Building personal learning networks through event- based social media: a case study of the SMiLE project
In this paper we report on early findings of our SMiLE project which is evaluating how effective various online social networking channels can be in supporting how people network and learn from a major ‘live’ conference. The event took place at the University of Southampton in March 2012. We consider the dynamics of the relation- ship between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ communities in the development of personal learning networks, for example how social networking impacts upon participants’ interaction and engagement before, during and after the event as the community of practice de- velops. Assessing the impact of social networking activity on ‘real world’ outcomes has historically been a difficult task, but we argue that recent developments in social network visualisation and analysis now enable valuable insights to be generated for the benefit of both event organisers and attendees seeking to build their subject knowledge and extend their networks. We begin with a brief review of networking theory and the emerging role of the online backchannel at ‘live’ events, before describing the approach we took to the col- lection and analysis of social media data from the CAA Conference. We then discuss the implications of our findings for people looking to build learning networks through the increasingly blurred boundaries of ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ networks. We conclude by highlighting some lessons learned and possible directions for future research. Our findings also have relevance to the PLE conference itself – which this year has the added dynamic of two face to face locations for the conference operating at the same time to pose new multi-channel communication and learning challenges for partici- pants.