Book Review: Networked

This time last year I was writing a book review about a book that I think all folks working in educational and instructional technology should read (in addition to any other number of fields). The book? Networked: The New Social Operating System, by Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman. I must confess, I had already picked up the book to read during my late summer vacation. As I read part of the book in August, and knew I wanted to assign it to my doctoral seminar (and I did make it a last-minute addition), I was asked to do the review. I readily agreed to the review since I was already reading and enjoying the book. I read the remainder of the book while traveling in Thailand during early September, which made the book even more interesting to me: away from my family, my home, my local friends and colleagues for the week but still online no matter where I was, I found myself relying on my online network more for interaction than I normally do.

A year later, I find myself referring this book to others again and again. I had the opportunity to hear both authors speak about networked individualism recently at a conference (IR14), and the experience reminded me once again of why Networked is such a relevant and important book.

With the permission of the publisher, I’m sharing my review here. The full reference for the review is:

Dennen, V. P. (2013). The making of the networked self. [Review of the book Networked: The new social operating system by Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman]. Educational Technology, 53(1), 59-60.

The Making of the Networked Self

Checked two personal and three professional email accounts, replying to and forwarding various messages. Tweeted a reminder to some students.  Followed URLs from a few other tweets and bookmarked two of them in Diigo – one for personal use and one shared with a class. Wished happy birthdays to four people on Facebook. While on Facebook, shared a photo of my daughter with family and friends and looked at someone else’s wedding photos. Updated a profile with additional contact information. Phoned my husband once and texted him twice.

These are the activities I engaged in between 8 am and noon on a recent morning, during brief breaks from writing. When I take a break, a top priority is checking in and interacting with my network, which consists of family, friends, colleagues, students, and a few people I have never met, at least not in the flesh. Each of these people serves a different purpose in my life. Some know each other, and others do not. Some live around the corner, others live halfway around the world. Regardless, I connect with them all, and most of them are likely no more than a few degrees from being connected with each other. I am a networked individual. We all are.

Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman tackle the phenomenon of the networked individual in their new book, Networked: The New Social Operating System. Specifically, they situate networked individualism within larger social and cultural trends, exploring the nexus of three revolutions: social networks, Internet, and mobile. The authors are well qualified to assess these trends given Rainie’s experiences as the Director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and Wellman’s work as a sociologist who focuses on social networks. It is their thesis that these revolutions have come together to push networked individualism into prominence. Networked individualism both reflects and affects the choices that we make every day about what we do, when we do it, and with whom we do it. It encourages us to simultaneously express ourselves, sharing what is unique about us, and align ourselves with others, finding points of commonality. We are not simply members of a group or community, but rather we are people whose identities are defined from a combination of our individual traits and our affiliations.

It would be easy to point to communications technology as the driving force behind networked individualism. However, Rainie and Wellman suggest that the tail is not wagging the dog in this instance. Rather, they argue that a variety of factors have led to a lifestyle in which Americans and Canadians have come to embrace both the technology and the dispersed yet interconnected collection of people they know or might come to know through their everyday activities.  In their argument against technological determinism, Rainie and Wellman explore trends that predate mass consumption of Internet and mobile technologies, such as car ownership and women in the workforce, showing how over the last several decades North Americans have increasingly expanded the geographic bounds of their relationships, spent less time with neighbors, and outsourced household tasks.  They tackle the concept of networked individualism in five realms – relationships, families, work, creators, and information – and by the end paint a comprehensive picture of contemporary North American life and how it got to be this way.

As someone who has studied both communities and networks and who has experienced the occasional struggle to distinguish the two, I found the concept of networked individualism timely and refreshing. The term community is grossly overused and misinterpreted in today’s culture, applied to people who may have no more in common than an account on the same social networking site or a receipt for the same product. One reason for this word choice is clear: “community” sounds warmer and welcoming than “network.” However, Rainie and Wellman give us what feels like a satisfactory compromise between the terms in networked individualism, highlighting both the manner in which everything and everyone is rapidly becoming interconnected and the ways that some individuals are thriving in this system. As networked individuals, our worlds are not full of cold, uncaring bits and bytes. Rather, for those of us who learn how to navigate and cultivate these networks, the reward is often the presence of a caring, just-in-time safety net with the manpower and expertise that we need or, failing that, the ability to locate and activate manpower and expertise swiftly.

