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An adoption strategy for social software in education

As a starting point, let's consider Suw Charman's article from Corante, March 6, 2006: An adoption strategy for social software in enterprise. How could this be adapted for education? What follows is an abridged version (stress added) ready for editing by educationalists. You may also want to read some success stories.

Suw Charman's article and its edits (raw notes from the session underneath):

Experience has shown that simply installing a wiki or blog (referred to collectively as 'social software') and making it available to users is not enough to encourage widespread adoption. Instead, active steps need to be taken to both foster use amongst key members of the community and to provide easily accessible support.

There are two ways to go about encouraging adoption of social software: fostering grassroots behaviours which develop organically from the bottom-up; or via top-down instruction. In general, the former is more desirable, as it will become self-sustaining over time - people become convinced of the tools' usefulness, demonstrate that to colleagues, and help develop usage in an ad hoc, social way in line with their actual needs.

Top-down instruction may seem more appropriate in some environments, but may not be effective in the long-term as if the team leader stops actively making subordinates use the software, they may naturally give up if they have not become convinced of its usefulness. Bottom-up adoption taps into social incentives for contribution and fosters a culture of working openly that has greater strategic benefits. Inevitably in a successful deployment, top-down and bottom-up align themselves in what Ross Mayfield calls 'middlespace'.
Fostering grassroots adoption 
This approach centres around identifying users who would clearly benefit from the new software, helping them to understand how it could help, and progressing their usage so that they can realise those benefits. These key users should:
  • be open to trying new software
  • be influential amongst their peers, thus able to help promulgate usage
  • have the support of their managers

Users who are potential evangelists should be identified at every level of management, not just amongst the higher echelons, or amongst the workforce.

1. Identify key user groups

The first step is to identify which potential user groups within the Local Authority could most benefit from using social software.
  • What needs do these people share?
  • What are their day-to-day aims?
  • What projects are they working on together?
  • What information flows between them, and how?

Initial teacher education institutions are one key user group that would help adoption in the longer term. Their involvement from the start can help legitimise the teaching and technology proposed (cf. University of Strathclyde, Edinburgh (MFL), Glasgow (MFL and Primary).)

It was suggested that buy in from the technical support side might be helpful in some instances (where there is support for innovation generally) but should not be seen as essential in the early stages, particularly if they are likely to object. Consideration should be given to the educational benefits rather than potential technical problems - the latter can always get switched on / coded up / sorted out, if the educational chiefs or large number of adopters see the benefits.

2. Identify and understand key users

Once you have identified key user groups, you need to know which users within that group are both influential and likely to be enthusiastic. Then consider how social software fits in to the context of their job, their daily working processes and the wider context of their group's goals.
  • What specific problems does social software solve?
  • What are the benefits for this person?
  • How can the software be simply integrated into their existing working processes?
  • How does social software lower their work load, or the cognitive load associated with doing specific tasks?

Ideally, key users will be 'supernodes' - highly connected, in contact with a lot of people on a daily basis, and heavily involved with the function of their department and the transfer of information within the group and between groups. This may not be the group executive, but could well be his PA or a direct report. Frequently, people's supernode status is not reflected by official hierarchy.

In education there are already strong links to explore: look at bringing on board alliances that are already in existence. Use student structures already in place, too, such as student councils. How do students participate, how do they bring change into the system? Get them on-board and involved in the process and demonstrate the value of the approach and engage with the key stakeholders.

This is the point where practical issues such as access might be considered. It might seem late on in the process, but with the understanding of how these technologies can help reduce workload and improve learning there is more 'ammunition' to help convince those blocking services, sites or technologies. If there are hardware or software procurement issues now might also be the time to show the benefits in relation to the cost.

3. Convert key users into evangelists

Training in the form of short informal sessions (face-to-face or online) and ongoing on-demand support are the basics for encouraging adoption. Too much training or too formal a setting will put users off, and is usually unnecessary.
More important is that the information gathered in steps 1 and 2 are communicated to key users. They need to understand:
  • What their own needs are
  • How those needs are going to be met by the software
  • What the benefits are of using the software
  • How they can integrate that software into their daily routines

This requires face-to-face, personalised sessions which can't happen unless steps 1 and 2 are successfully completed. The aim is to convert key users into evangelists who can then help spread usage through their own team, encouraging the people they work with to take the training and use the tool themselves.

It also important in education to involve the community, especially the parents and students. "Parents expect a certain kind of education" which probably doesn't concord with what social software offers. It is important that they can see tangible benefits themselves (if they are students) or for their children.

This is where concrete examples or good practice where success has been met by traditional (summative assessment) standards - convince the old guard that technology can serve their aims, even if the route is different.

As more 'trainees' become 'evangelists' , it might be worth considering a wiki allow everyone to participate and contribute – a network of involvement.

4. Turn evangelists into trainers

Evangelists may find that it is in their own interests, having adopted the social software, to encourage their colleagues to also become competent with it. A minority of evangelists (and it only needs to be a minority), will also find it in their own interests to train their colleagues themselves.

