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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 | Leave a comment

Biophilia – A synopsis of the concept as presented in Erich Fromm’s ‘The Heart of Man’

I found a first edition of this book online for a good price and bought it. That was a couple of years ago. I finally managed to read it and it was an interesting journey back in time, both in zeitgeist (written and published during and shortly after the Pig’s Bay crisis and the threat of nuclear war) and psychodynamic theory.

Fromm is searching for the essence of mankind, the characteristic that defines humans. His take on this is that the basic position of man is to stand apart from nature due to his ability to be aware of himself and his consequential ability to be reflexive. These abilities separate man from nature and make him stand alone. Fromm refers to this separation as a contradiction inherent in human existence” (Fromm, 1964, p. 116). This contradiction is evident in two ways.

1) Albeit being an animal, man’s survival instincts are incomplete or not sufficient to survive anymore (they have become blunt). Man relies on speech and tools to survive and that makes him special among all other living beings (although this might not be quite true anymore today, as we discovered some animals using tools and know more about their communication strategies).

2) We are aware of ourselves and of the fact that we are mortal. In this sense, we transcend nature because we are aware of life itself (the animal is not, which makes it a part of nature).

His quest about how we deal with this contradiction in our existence leads him to the question of whether our action are based on free will or whether they are determined by nature and/or nurture. He brings this conflict and contradiction to the point as follows:

“Man is confronted with the frightening conflict of being a prisoner of nature, yet being free in his thoughts; being part of nature, and yet to be as it were a freak of nature; being neither here nor there. Human self-awareness has made man a stranger in the world, separate, lonely, and frightened” (Fromm, 1964, p. 117).

As a result, we strive towards overcoming our sense of separateness and to become one again with nature. Our attempts at achieving a sense of belonging, we either regress or progress. Regression leads us back to nature (i.e. Rousseau, becoming childlike or childish, the womb), to animal life (rule of strength, violence, etc.) and to our ancestors (religions, laws, etc.). Progression means to develop to become fully human and to regain the lost harmony with nature and to lose the terror of separateness.

Fromm explores humans’ ‘Genius for Good and Evil’ and our regressive and progressive paths by investigating the dimensions of narcissism (benign-malignant), necrophilia-biophilia and incestuous ties (absent – incestuous symbiosis). In their malignant or destructive expressions, he calls these three concepts the syndrome of decay. This syndrome encompasses all tendencies directed against life and finds its expression in necrophilia, narcissism, and incest. I have always been particularly interested in his concept of biophilia. Hence, I summarised the key aspects of biophilia, as well as its opposite necrophila, below.

Necrophilia or the love of the dead shows itself in sexual perversion or the ‘morbid desire to be in the presence of a dead body’ (Fromm, 1964, p. 39). However, it is more than that. A person with necrophilous tendencies is drawn to everything that is dead or not alive, including corpses, decay, feces, dirt. They prefer to talk about sickness, funerals, death, destruction, the past; they are ‘cold, distant, devotees of law and order’ (p. 40) and like the use of force. Necrophiles like everything that does not grow but which is mechanical. ‘The necrophilous person is driven by the desire to transform the organic into the inorganic, to approach life mechanially, as if all living persons were things. All living processes, feelings, and thoughts are transformed into things’ (p.41). He continues to provide example in a similar vein but I think the picture he draws is emerging.

The opposite to necrophilia is biophilia, the love of life, the attraction to everything that lives and grows. Preserving life and preventing death is one form of biophilia. Biophilous tendencies can be much more varied and tend to integrate and unite, to fuse with different and opposite entities (this starts on a molecular level but also includes sexual union). This productive orientation expresses itself in curiosity, preference of the new over the old and a functional rather than mechanical approach to life. For biophilia to emerge or be sustained, certain societal conditions need to be in place. Chief among them are the absence of injustice and the presence of freedom to create and innovate.

Interestingly, Fromm also had something to say about knowledge management: ‘Briefly then, intellectualization, quantification, abstractification, bureaucratization, and reification – the very characteristics of modern industrial society, when applied to people rather than to things, are not the principles of life but those of mechanics. People living in such systems become indifferent to life and even attracted to death‘ (Fromm, 1964, p. 59).

The concept of biophilia encompasses people searching for self-awareness, aspirations, and growth. Given the current emphasis on mindfulness in psychological therapies and beyond, it was interesting to rediscover that in the 60s, when this book was published, From was already repeatedly referring to Buddhism and the eightfold path leading to awareness to the good in man by discovering him/herself. Moreover, Fromm’s approach fits with the psychological, health, and economic theories for which I have the greatest affinity: Frankl’s Logotherapy and Existential Analysis, Antonovsky’s Salutogenesis and Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach.