Maintaining a network, which requires managing relationships, information, reputations, trust, social capital, and boundaries, is a regular task for networked individuals. Rainie and Wellman suggest that this work, along with the time it consumes and the benefits people may reap from it, is in itself neither a good nor a bad thing. It simply reflects the reality of the times in which we live. Successful networked individuals are able to find the sweet spot between networked life and the offline world. They learn how to maintain their network and engage in online reciprocity without allowing it to overwhelm other parts of their lives.  Online and offline worlds are largely integrated for these people.

In contrast, people who chose not to participate in maintaining their networks may miss opportunities for interaction, support, and advancement. Hopefully they do so as a matter of personal choice rather than from an inability to participate effectively in networked life. The Johnson-Lenzes, whose story is shared in the first chapter, learned first hand as they experienced medical and related financial struggles that a network of both nearby and far-flung people with a variety of relationships and expertise can provide the support needed in an emergency and its aftermath. However, the time at which the emergency strikes is too late to build this network.

Rainie and Wellman note in their final chapter that the future is not predictable, but networked life continues to evolve. People will increasingly find themselves faced with issues related to privacy, information management, the ubiquitous presence of technology, and the growing integration of physical and digital spaces. There are various paths down which these issues might lead society, and the authors suggest a few of them, not all of which are appealing. I finished reading this book with the thought that it is incumbent on educators who are already savvy in this realm to help shape the direction of networked individualism going forward. As the authors state, “The foreseeable future holds the prospect that individuals will be able to act more independently with greater power to shape their lives, if they choose to do so and if the circumstances will enable them to do so” (p. 302). Educators can help people better understand the choices they may have and more easily find circumstances that will foster their success in a networked world.

Networked provides an engaging and accessible overview of the ways in which social networks, the Internet, and mobile technologies have converged to affect everyday lives. By synthesizing current research with stories and anecdotes from the lives of real people, the authors have opened up this field to new and inexperienced readers. At the same time, they make substantive arguments and insights that will appeal to those practitioners and scholars who have played an instrumental role in framing and studying the contemporary shift toward networked individualism.

Thoughts on online course design, teaching, and learning

I was recently notified — appropriately enough while at the e-Learn conference — that I have been selected to receive an award from my university’s Office of Distance Learning. This award, for Excellence in Online Course Design, will be made during National Distance Learning Week.

One of the award’s criteria involves being evaluated against the Quality Matters rubric. I’m proud to say that I met the criteria despite having designed the course without ever having reviewed them. But then again I teach instructional design, so that would (ideally) be the case, right?

As part of the award experience, I was asked to come in for a video shoot and answer some questions about my experiences with online learning. I believe there will be a video of the awards winners (and perhaps others?) playing at some point during the award ceremony.

I was provided with the questions the week before the video was shot. To prepare for the video, I sat down and typed out my answers to the questions. I enjoyed the process, which gave me a chance to really reflect on my own experiences. I’m not sure how effectively I hit these points on the video itself (I wasn’t reading my answers, but rather giving a live, unscripted response), but since I actually had my responses typed up I figured I might as well post them here:

How did you utilize the online course environment to engage your online students?

I focus heavily on communication and interaction in my online courses.

Although I don’t think the online and face-to-face classrooms should really be compared – they’re like apples and oranges – for me the essence of the face-to-face classroom has always been that it’s a space to work through ideas and engage with others. I want my online course environment to be the same kind of space.

I require students to interact with me and with each other through discussion. Together, we work through core concepts related to the course. We construct and deconstruct examples. We clarify muddy points, and intentionally muddy points that on the surface seemed clear. I require students to share work and provide each other with feedback. I communicate with them on the discussion board, taking the role of an expert co-learner. I share, I probe, and when necessary I provide extra bits of instruction.

I use bi-weekly synchronous sessions, which are recorded for those who can’t make it live, to give students the chance to interact with me in real time. Rather than giving a standard lecture during those sessions, I tend to speak about relevant current events, work through examples, or address misunderstandings or interesting tangents that pop up on the discussion board.

Note that I’ve not yet mentioned course materials. That’s intentional. In my view, course materials are just that – materials. They provide information, and give us a starting baseline for learning. They provide fodder for discussion. Some texts, graphics, or videos may communicate concepts better than others, and ideally I’d like to think that I choose or design (whatever the case may be) the best of them to incorporate into my classes. However, sometimes there is no “best” or “ideal” that is readily accessible. Also, “best” can, itself, be rather subjective and context-specific, and “not great” can often provide a superb launching point for discussion. So, whether the materials used in a class are the best or the worst, what matters most to me is the way that we use those materials in the class.

