Tag Archives: support

Gwella CAMEL Report

I was invited to attend and give a presentation at the Gwella CAMEL event which was held in Cardiff  University yesterday (10th November) on the topic of Learning Environment Reviews.


CAMEL (pdf)  (Collaborative Approaches to Management of eLearning) was a project originally funded by HEFCE in 2006 through their Leadership, Governance and Management Programme (LGM), led by JISC InfoNet in partnership with JISC, the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) and the Higher Education Academy.

Continue reading

Case Study: Moving to Web 2.0: Part 2: The Online Social Network

Update June 2010 :
This is the second part of a three part series of articles detailing a case study that I undertook in 2008 as part of a research project into social media and online communication and was originally published on my own personal blog Ffynnonweb which continues to undertake a journey across the changing online landscape, observing and chronicling developments in social technology and noting how they impact upon online communities – with a particular focus on opportunities in education known as ‘technology enhanced learning’ (TEL).
Julia Ault

A full list of all the posts in the social media research project can now be found on this page Social Media Research: JA

Please also read:

to gain the full picture…

We have discussed in the post Which Online Social Network? how online social networks use the ‘viral expansion loop’ as described by the Ning CEO, to attract new members and this viral expansion brought me to Ning itself.

A colleague had been introduced to Ning by his University, which had created an online social network there as a contact method for its distance students and he subsequently decided that it would be a suitable platform for a project he was about to undertake. This friend then introduced me to Ning.

In order to fully investigate and evaluate the Ning Networks as part of my research into online social networks, I created my own social network – initially as a test bed and a ‘sandbox’ to play around in. I already had Facebook and Myspace accounts and had created accounts in a variety of other social media platforms at around the same time to assist with my general research and get fully involved in the Web 2.0 platform.

From time to time, one’s leisure and study activities converge and that is how this project emerged. At exactly the same time as I was having the difficulties with the forum community and looking to move on, I was also conducting my general Web 2.0 research when I was struck with the idea that I could use my embryonic network for both purposes.
It would provide a new home for those ‘Chiggy’ refugees who had also become disenchanted with the discordant atmosphere prevailing in the forums and the Change Management process involved in the move from Web 1.0 forums to Web 2.0 online social networks and the attendant other new social media, could be observed and documented as a case study for this research project.

I knew from my previous studies of change management that the upheaval would be a considerable challenge for many of the members of the old forums because quite a few of them were fairly new to the web and computers in general and had only recently mastered the art of forum posting. I didn’t realise at that point though, just how difficult some people would find the new system and how hostile they would be towards the differences, but more on this later.

I was unsure of the best way to tactfully initiate the change process, because I knew that I only wanted to invite certain members of the private forum that I had formed bonds with and not others that I did not particularly like. I also wanted to avoid awkwardness with the founding members, because I knew they would not want to leave the forum. I decided to send a private message to all ‘chosen’ members setting out my reasons for leaving and explaining what I was trying to do. I was rather worried that people would have negative connotations of research in terms of experimentation and mental images of rats and mice in cages, so felt it was better to play down the research aspect.

In so doing, I had forgotten the important lessons learned when studying the Hawthorne Effect which is the proposition that people generally perform better if they feel involved and important. In research terms, it means letting your subjects know that they are valuable to your research and then they are more likely to co-operate willingly and enthusiastically. This glaring omission on my part proved to be quite disastrous in a way that was not anticipated at all and perhaps really should have been.

Therefore, this private message mentioned my research project, but also spoke about feeling personally undervalued, wanting to move on, having found a new home for the group and that we could all have some fun away from the negativity of that forum. Crucially in view of later events, the message also stated that some members of the forum were not being informed because I felt that they would disrupt the harmony of the new network and it would be better if they were kept in ignorance of its existence.

The fact that the new online social network was somewhat embryonic and that the job of the group members as research subjects was to go in, try everything out and report back to me on their findings whether positive or negative was not sufficiently stressed by me, because I made the rather foolish assumption that this would be completely understood and as obvious to everyone as it was to me.

Naturally, I now realise that things are never as obvious to other people as they are to you and that you need to explain clearly and without ambiguity exactly what it is you are expecting of people, to avoid any confusion or misunderstandings.

David Drennan1 said that “The reactions of employees to any event will be favourable only if it matches or exceeds their expectations.” Therefore, the group members who were being asked to participate in the research project needed to know exactly what to expect and perhaps even more importantly, what was expected of them in this new venture. This patently was not the case, because expectations were raised when the message was sent out inviting members to participate in an exciting new challenge and have ‘lots of fun’ in the process.

