but I can’t live tweet my own lecture.

I haven’t worked out a way of doing that to also enables me to interact with students. We just haven’t got to that stage yet. I would love to be able to provide backchannelers in the course staffing!

If anyone has some cool ideas about how I can improve the student learning experience with the use of Twitter (or other social media tools for that matter), I’d love to hear them. You can tweet me. Let’s have a conversation.
Jason is known as Dr JD on Twitter. To find out more about how social media is used at RMIT, see social media at RMIT University. You can also read RMIT University’ social media policy.

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