When the Network Doesn’t Work

As part of their cumulative project for US History, my eleventh grade students are responsible for teaching a lesson to the class based on a topic of their choice, including assigning and assessing preparation work for the class. Because it’s the first time most of them have been responsible for teaching, I ask that they submit a lesson plan for their class before they teach it. They post their lesson plans on the class blog, and I tweet and email teachers and pre-service teachers asking for feedback on the students’ lesson plans.

Last year, 13 students got two or three comments each on their lesson plans. The feedback was useful to students as they prepared to teach the class. This year, we got one comment total.

I’m not angry or even particularly frustrated. I’m mostly curious. I feel certain that others have written from a more academic perspective on the question of network participation, but I just wanted to record a few informal observations.

At the end of the day, my students aren’t any worse off than they would have been if I wasn’t digitally connected or if I hadn’t asked for comments. They still got feedback from on their lessons before they taught them. What I do feel a bit badly about is the fact that I mentioned to students that other teachers would be commenting on their work. (Be careful what you promise.)

The network* is a gift economy, not a market one. Sometimes the gifts come in different forms than what you’re hoping for or expecting. This year, one of Dean Shareski’s students, Stacey Chomey, was kind enough to record a video for my students describing the way she goes about planning lessons. I also got a number of responses when I asked for advice for students before they wrote their lesson plan. I think both contributed to the quality of the first drafts of my students’ lessons being of higher quality than last year.

The higher the barrier to the participation, the less likely you are to get participation, unless people have powerful motivation to get involved. For this project in particular, I suspect that the fact that the lesson plans were uploaded as Word docs to a blog likely kept some from commenting. It’s not a huge thing, but I think it likely made a difference because my query posted as a Google doc received a number of responses. Next year, I’ll ask students to post their lesson plans in a Google doc or as a blog post to make commenting easier.

It might have helped to formalize an arrangement further in advance with someone who teaches (pre-service) teachers, so if they were willing, they could have made commenting part of their students’ participation in class. The informality of participation is one of the great things about digital connections. Drop in when you can, give what you can. But there are some situations, especially where students are involved, that it might make sense to be more deliberate.

So what do we do when the network fails us or participation isn’t what we’d hoped? And what do we tell our students?

*That term still makes me cringe a bit because I feel like it risks mechanizing or impersonalizing the human beings I interact with, but that’s another issue for another post.

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7 thoughts on “When the Network Doesn’t Work

  1. Hey, Meredith. I appreciate this post and have had several similar experiences with the network. I rarely receive a response when I ask for assistance or help, and I’m not sure what to make of it. These days as I juggle a new position and a large family, I’m not as active online. Perhaps that contributes, but I know that even when my Twitter addiction was at it’s pinnacle, folks rarely responded to my requests. It’s weird that some members of the network have more social capital than others, and the fact leaves me…well, perplexed.

    I’m not certain how much the medium plays a part. I never saw your original request, but I’d have been happy to respond regardless of how the items were shared. Others might feel differently, I don’t know. Regardless, if I can ever be of assistance, let me know. I don’t have time to watch the stream much these days, but i see every mention & DM. I hope you are well.

  2. Hi, Meredith,

    I have a couple of thoughts. Philip’s comment about social capital is something I’ve wondered about. I’ve observed that highly regarded ed-techies — a regard I share– who are proponents of transparency and openness on the Web also speak highly of the power of the network to support and assist. While I agree that this is one characteristic of Web culture that’s a hold-over from the early days of the Web & Internet, I don’t think it’s naturally occurring.

    These ed-tech leaders also have a visibility affords them a high rate of return on requests for help, which is a useful model for the rest of us. Yet, when there’s repetition of the just-ask-“the”-network message, I think there are a couple of things going on, not all positive. One may be an educative effort, to pass on some of the traditions of the early Web. The other may be an implicit, perhaps unintended, promise that “the” network will deliver. I don’t think “the” network delivers. Friends & colleagues we’ve developed in different social media spaces do, when they have time. If we’ve developed these. When they have something that might help.