Unfortunately, the actual network itself fell so far short of expectations raised, that the negative reaction of the group was considerably greater than it would have been if they had been expecting something strange, different and embryonic, knowing that their role was to make sense of it and report back on their findings.

Professor Drennan goes on to say two more things regarding expectations: “Where an announcement will fall short of expectations; either improve the content until it does match expectations, or take time to reduce expectations to the level of the subsequent announcement.” and finally: “Preparing employees for unwelcome news i.e. moving expectations in a negative direction, requires time and sensitive handling.”

Had this excellent advice been followed by me, much of the initial disappointment and dissatisfaction may have been avoided or at the very least, minimised!

The first few members seemed a bit bemused although not totally hostile at that point, but one of them got the hang of things pretty quickly and had customised her page, added photos and started to go round to other members’ pages leaving comments on their comment walls. She then began to send messages to me via the private message system, which, it must be said, was rather basic and a bit difficult to master, so I was extremely impressed and asked her if she would like to help out and become an administrator in the network. I had managed to pressgang my son and other members of my family into joining the network but they did not really know any of the ‘Chiggy’ group, so it was a real bonus to have someone who both knew everyone and had quickly grasped the rudiments of the network on my side and I was very pleased when she agreed to do so. The next day, I sent out a few more invitation messages including some via Myspace.

A few months previously, a Big Brother housemate – who had been a Myspace user for some time prior to going on BB – began using Myspace ‘friend’ bulletins to communicate with her supporters and this had led to an influx of people in our ‘Chiggy’ group joining Myspace to add her as a friend. We all added each other as friends and this offered us an additional private method of communication. It was because so many of our group had joined Myspace and some had even joined Facebook, that I had been fairly confident that they would be able to cope with the Ning online social network just as well.

Throughout that first day people continued arriving in dribs and drabs and although many expressed confusion, most people managed to set up their pages and start hesitantly chatting via their comment walls. This was the only level of discussion that was taking place at that time although a main forum and some groups for the housemates and Big Brother had already been created prior to opening. Member numbers were growing satisfactorily although quite a few people merely joined without posting and I was contentedly pottering around when I was made aware of the fact that the founding members of the private forum were unhappy with the way I had selectively invited some members and not others to join the new network and a rather unseemly war of words took place culminating with those who had joined the network being accused of merely being guinea pigs in my experiment.

Unfortunately, this had a marked effect on the group. Many members felt stung, disloyal and uncomfortable at being labelled ‘guinea pigs’. This was doubly ironic, because having played down the research aspect, the Hawthorne Effect of feeling special and valued was not able to counteract this discomfort at feeling used and experimented upon.

Sadly, I had seriously underestimated the strength of loyalty felt by group members towards the leaders and had made the fatal mistake of appearing to be attempting a ‘coup’ without ensuring that I had the total backing of the ‘rebel faction’ so to speak. I had tried to steer a middle course between breaking away totally and forming a splinter group and keeping both venues operating without all group members being completely in the picture. With hindsight, this was obviously a recipe for disaster. If I had been more selective with the recipients of the message and only sent it to known dissenters, this would have no doubt proved to be more successful. We would all have quietly left the forum leaving the founders with their own loyal supporters group and the subsequent ramifications would not have taken place.

Thus, after the first rather stressful weekend in the new network, I decided to take stock, have a look around and see who was left.
There was a definite undercurrent of confusion about the new surroundings, even amongst those members who were generally favourably disposed to the new group and the move away from the forum as the following snippets from the comment walls on various pages show:

During the first week I realised that although around forty people had joined the network in the initial tranche, six of those people were members of my own family who had joined at my behest (but would probably only be occasional posters) and at least eighteen others were known ‘legitimate peripheral participants’ in other communities. It was somewhat unreasonable to assume that they would all suddenly change their ‘modus operandi’ overnight and become prolific posters. Five members who had initially been active participants stopped posting completely after the drama of the opening weekend and I assumed that they had left and returned to the forum. Six more members ceased posting after a week or so, but did not return to the forum. Their current whereabouts are still something of a mystery but they are probably posting on myspace, facebook and other private forums. I have subsequently learned that several more private forums have been created by some of these members specifically to discuss the media activities of particulasr housemates and this probably accounts for the missing members.