May 8, 2010 Posted by | Behaviour modification, mindfulness | 3 Comments

Behaviour modification: Token economy

Token economies are used to motivate people to perform target behaviours and to dissuade them from engaging in unwanted actions. Participants showing desirable behaviours are rewarded with tokens, which can eventually be exchanged for actual rewards, called backup reinforcers.

Tokens as well as backup reinforcers can be earned by following specific rules or procedures about how to earn and lose reward tokens. This usually includes a list of target behaviours, the frequency of which are to be increased or decreased.  The type of tokens can vary from individual to individual to allow for the varsity in what motivates different individuals. They can be anything, ranging from symbolic gestures to physical objects.

Once a pre-specified amount of tokens was earned, they can be exchanged for one of a list of backup reinforcers. Backup reinforcers are meaningful reinforcers for the people involved, again, ranging from abstract to material rewards. The backup reinforcers are not individualised but generic to every participant. For more, much more information about token economies see Spiegler & Guevremont (2010).

For the most part, token economies appear to be used with (mainly groups of) children, adolescents or people with perceived mental health issues. In my opinion, this technique is underused in the healthy adult populations. It has great potential in areas like tertiary education or health promotion.


Spiegler, M. D. & Guevremont, D. C. (2010). Contemporary behaviour therapy. Belmont: Wadsworth, pp. 181-196.

March 26, 2010 Posted by | Behaviour modification | | Leave a comment

Behaviour modification – Chaining

Chaining is a series of successive shaping interventions used for the learning of more complicated behaviours. It entails shaping subsequent components of a target behaviour as well as linking the various parts.

Chaining can be used in a backward and forward steps. In backward chaining, the last behavioural step leading to a target behaviour is focused on first. Once this behaviour component is sufficiently shaped, the penultimate behaviour component is targeted, etc. Backward chaining does not always work as some complex behaviours, for example becoming relaxed,  necessarily need to go through certain processes in order to be achieved. Forward chaining does exactly this. The first component of a target behaviour is focused on first, followed by the second step, etc.

Example of backward chaining – Creating a blog

For example, you would like to entice someone to start blogging. Using a backward chaining approach, the first step could be to perform a task analysis. In other words, to break the entire process of blogging down into meaningful steps. This could be followed by a demonstration of how working through these steps will lead to the publication of a blog. Applying backward chaining, the learner could then be asked to type a welcome message in the edit field of a pre-prepared blog. You would only ask this person to write the sentence and then click the ‘Publish’ button. Once this step is achieved, you ‘reinforce’ or ‘reward’ that behaviour (i.e. praise for a child, or chocolate for me). Then you focus on the next step, for example, opening the editing window. If the person can do this, reward them for this step and the next (writing and publishing). Follow this through to the first step (whatever that is, from going online to registering a new blog).

Using this approach, the learner first receives a demonstration of the entire process and then works his or her way back from the final product or behaviour. The demonstration can be repeated as often as necessary as the learner will benefit each time by witnessing the step of actions leading up to the target behaviour.

Example of forward chaining – Learning relaxation training

Every relaxation training will encourage the trainee to follow a series of steps on the way to become progressively more relaxed.

For good examples of relaxation techniques, see

Examples of websites explaining chaining well: (This site includes a handy Chaining Data Sheet; its use needs permission from the author)

March 18, 2010 Posted by | Behaviour modification | | Leave a comment

Behaviour modification: Shaping

Shaping is a strategy used to positively reinforce individuals for exhibiting  closer and
closer approximations to a target behavior.This behaviour modification tool is most effective when used to increase desired behaviours. Once a SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound) target behaviour is identified, the target is compared with the  individual’s actual behaviours.

The gap between the actual and target behaviour is assessed and milestones are determined, which help to assess the individual’s progress towards adopting the target behaviour.  After reaching each milestone, the individual is given positive reinforcement in a meaningful way. It is important here, that only behaviour consistent with the newest milestone is reinforced.  Behaviour consistent with previous milestones are now longer reinforced because these targets have already been met. Behaviours exhibited by the individual are deemed ‘consistent’ if they are in any way interpretable as a variant of the target behaviour.

March 16, 2010 Posted by | Behaviour modification | | 3 Comments

Behaviour modification

I noticed that it has been a long time since I looked closely at behaviour modification techniques. Having looked through some books, journals and websites, I realised that I have forgotten a lot and that there is a wealth of information now available. Hence, I’ll try and get myself a bit more up to speed.

Although the following website is about behaviour modification in children, it provides a great way to start the investigation:

Citation: Huitt, W. (1994). Principles for using behavior modification. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved [date], from

Huitt makes a helpful distinction between

– developing a new behaviour

– strengthening a new behaviour

– maintaining an established behaviour

– stopping inappropriate behaviour, and

– modifying emotional behaviour

I’ll be mostly interested in strategies to help starting new behaviours and maintaining new behaviours.

March 15, 2010 Posted by | Behaviour modification | | 1 Comment