In 2006, a Chinese professional organization in the field of conservation education , Chinese Conservation Educators Association (CCEA)*, joined with a conservation-education organization , US Conservation Educators Association (USCEA)*, in the US to begin a nationwide professional development program in the People’s Republic of China. Prior to the launch of this joint-initiative, no professional development program existed for this group of Chinese professionals. The goals of this program were to develop and support a network of professional educators who have the skills, knowledge and tools to promote their conservation missions through education.
USCEA is currently focusing its efforts on training a core group of graduates who have demonstrated passion and commitment towards furthering the profession with the long-term goal that they will take ownership of future content and be prepared to lead the ongoing development of the profession in China. US and Chinese members of this joint-initiative invited the authors of this paper, instructional technology researchers and practitioners, to assist with their efforts to offer social networking tools in support of building and maintaining a community of practice among these professionals. From a design-based research perspective, findings from qualitative data collection in naturalistic settings are shared about habits, trends and barriers to the use of social networking in professional development in China discovered in this case.
Wenger & Snyder (2000) define communities of practice as “groups of people informally bound together by shared expertise and passion for a joint enterprise.” Wenger (2002) presents the case of a transgovernmental community sponsored by the World Bank where this perspective evolved over time as those responsible for knowledge management acknowledged that “the areas where the knowledge-sharing system worked best were those in which there was a community of practitioners interacting on a regular basis, with a tradition of collaborating around problems and sharing knowledge” (p.2). The community of practice framework is appropriate to how the participating organizations in this project envision their professional development program. Their goal is to build on existing groups that have that “shared expertise and passion” to learn and discuss topics essential to their conservation mission. Therefore, the approach to exploring the use of social networking tools for this project should correspond to a perspective of knowledge as “embedded in the community” as described by McLure-Wasko & Faraj (2000, p.160). Also, McDermott (1999) highlights the importance of using information technology to support communities that share knowledge, emphasizing how technology can help organize, maintain, and distribute knowledge to others in the community.
Reeves, Herrington & Oliver (2005) describe the following characteristics of design-based research: “focus on broad-based, complex problems; integration of design principles with technological affordances for solutions; rigorous and reflective inquiry to test and refine innovative learning environments as well as to reveal new design principles; long-term engagement with constant refinement of protocols and questions; intensive collaboration among researchers and practitioners; and commitment to theory construction & explanation while solving real-world problems.” Qualitative data was gathered in a naturalistic way, reflecting the informal data gathering habits of practitioners in a real-world setting. Design participants were instructional technologists with practical and research experience, members of the CCEA and members of the USCEA. Notes from a face-to-face brainstorming meeting and virtual collaboration communications were collected from all participants from the early stages of researching and brainstorming possible solutions. Data was examined for habits, trends and barriers to the design of social networking tools for the purposes of this project.
At the outset of this collaboration, we established the following initial requirements of the social networking solution based on communications with the CCEA and USCEA teams:
• freely or very cheaply available on the web in China
• already popular in use in China
• includes an archive
• a tool we have the capability to help provide the support for in setting up, piloting & handing over.
With these basic and general guidelines, we began research into Chinese social networking habits and trends by searching both English and Chinese websites.
Chinese Internet Habits
Popular information available through the web emphasized the popularity of traditional bulletin-board systems with Chinese internet users (Web2Asia, 2008). The most popular identified bulletin board site was:
• Discuz: http://www.discuz.net/
Chinese members of the collaboration team corroborated this information and also suggested that internet habits in China tended to favor instant messaging, in particular the use of QQ, a product offered by China’s largest Internet portal, Tencent.
• QQ: www.qq.com/
One team member compared this habit to another communication habit in China, avoiding the use of voicemail. This widely-held impression has been supported in popular, trade and scholarly sources (Buckman, 2005; Park, Yang, & Lehto, 2007; Yan, 2003). These habits seemed to signal a preference for immediacy in communications.
The USCEA and CCEA teams had already established QQ communications among the professional network in China and appointed a facilitator; however, no formal activities or protocols had been established for using this system as part of the professional development program or building a community of practice. The team also wanted more features of a social network, not just instant messaging. No bulletin board system had been established for the professional network.
Chinese Social Networking Trends
When this project began, the most popular social networks available in China were:
• Xiaonei: http://www.xiaonei.com/
• Qzone: http://qzone.qq.com/
The China Internet Network Information Center’s (2009) Statistical Report on Internet Development in China only mentions “social networking services” sites one time, in relation to shifts in blog trends: “a considerable number of grass-roots blogs transferred from professional blog operators to more interactive SNS (Social Networking Services) sites, which benefited blog update and growth” (p. 30).
The USCEA and CCEA teams were interested in exploring a possibility like Xiaonei in order to build a social network for professional development. However, members of these teams predicted a few barriers to the use of social networking for this group of professionals.
Barriers to Social Networking for this Professional Network
Participants were first concerned about workload and budget issues. Since members of the professional educators network were already participating in this network as volunteers, there was some concern that the extra load of maintaining and participating in the new network would become a burden on a few individuals. However, USCEA and CCEA team members expressed confidence that leaders in the network with appropriate skills were available and likely to be willing to perform such tasks for the group.
Members of the CCEA team also displayed some reluctance to the use of bulletin board systems or social networking tools because of concerns about keeping records of unsupervised conversations and activities of this professional network through archived forums. The CCEA team falls under direct oversight of a Chinese Ministry that would need to approve archived web forums for this professional network; as predicted by the CCEA team, in the end, approval for such forums was not granted.
Because of the team’s foresight in anticipating this barrier, however, we were able to offer suggestions for using the already established QQ forum to accomplish their professional development goals. We discussed the option of implementing a scheduled curriculum for synchronous chat sessions through QQ on topics related to professional development. The teams decided this was an appropriate plan to work around the current barriers and began immediately to plan the curriculum.
The early stage of this collaboration to explore technology solutions for supporting this community of practice offers some insight into the habits, trends and barriers of social networking for professionals in China. We discovered broad-based cultural preferences for immediacy in communications in China as well as differences in adoption trends towards social networking sites. Finally, we found systemic issues related to establishing a social network for professionals in China to be more restrictive than in the US. Future projects and research in this area need to explore such barriers more specifically to begin to find solutions for working within this system to offer technological solutions for building communities of practice in China.
*For the purposes of anonymity, these groups names have been changed.
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