Therefore, if the network was going to thrive, it needed an influx of technically able, less single-focus members, preferably a little younger than the BB group, to add some dynamism and youthful enthusiasm to the proceedings. I hoped that some ‘new blood’ would breathe more life into the place by creating groups, starting forum discussions and so on. I decided to utilise my social networking skills and reach out to my student friends on Facebook. This resulted in seven more members joining in early April. I suspect that the timing of my invitation was a little unfortunate, coming as it did in the middle of exam revision, dissertations and assignment completion, which is why this trawl did not yield better results. To the credit of those who did join however, they did make an effort in joining in and contributing as these further extracts from my comment wall illustrate:

Questionnaires were sent by email to each individual member on 15th April and out of 49 questionnaires sent out, 13 were returned. As this was only designed to provide a snapshot of members’ views and wasn’t intended to form the basis of a quantitative study, a series of fairly open questions were asked about members’ attitudes to the new social network…whether they had contributed and if so in what way..(commenting, discussing, adding media, customising their pages) what they liked, didn’t like, how it could be improved upon and so on. I thought that if enough responses were received it might prove possible to undertake some statistical analysis on the data, but in the event the response rate was so low and so uniform, that this exercise would have been statistically worthless. The 13 respondents were family, students and those few members who have remained ‘Key Contributors’ to the group. All of whom responded that they liked and enjoyed using the social network and had contributed in all the ways listed. No responses were received from any members who had ceased contributing or had only ever lurked. This was of course completely unsurprising, because most people are reluctant to offer negative feedback unless under the cover of anonymity and even then, it is often a struggle to elicit sufficient response as to render the data meaningful.

It is now fairly obvious that most of the Big Brother supporters have drifted away and are probably unlikely to return. I had originally assumed that because I knew that many of the BB group members posted in more than one place on a regular basis – Myspace, Facebook, several public and private forums to name but a few, they could add the new Ning network to the list without too much difficulty. I knew that a small sub-group of members wanted to leave both the private forum and them main public forum anyway, so expected that they might spend more time in the network and had also thought that if a reasonably large number of members all spent a small amount of time in the network each day, this would keep the activity levels up and would encourage further participation by others.

Several years’ worth of experience in forums and communities should really have told me that this desirable state of affairs is quite rare in all but the busiest and most popular communities and that most are kept afloat by the sterling efforts of a few committed members or Key Contributors. When even these few stalwarts give up the ghost and move away, the forum/network/community simply falls apart.

This is now what has happened with the Ning network created for the research project. Although new blood was brought in when the BB group decided that the network wasnt for them, a combination of factors resulted in these people also drifting off and the network has all but died at the present time.

See Part 1: The Community for details of the community and the background to the research project.

The aftermath of the project and lessons learned are discussed in Part 3: Aftermath and Conclusions.

1 Drennan, David. (1991) ‘Communication and Employee Motivation’, Personnel Management.

Update June 2010: A full list of all the posts in the social media research project can now be found on this page Social Media Research: JA

Case Study: Moving to Web 2.0: Part 1: The Community

Update June 2010 :
This is Part 1 of a three part series of articles detailing a case study that I undertook in 2008 as part of a research project into social media and online communication and was originally published on my own personal blog Ffynnonweb which continues to undertake a journey across the changing online landscape, observing and chronicling developments in social technology and noting how they impact upon online communities – with a particular focus on opportunities in education known as ‘technology enhanced learning’ (TEL).
Julia Ault

A full list of all the posts in the social media research project can now be found on this page Social Media Research: JA

Please also read:

to gain the full picture…

When I was deciding upon a suitable topic for my dissertation, (extracts from which can be read in other posts on this blog) I decided that a rewarding area of research would be to investigate the social side of the web and to attempt to prove my theory that social communication online mirrors social communication offline and has done so from the very early days of online communities right up to the latest revolution in online social networks. That the internet has in effect come full circle with the new emphasis on people, user generated content and social communication but that online communities have remained the same, it is merely the platforms they operate in that have changed.

Online Communities may be defined as follows:

  • Communities of Purpose – members are trying to achieve a similar objective.
  • Communities of Circumstance – generally more personally focused.
  • Communities of Interest – united by a common theme or interest but whose members may know very little about each other outside this shared interest.
  • Communities of Users – beginning to be developed by some of the more innovative business networks to engage with their customers in a more informal, interactive way than had hitherto been the case.
  • Communities of Practice – perhaps the most well-known and researched in academic circles – these are communities of people who are engaged in the same profession, vocation or ‘practice’ – they facilitate professional exchanges which may also add value to offline networks.

