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Combating professional isolation: Connecting professionals via social and technological networks

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One of David’s tweets pointed me to this blog by  George Siemens. He discussed the use of social and technological networks in education.  Reading his analysis, I realised that the very same principles are at work when trying to connect professionals with the aim of keeping them informed of new developments and learning from each others setbacks and successes.  

Paraphrasing George it is fair to say that online networking opportunities have transformed personal and professional lives. They nothing short of revolutionsed the way we learn, communicate, and interact with others. While some sectors have embraced these new opportunities, there are still many areas and professionals who either have yet been exposed to such networks or who have not had opportunities to make use of them in their line of work.  

Mirroring education in schools and Universities, their professional development events tend to still follow the traditional expert-centred template. Seminars, workshops or conferences are structured via a speaker system in which participation in one form or another is either encouraged or not. Either way, they remain a rather closed and localised way of learning and engaging.  

While face-to-face interaction and human contact are key factors in learning and (personal as well as professional) development, every internet user has access to experts and scholars irrespective of their geographical location or difference in time zones. To quote George Siemens, professionals (like or as students),  

“are not confined to interacting with only the ideas of a researcher or theorist. Instead, a student can interact directly with researchers through Twitter, blogs, Facebook, and listservs. The largely unitary voice of the traditional teacher [or any expert, speaker, etc.] is fragmented by the limitless conversation opportunities available in networks.”  

Using such networks allows for the ultimate tailoring of each person’s personal or professional development. While they allow for a bespoke approach for each individual user, they need to be set up, maintained and guided by someone with a fairly good understanding of the respective area of interest (i.e. the teacher in the education context).  

George suggested seven roles a teacher plays in a networked learning environment. Once more, I will stick closely to his portrayal of these roles, while applying them to the context of connecting professionals.  

These are the roles he suggested:  

1. Amplifying
2. Curating
3. Wayfinding and socially-driven sensemaking
4. Aggregating
5. Filtering
6. Modelling
7. Persistent presence


Getting professionals engaged in any undertaking has more changes of success if information is accessible with a minimum of effort required to retrieve and forward it. Twitter, Buzz and similar services provide a means of doing just that. Each tweet has a maximum of 140 characters (roughly three lines), forcing the creater to convey information  in a concise manner. Within seconds a piece of information can be evaluated for its relevance. Usually, the tweet is accompanied by a shortened URL, which makes more comprehensive information accessible with only one extra click.  

Amplification comes in by retrieving this information and then re-tweeting it, thus making it available to others linked to the person sending the tweet. Information can be tweeted and then re-tweeted by the host of a network or by anybody else aligned to the network.  


The term curator is derived from the Latin words curare and cura, whose meanings include attending to, taking care of, or taking responsibilty for. Once more I quote George Siemens directly to convey the relevance of this concept to teaching (as well as connecting professionals):  

“An expert (the curator) exists in the artifacts displayed, resources reviewed in class, concepts being discussed. But she’s behind the scenes providing interpretation, direction, provocation, and yes, even guiding. A curatorial teacher acknowledges the autonomy of learners, yet understands the frustration of exploring unknown territories without a map. A curator is an expert learner. Instead of dispensing knowledge, he creates spaces in which knowledge can be created, explored, and connected…The curator, in a learning context, arranges key elements of a subject in such a manner that learners will ‘bump into’ them…As [professional] learners grow their own networks of understanding, frequent encounters with conceptual artifacts shared by the teacher [network host or other members] will begin to resonate.”   

Wayfinding and socially-driven sensemaking

When learning a new skill or engaging with a  new medium or area of interest the amount of learning required often appears daunting. However, with each step the terrain ahead becomes more familiar, even though the odd dead-end or detour will be encountered. Professional networks, through their structure and member input, provide valuable sign-posting in initial familiarisation as well as the development of subsequent expertise in a given field. Networks facilitate this process by filtering information and by emphasising salient information.  


In the days before the emergence of tools like Google Reader or other aggregation services, interested individuals had to visit  a number of different hompages by organisations, journals, blogs, etc. to remain informed of new developments. Services like Google Reader offer and individualised one-stop platform for this purpose. Rather than visiting different websites, these websites are linked to Google Reader. As a result, one visit to the Reader contains all the new information available on the linked websites.  

A professional network has the potential to function in a very similar way. Within this network, relevant sources of information can be linked, displayed, discussed, and amplified.  


The above roles and functions of professional networks also help to somewhat safeguard its members from the danger of being inundated by information. In the same way as they collate relevant information, members’ also contribute to determining the boundaries of interest.  


In the same fashion as a network’s membership collectively determines the boundaries of interest, the collective but also individual members function as role models in various ways. George Siemens alludes to the idea of apprenticeship learning and the process of becoming in this respect. I think he was referring to Deleuze and his concept of apprenticeship.  

A couple of years ago, a colleague and I published a paper applying Deleuzian ideas to Action Research. Some of these application also hold true for professional networks. In the following excerpt I simply replaced any reference to Action Research with professional networks.  

Deleuze’s notion of an ‘apprenticeship to signs’ carries within it interrelated elements of meaning.   

Signs’ refer to the elements of the unfolding of events, both virtual and actual, with which the participants   

engage as part of their learning in a social or technological network. Learning is essentially concerned with signs.   

Signs are the object of a temporal apprenticeship, not of an abstract knowledge.  To learn is first of all to consider  

a substance, an object, a being as if it emitted signs to be deciphered, interpreted (Deleuze, 2000, p.4, emphasis in the original).  


The concept of ‘apprenticeship’ in this context does not mean ‘novice’ or ‘beginner’ in the conventional sense (although it may include that).   

As Deleuze in the quote above indicates, it refers to the educative aspect of being part of a network of professionals.   

An apprenticeship to signs embraces a necessary participative engagement with the substance of the network rather than   

‘bystander’ or ‘objective observer’ status.  Thus, as regards learning, it is not “do as I say”, but rather “do with me” (Deleuze, 1994, p.23).   

This relates to the minoritorian aspect of becoming the ‘friend’ of the problems discussed in the network through direct engagement.   

‘One becomes a carpenter only by becoming sensitive to the signs of wood, a physician by becoming sensitive to the signs of disease’ (Deleuze, 2000, p.4).   

Of course, direct engagement refers not only to participate but also to the overall management of a network.”  

The apprenticeship idea, particularly the modeling involved in learning, also plays a key role in Bandura’s social learning theory or in Roger’s innovation diffusion theory. Social or technological networks provide ample learning to learn from other participants in many different ways, either as active participant or passive recipient of the information and ideas addressed.  

Persistent presence

Well run and managed networks also provide a consistent presence for participants around the clock and without holiday or weekend brakes. As such, they provide information and access to other participants at any time. This constant availability provides flexibility but also reassurance as information is available as needed.  


Social and technological netrworks based on or guided by these characteristics should make it possible for almost all professionals to avoid professional isolation and stay up-to-date on professional matters and beyond. The challenge is to construct networks, which are attractive, useful, manageable and sustainable.




August 22, 2010 - Posted by | Behaviour modification

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