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November 17, 2009

Your New Best Friend, Social Networking in the First Year Experience (Part 2)

The following is the second draft slice (here's part one) of an upcoming curriculum supplement I am writing for Bedford / St. Martin's press.

Long time readers of this blog will recognize these ideas.  Swift Kick, and Red Rover, have been focused on social capital and engagement for sometime. As the overall curriculum comes together, we're tying all of the pieces into one framework. 

Your comments, as always, are highly appreciated. 

The Dance Floor Theory Engagement Model


Engagement is essential to progress at every level of the student success pyramid. If the student is engaged, then they will, at whatever pace they need, find success. Achieving engagement is a responsibility of both the institution and the student - it's a combination of the design and the learner.

Engagement as a term, and goal, is much more useful than other similar terms, like commitment or persistence, simply because engagement sounds fun. Engagement has a strong element of choice and exploration, where persistence has echos of discipline and drudgery. Engagement, as a goal, can be happily shared by a student.

Teaching students to be aware of their engagement, to expect it of themselves and to manage it to get what they want, is a very powerful addition to the standard curriculum.


An interesting way to explore the dynamics of engagement is by exploring the dynamics of dance floors. Dance floors and college campuses work the same way.


Imagine looking at a normal dance and rating the individual's engagement in the dance by their body language. Rate the engagement on a spectrum from three, meaning the most engaged, to neutral, meaning not yet engaged. (Where neutral is a friendlier way of denoting what comes below one.)


If you could hover above any dance floor with this rating system, you would  consistently see the "3s" clumped together in the middle and the rest forming this pattern:



Picture 27




This self segmentation is simple people stuff. People like to hang out with other people at the same level of engagement - "3s" with "3s" and "2s" with "2s" and so on. There is some natural friction between disparate states of engagement.

If you were to drag a "neutral" into a pack of "3s," the "3s" would attack, and try to get the neutral up to their level (probably freaking out the poor "neutral" in the process.) Most people will increase their engagement slowly, needing time to make connections and increase their comfort, competence and confidence. It rarely works to pop one person from a "neutral" state of engagement to a "3", but, crucially, "neutrals" will watch "3s" for inspiration, even while they get their next new move from the "1s" (because those look a little easier to pull off).

Everyone will likely be effected by everyone else, and the whole system, the whole dance floor, or the whole institution, will be judged by the collective average level of engagement. 

Though it might have been awhile, we’ve all been to good dances and bad dances. A good dance has all levels, but the average is high. At a good dance, a new person is likely to give it a go, just based on following the crowd's average. A bad dance is defined by a low average level of engagement. It's just not fun.  More people will leave a bad dance (and be less inclined to attend the next one).

If, as noted earlier, 60% of students at four year institutions never participate in college sponsored activities, we have a dance where 60% of the people present are not dancing. Our college campuses, on average, are not great dance floors. 

So how do we increase engagement? How do we turn a bad dance into a good one?  We shouldn't be surprised that students, like many of us at awkward wedding dances, look to alcohol as social lubrication, but there is a better way. 

If you ask one hundred people on the street, "What makes a bad dance?" ninety-nine of them will say bad music. They will blame the DJ. Just like students will blame professors or the activities department (as the analogous DJs on campus.) But yet, what I saw, all through junior high, was groups of friends forming circles. If the bond of friendship was strong enough, and the vibe was supportive, it didn't matter what the DJ played, that circle would go crazy to any song that came on.

In short, circles of friends trump bad DJs, or, put another way, social connections are more important than music.


While the DJ's music does matter, as does the professors' curriculum, focusing on social capital of students is a more effective method of increasing engagement and making a better dance floor.

Research on college campuses supports this. The 2006 National Survey of Student engagement put it succinctly: "The most important factor in student engagement is the connections between the students." The dance floor analogy gives us further subtleties. There are crucial patterns to the connections.

The goal is to increase the average state of engagement for the entire campus. We do this by moving one person, one level at a time. In short hand - the goal is simply X + 1.  

Picture 26



To help students maintain their engagement at every level of the success pyramid, education should design systems that use various technologies to provide dynamic assessment of engagement and interests to provide the following:


1) Relevant introductions to other students who are at a similar level of engagement. Neutrals to neutrals, 1s to 1s, etc.

2) Connections to students who share interests, at a slightly higher level of engagement (X+1), for a model and a new, accessible, peer group in which they can develop competence and confidence.

3) Visibility into the most engaged and most competent circles for inspiration.

These dance floor patterns of engagement are how people work. These successful engagement and learning patterns are how education has always worked. What is now new is that we now have accessible technology that can combine publishing, expression, automatic match making, and live individual and systematic assessment to optimize all of these processes.

This is the huge opportunity for social networking. Social networking in general, and the many varieties of web 2.0 services, now allow us to map, teach, and intentionally facilitate the social learning systems of students.

As students publish where they are at now - in words, pictures, or videos - systems can match them with other students who are producing similar content. Various search methods allow learners to easily find "people like them." Assessment can be based on live behavioral data already being provided by students. This new data allows educational stakeholders, faculty, staff, peer mentors, etc. to focus their energy where it is needed.

As students progress, they'll leave a record of their educational path for other students to follow, providing many +1 examples.

The most successful students will continue to publish their content online, where it can serve as an inspiration to an unlimited number of students simultaneously.

While it will take awhile for all of these broad goals to be realized in an experience as simple as an iPod, you may be surprised by just how much of this is possible, and already happening, today.

In the next section, I'll review each of three phases of the student success model and discuss what is currently happening, what can be brought into the classroom, and what future developments will bring.


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