The initial motivation for undertaking this particular project was the desire to move a splinter group of an existing online community of interest from a Web 1.0 forum to a newly created online social network. The decision to move to a social network on the new Web 2.0 platform rather than another Web 1.0 forum, was made because it was instinctively felt that the members of the current forum who were principally interested in the social science of observation and analysis of behavioural patterns, albeit through the 24/7 observation of the housemates in the television show Big Brother via the TV or Internet Live Feed, would also be interested in and embrace the enhanced social aspects of the Web 2.0 software. It was expected that change management issues would be of great significance at all stages of the move and it was decided that this would be a rewarding subject for in-depth study.

The Case Study.

The story ostensibly began in the summer of 2007 with the launch of the reality TV program Big Brother UK, but had its roots back in 2003 when I first joined a Big Brother forum on a large public website.

Initially, I contented myself with what has been described as ‘Legitimate Peripheral Participation’ (Lave and Wenger)1 which, in the world of online communities, is more colloquially termed ‘lurking’.

I watched the programs on the TV, subscribed to the 24/7 Internet Live Feed from the Big Brother House and read the threads in the forums where members discussed and analysed the housemates’ actions and behaviour. After a little while, I felt sufficiently confident and knowledgeable to begin to join in these discussions and moved from a ‘lurker’ to a ‘newbie’ – literally a new poster in the forums. Over the years, I increased my level of participation through every series of BB, until I had become something of an expert on the subject and had raised myself to the level of ‘practitioner’ in the community where I was able to help and guide other, newer members of the forums and became a ‘Key Contributor’.

The diagram below that was designed for the Lurker Project, illustrates the three types of people who may be found in an online community.

When I was not absorbed in Big Brother, I was developing a keen interest in the Internet and the web and set about increasing my knowledge by creating, designing and developing websites, whilst also becoming fairly proficient in the creation of web graphics. This interest in web graphics led me to open my own graphics website and I began to write tutorials and build up a large collection of resources on the subject. Gradually, the resources and the tutorials broadened their scope to include more general topics related to web development and the Internet in general. In this way, I became particularly fascinated by the new Web 2.0 social media that was beginning to make its appearance on the internet and had already begun to dabble in some of these areas by the summer of 2007 when Big Brother was launched.

Many members of the BB forums were absorbed by the turbulent relationship of two of the housemates in that season – and a number of us began posting regularly in the ‘XXXX’ thread throughout the summer and autumn as we continued to follow their media activities outside of the BB House. In the ‘post-XXXX’ era (after the relationship between the two housemates had ended acrimoniously with a ‘Kiss and Tell’ story in the Sunday newspapers), followers of the relationship split into two camps. This led to a war of words ensuing in the BB forums (dubbed the ‘XXXX Wars’) and in an attempt to restore harmony to the general BB forums, moderators eventually forcibly split the two groups into separate Appreciation Threads, where supporters could converse and share information. Those members who had supported both parties continued posting in the joint appreciation thread. Unfortunately however, this thread was continuously ‘invaded’ by supporters of each individual housemate and was eventually closed.

The small nucleus of remaining ‘XXXX’ supporters thus found themselves metaphorically ‘homeless’ and I started a new ‘refugee’ thread in a general forum to allow us to chat quietly amongst ourselves, away from the warring factions. After a short time though, we were ‘discovered’ and the previous discordant atmosphere was replicated in the ‘refugee’ thread. The moderators had no choice but to close this thread as well and we were advised against creating any more similar threads for obvious reasons.

At this point one of our group members contacted us all via private message to tell us that a new private forum away from the public website had been created for us to use. Membership of the forum was by invitation only and this was to be limited to our small ‘XXXX’ refugee group.

However, it very quickly became apparent that invitations were being passed on to virtually everyone who had ever posted in the Big Brother forums about either housemate.
Naturally, this soon resulted in the disharmony that had been such a problem in the BB forums being transferred to the new private forum. There were some major differences however, because the public forums are very heavily and anonymously moderated with miscreants being summarily banned from the forums, either temporarily or permanently.