What is the most challenging aspect of teaching online? What is the most rewarding?

For me, the most challenging aspect is the silent students. I am, by nature, a communicator. In a face-to-face class, the students who do not speak much at least provide visual cues – body positions, glances, and gestures – that show how they feel and whether they’re paying attention, struggling to understand a concept, etc. Online, it’s much more difficult to differentiate the quiet student who understands the course material quite well from the disengaged student from the student who is struggling but fearful of saying something.

The other challenging aspect – and this may be magnified by teaching instructional design students – is what I call design laid bare. In other words, your course design is visibly posted from the start of the class in front of the students, where it can readily be critiqued and questioned. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It pushes me to plan my courses thoroughly and at times raises some interesting discussions of alternate ways in which a course topic might be taught online.

The most rewarding part of teaching online is getting to know my students so well and see their learning process unfold week after week, documented via our course interaction and communication tools. The discussion board is like a window into their minds in some ways. I get to know the students so well by reading their ideas in the discussion, and I believe strongly that the process of writing out their ideas – as opposed to speaking off the cuff in a synchronous setting – really pushes a deeper understanding of the course material for some students.

I also find that I’m more readily able to individualize courses for online students, or track them in groups with like interests. So, a class with 30 students who have interests in K-12, higher ed, and corporate learning can be split into conference-like tracks and have more focused discussions each week.

Finally, the biggest reward is when an online learning skeptic tells me that after taking my course he or she understands the value of online learning.

Please describe the project or course that was recognized for the award you’ve received (Excellence in Online Course Design)

The course is Mobile Learning, EME5077. In this course, student learn about the basic definitions, pedagogies, and technologies used to support mobile learning and the process to design mobile learning activities. Through the assignments, they get to design ebooks and QR-code based learning activities and create prototypes of a learning app.

Discuss some of your methods for designing your online course. How did organization and design impact the quality of your course?

When I design a course I focus on four main things:

  1. Alignment of objectives, course content, learning activities and assessments
  2. Opportunities for peer feedback and interaction
  3. Opportunities to interact with the instructor
  4. Consistency from week to week and assignment to assignment

Typically I create both a content roadmap and communications plan for the course.

The content roadmap helps me get an overview of how the content, learning activities, and assignments fit together and helps me determine the best sequencing for the course.

The communications plan helps me visualize the overall participation workload, the points at which students become interdependent for completing assignments, and the ways in which I plan to interact with the students.

In the Mobile Learning course, for example, I included:

  • weekly announcements
  • weekly discussions for most weeks of the course
  • bi-weekly synchronous sessions
  • student contributed “tech smackdowns” during some of the bi-weekly sessions
  • personalized pulse-check emails at the 1/3 and 2/3 points
  • peer critiques using VoiceThread

The key is to find the right amount of interaction and communication, knowing that students will desire and take advantage of it to varying extents and that it has be manageable or it cannot be sustained.

There’s also a small bit of my courses that I consider to be designed for serendipity or intentionally undesigned. I find this to be particularly important when teaching adult learners. In other words, I want to be prepared to incorporate my students’ interests and experiences, events and opportunities that arise, and current events into the class experience to keep it as up-to-date and relevant as possible. That intentionally undersigned element also keeps the course really interesting for me each time I teach it.

Did the design process cause you to rethink any strategies in your other classes?

Every course design and teaching experience influences the subsequent ones, whether face-to-face or online.

One thing I’ve clearly learned in the context of teaching online is the value of planning personal pulse-checks with the students. In a campus class, just as in an online class, students can feel isolated or as if they lack a connection to the professor. They may be shy about articulating the challenges or struggles they’re experiencing. My pulse-check emails invite students to share with me what’s working and not working for them personally. It takes far less time to do this than you might think. Most students indicate they’re doing fine and the conversation goes no further. The others, who say more, either provide me with positive feedback, which motivates me to keep going, or indicate areas where they need help or the course might be improved. Those messages open dialogues through which I can help students identify strategies that will improve their course performance or explain why the course is designed in a particular way. Sometimes they give me ideas for ways in which I might change course materials, activities, assessments or policies. I get far more useful feedback in this format than I do on end-of-course evaluations.