    Which brings me to my second point. Teachers, practicing and pre-service, have tons of kids they’re already teaching. It’s hard to take time to respond to a request to support more kids. Time is a factor for others, like me. I started to respond and immediately realized I did not have time to do a decent job. Maybe next time, you and your students could devise a survey elements you deem as priorities in the lessons? I would have done a survey in a heartbeat.

  3. I think the comments you have received are good ones, and I’d only add that I’ve noticed something intriguingly similar in the edublogosphere: as more and more have joined and become contributors, there is less and less of an ability to monitor or watch even what our friends do. In a hierarchical organization, we can all be paying attention to the purposefully limited information that is pushed down to all of us, but in an increasingly flat world we come to realize how often what we work on and publish isn’t actually noticed by very many. Many of us envisioned that as the numbers of participants grew we’d somehow keep up with it all, but more likely we come to some acceptance that we can’t see everything that’s out there, and the less passionately we try to do so…?

  4. Thanks for your kind offer of help, Phillip. I hear you on the not getting responses sometimes. I think the power of the “network” is often over-sold. The internet provides amazing resources for connecting with people, but it doesn’t assure that all those connections happen in the way that we’d like/hope.

    Karen, I think you hit the nail on the head here:

    The other may be an implicit, perhaps unintended, promise that “the” network will deliver. I don’t think “the” network delivers. Friends & colleagues we’ve developed in different social media spaces do, when they have time. If we’ve developed these. When they have something that might help.

    That’s a concern that I’ve had about Twitter “shout-outs” for a long time, and why I purposefully caution people that Twitter doesn’t just magically “work” like that. You have to cultivate those relationships.

    I agree that a survey might have generated more responses, but I was more interested in engagement on a deeper level with the lesson plans, and offered the Google doc as a way for people to offer their suggestions if they didn’t have time to comment on the lesson plans. I think what you’re pointing to is the idea of multiple ways to participate based on one’s time constraints, and I certainly agree with that.

    Steve, I wonder if this:

    as more and more have joined and become contributors, there is less and less of an ability to monitor or watch even what our friends do

    is as much a function of trying to define more and more people as friends to the detriment of being able to connect on meaningful levels with the friends we already have. I find in both virtual and offline spaces that it’s hard, but important, to acknowledge that there are people doing really interesting and meaningful work, but that you can’t interact with them all. It potentially comes across as elitist, especially to people who are just beginning to participate in digital spaces, but I think if you don’t acknowledge that you risk giving a short shrift all your friends/connections/colleagues.

  5. I think Seth Godin hits on a related point here in this video… that what matters most is real relationships… people who would actually take action on your behalf. He talks about “fake networking” and follows with those of most value in your network are those

    “…. people out there who I would go out of my way for and who would go out of their way for me…That’s what you need to keep track of. And the way you get there is to go out of your way for them and by earning the privilege of one day having that connection worthwhile.”

    I’m beginning to see that more and more. Some people who I initially thought (hoped?) would bring reciprocal value to my network have not… and it’s hard to say why, exactly. I do think that the busier you get, the greater the tendency can be to draw on your network with less time to reciprocate. And, with thousands of followers, how easy it is to miss important shootouts for help, advice,… Even with my relatively small number of people that I follow, I have a column in TweetDeck that I primarily pay attention to that represents only a small fraction of those that I follow. It’s all I can manage. To get into the column that I really pay attention to, it requires high relevance and relationship.
    For those that are higher profile, their “fan base” is large enough that their network will always deliver.

    So, now, I’m much more interested in the real relationships that can be forged … and you’re right… it takes work. It’s not magic.

  6. Great conversation here. I also believe that our ideas of reciprocity need to change. Our experiences in physical spaces were based on “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” and it was easy to see how the gifts and sharing worked. Online it’s obviously less visible. While we may not always get the kind of feedback and direct commenting we’d like, I’m also guessing we’re getting more people interacting and reading our content but may not be aware. Not that that solves this particular situation but I think it’s important not to expect direct interactions.

    As Steve points out, the real relationships and friendships are often what makes people stick around and thus their view of the network is often bias because of that. We so often confuse networks and communities which I think is the real problem here. Community, to me, is much more aligned to the real relationships whereas the network is much more unseen and malleable.

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