The new private forum consisted of several different boards catering for a variety of entertainment interests as well as just ‘XXXX’. Individual boards for both halves of ‘XXXX’ were created to ensure that members would not squabble amongst themselves as had been the case in the public BB forum. Unfortunately, the ‘one size fits all’ mentality of only posting in one single ‘on-topic’ thread on one board that the group had become accustomed to on the public BB forum remained ingrained into the psyche of most members of the new forum and they all clustered into the one joint thread and refused to move out.

The idea of posting in the one thread would have been perfectly fine if membership had been restricted as originally envisaged. The fact that a more diverse group of people had joined caused problems from the outset. I likened it at the time to a large family wedding when a number of family members who do not really get on with each other are herded together into a crowded room and forced to co-exist. One is fortunate if several fights have not broken out by the end of the evening!

Anarchy was threatening to take over due to this ‘family wedding’ atmosphere, so I offered to help out. I had operated several similar forums on my own websites in the past and thought that I could easily take some of the pressure off by running the administration control panel and undertaking some moderating duties in the forum. What I failed to realise and this only became clear to me much later on, was that my general approach to the group as a whole was completely at odds with that of the founding members and that my offer of assistance was only accepted out of desperation. With the benefit of hindsight, my intervention, far from being the cavalry turning up to save the day as I had rather naively and optimistically hoped, merely placed a sticking plaster on a deep wound that actually required major surgery to allow the healing process to take place.

The group that formed over the shared bonding experience of following the fortunes of ‘XXXX’ was a somewhat idiosyncratic, extremely diverse collection of people although the majority of members were females between the ages of 35 and 65. Many of these people were highly opinionated and became incredibly passionate in their devotion to and defence of one or other of these housemates. Perhaps because two of the housemates remained in the public eye for longer than is normally the case, the supporters group also stayed together longer, and deeper friendships were formed.

This goes some way to explain why so many of us moved across to this forum and why so many of the members continued to squabble and attempt to settle old scores when they got there. They had been restricted from doing so in the public BB forum under the threat of a lifetime posting ban – the management style there was very authoritarian, with members being treated in a similar manner as employees on a production line having no say whatsoever in the process. Threads were summarily closed, posts removed and entire chunks of conversation deleted if they became contentious. Forum moderation is anonymous and autocratic with little or no right of appeal.

On reflection, I can now see that most people moved to the new forum with a sense of release and a feeling that they would be afforded ‘freedom of expression’ as one member succinctly put it, without the draconian moderation of the public forums. They did not want to be moderated, organised and controlled and revelled in the new freedoms. However, with freedom comes responsibility and I think it was widely expected that people would use these new freedoms sensibly and responsibly, without any real need for management or supervision. Unfortunately, some members took full advantage of this relaxed atmosphere and this was when anarchy began to take over. I set about attempting to impose some rules and regulations and this had the sticking plaster effect as described above, for a short time.

Meanwhile, some people continued to flout the terms and conditions on other public forums to the point where they were banned for life from posting in public forums. A few members got round this by creating new online personas, but others did not and were forced to decamp permanently to the new private forum.

One fascinating fact about online personas is that they are often (but not always) quite different from the person’s real offline personality. It has been observed that extrovert personality types are less comfortable in an online persona than introverts, perhaps because they need to be seen and heard and are used to being the centre of attention. Introverts by contrast, find it easier to hide behind a computer screen and develop a much more aggressive, lively or passionate persona online than the one that they exhibit in the real world. I can only conclude that this must be the case with some members of the XXXX group, because if they exhibited the same aggression and combativeness offline as they did online, they would all either be high-powered CEOs running multi-national companies or part of a criminal underworld! The fact that most have ordinary jobs and families and are probably nice, mild-mannered folk generally, lends a certain credence to the above argument about on and offline personas.

As the atmosphere in the forum worsened, my role amounted to little more than a daily routine of fire-fighting with no back-up. Finally, things became so bad that I decided that it was ridiculous to spend all my free time doing something that was supposed to be enjoyable, but had become unpleasant and was making me unhappy. It slowly dawned on me that I was being over-worked, under-valued and used for my technical ability, but that I was not really wanted in the role I was performing. I knew then that it was time for me to leave, but had got so used to spending all my time with some people that I had grown quite fond of, that I wondered if there was some way that this friendship could be continued in surroundings that were more conducive to fun and enjoyment.

This is when I had the idea that I might be able to combine leisure and research in the form of a new online social network.

See also Part 2: The Online Social Network for details of the move and Part 3: Aftermath and Conclusions.

1 Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.

Update June 2010: A full list of all the posts in the social media research project can now be found on this page Social Media Research: JA