These evangelists should be trained further and given the support and materials they need to become trainers themselves.
The advantages of having evangelist-trainers are immense:
  • They understand the day-to-day needs and working processes of their colleagues far better than an external trainer can
  • They can communicate with their colleagues more easily, in the same language
  • They have the opportunity to provide effective training on a far more informal, ad hoc basis
  • Given enough support themselves, they can then support their immediate colleagues

5. Support bottom-up adoption and emergent behaviours

Training and support should not be limited to named groups, and should be made available to all users. 'Volunteers', especially, should be encouraged. The most influential people in a wiki or blog community are not those with official status but those who engage most enthusiastically. For example, wikipedia has about 90,000 registered users who have edited at least 10 times since they joined, but the majority of work is done by about 5% (4500) of these users. (Stats approx. for Nov 05.)
If people start to use social software in an unexpected, innovative, or informal manner, this should also be encouraged. If a user begins by putting their team's coffee rota on the wiki, for example, this will help them understand how the wiki works and what benefits it brings.
Management support 
As well as supporting bottom-up adoption, it is beneficial for there to be top-down support, but that support has to be based on openness and transparency. Managers and team leaders must trust their staff to use the tools correctly, but they must also be forgiving if mistakes are made. There is always a learning curve associated with any new software, and some people find social software daunting because they are scared of what they perceive as a high risk of public humiliation.

All this helps avoid what has traditionally happened when the 'official' or paid-up member of staff responsible moves on - there is a grassroots appreciation of how the technology can work and benefit others, a whole set of helpers and enthusiasts to fill the gap left by the original organisers, for example. If something is imposed, then it is received differently from something that is chosen.

It is important that management do not see their role as 'managing' the technology but fostering and supporting it. The difference is subtle but vital - managing too closely has been seen in the past as micro-managing or meddling. Once grassroots adoption is apparent management should, indeed, take a backseat role.

Managers and team leaders should:
1. Lead by example
By using the tool themselves for team- and department-wide projects, managers can encourage their colleagues to also use social software. By being active, showing subordinates how the new tools can be used, and demonstrating the benefits, manages can play a valuable role in fostering adoption.
In the software industry, this is known as 'eating your own dogfood', and it is essential in order to build trust, interest and understanding.
2. Lead by mandate

If the manager makes clear that this new tool is to be used for a specific process or task, it can help foster adoption and encourage reluctant users to learn how to use the tools. For example, managers can mandate that all meetings be documented on a wiki, with agendas written through collaboration and minutes being published as soon as the meeting is over, or that monthly/weekly update reports be made on a blog or a wiki instead of in a Word document or by email.
Key to leading by mandate, however, is that the manager must also lead by example. If one of his team puts a document on the wiki, but the manager comments on it by email, that gives conflicting signals to the team. Managers must be clear about which tool they expect people to use, and must use that tool themselves.
Arrive at a position where not using is more difficult than using!

3. Lead by reminding

Managers can also increase usage by reminding colleagues to use new technology instead of old, e.g. when a colleague emails with a document to be proof-read, the manager can reply with a request to put it on the wiki.

4. Ensure there is adequate support

Managers must accept that their staff may require support, and they must be willing to allow staff to take time out to do training. They must also ensure that they have access to ad hoc support, so that problem can be solved quickly - it is important that there is someone tasked with 'hand holding' through the initial adoption period.

5. Ensure personal and business benefits reflect each other
Management plays a key role identifying and communicating the business benefits of social software adoption. When users understand these benefits (e.g. reducing email volume, speeding up projects, improving productivity, encouraging innovation), and see that the business benefits are in line with the personal benefits, (everyone likes to get less email) they will have greater confidence that the software is worth their own investment.

In education, one of the biggest challenges is encouraging teachers and students that reading each other's work is beneficial and important for development and innovation. Unless we are 'doing' something (i.e. not reading) then it appears a 'waste of time'.

Understanding time-scales 
In large companies with thousands of users, it is impossible to give everyone face-to-face training, but even with online screencasts* and help documents, it takes a significant amount of time for adoption to take place. Having a clear adoption strategy, and ensuring that the correct key players are identified and 'converted', helps to speed up the process, but it remains a fact of human nature that it takes time for people to become comfortable with new technology, new ways of doing things and, most importantly, new cultures.
The cultural aspect of implementing social software in enterprise cannot be underestimated, and it is the hardest aspect to overcome. It requires time, patience and understanding, but given those three, it too is a temporary obstacle.

Remember what your goals really are 
Adoption isn't a goal in and of itself. Lots of people use email an awful lot, but that doesn't mean that it's being used well. Think about what your ultimate aims are; make them discrete, measurable and attainable. Go for 'reducing occupational spam', for example, rather than 'improve communications'. Measure your email usage before you start, monitor it whilst you adopt, and report back regularly so that people can see the progress that they are collectively making.

Wikis are a very powerful tool within enterprise, but like any other IT project, it takes thought and planning to ensure successful adoption.

Grassroots approach – teachers set up their own groups out with the organisation and bring practice back in. This experience can result in proposals that are far stronger as based on experience. This approach can include quite senior people.

Stakeholder approach – identify why individuals will benefit at a person by person level integrating into working practices.

Analyse the situation – the tension between agreeing in principle and feeling confident to put something in place. ‘Classic; sales techniques may have something to offer here in understanding how to promote change.

Step changes can occur if media becomes involved.

Promote reflective practice amongst bloggers.

Start on a closed system that feels safe for teachers – there can be a feeling of not knowing the audience and lack of confidence to risk take.

Identify the limiters – often teachers in schools and in LEA powerful people who are uninformed.

Are primary schools the best breeding ground for blogging initiatives? Collaboration comes naturally.

Explore the opportunities of transition between phases.

Start with community and youth groups rather than schools – a more natural starting point to build interactions.

Encourage ownership of learning experience – teacher and pupils together.

A safety blanket required so that individuals feel secure enough to take a risk and fail.

Blur the barriers between teaching, learning and research – model through reflection on own practice.

Talk about the new literacies – teachers and pupils.

Places to start in a hostile environment:

1. youth or community group
2. small projects first - the individual class (safe)
3. older students supporting younger ones
4. ground in good teaching practice