Me (far right) and some of my ROI buddies

Described as an “international network of activists and change makers who are redefining Jewish engagement for a new generation of global citizens“, the ROI Community is the baby of American philanthropist Lynn Schusterman. Its aim is to identify and then support and develop young Jewish leaders from around the world who have a vision and a proven track record for creating change in their communities. I’ve spent the past week as one of 150 ROI newbies from around the world who were gathered together for an induction ‘summit’ in Jerusalem and have been reflecting on what I’ve learnt and observed about building a productive and creative network in the digital age.

In person gatherings matter- Taking a step out of the rat race and creating time to reflect and connect with others can feel like a luxury but its fundamental. Shifting perspective and taking the time to have intentional and deep conversations with others provides a level of connection and exploration that is easy to avoid online. There’s a level of responsibility that people feel towards one another through face to face conversation that creates stronger networks and a deeper sense of knowing someone (Levinas was onto something…).

Good tech enhances the potential for connection at events- ROI used the the E-180 Brain Dates platform to enable summit-goers to make the most out of the people around them. Brain dates are targeted meetings based around a series of ‘offers’ and ‘requests’ that people can make on the platform. Its a great way to find out who is at an event with you and to make sure that you aren’t reliant on luck and spontaneous conversation to find those who have overlapping areas of interest or skills. As someone who is not the kind of person who just goes up to random strangers at events I found this a great way to move beyond small talk and have productive and interesting conversations with the people around me.

Even those in the know feel outpaced- We heard a number of times over the week from leaders in the worlds tech and social entrepreneurship. I found it strangely reassuring that even those who have given TED talks, work for google or are on Forbes 30 under 30 lists find the pace of change in the world as frightening as it is exciting!

Content-light programming makes space for great conversations- ROI took much from the principles of unconferencing which can be summed up in the maxim that ‘the sum total of knowledge in the room is greater than that on the stage’. Using open space technology and doing things like flipping panels so that experts sought knowledge from the audience and providing ample time for peer-led sessions created a rich and deep conversation that was led by the interests, knowledge and skills of attendees. Unlike many conferences I’ve been to, I left feeling like I knew the people around me well and that we’d heard more from each other than any speaker talking down to us from a stage.

Online communities need nurturing- ROI understands that online connections can sustain and develop community, but that communities need managing and weaving to maintain their identity and purpose. They do this by providing continued offline opportunities to engage that are woven through the year and through a multitude of social media channels. I’m impressed by the way that livestreaming, carefully curated posting, blogging, webinars, facebook groups and newsletters hold together a large community through the year.

Virtual reality headsets are really cool- Got to play with one of these, it was mind-blowingly awesome.

I’m still a little overwhelmed by the scale and intensity of the experience I had over the last week. The quality of the individuals present, ranging from activists fighting to uncover sexual abuse in their communities, to the creators of the world’s first Yiddish web series, from musicians using EEGs to create guitar beats, to environmentalists singing about poop and people creating communities around baking challah or eating ashkenazi food, was truly extraordinary. It’s also a huge challenge, being part of ROI means having a responsibility to return the investment that The Schusterman Foundation makes in each of us, and that’s daunting.

Social networks and education

A few years ago I was approached to get involved in an immersive education project using Facebook to do what was essentially educational role-play within an existing online community. Characters in the story ‘friended’ members of the community and played out and developed their identities by interacting with each other and encouraging people to interact and share. The end product was a rich and engaging online experience and a great offline event within the community (if you want to know more about it, you can click here). This piqued my interest in using social networks in education, something which grew as I saw projects like tweet the exodus playing with social networking tools in informal education.

When talking about approaches to the use of Social Networks in education settings, Guy Marchant offers three kinds of activity- learning about, learning from and learning with.

I buy into the value of social media in education, particularly because in the world that I work it often functions as a kind of third place which sustains community in-between times groups are together, enables play and levels hierarchy.  Despite this, colleagues and I often get frustrated when a lay-leader or member of a committee suggests using social media in a project because social networking sites are often characterised as  neutral tools to be employed without an appreciation of character or context.

When I think about why this might be I think its because of a fixation on the learning with aspect, perhaps because in its zeitgeisty construction it represents something that is an appealing concept but much harder to execute (for many of the reasons that Henry Jenkins identifies here). Reading Marchant and Jenkins this week has suggested to me that learning about and learning from social networks are probably integral to developing the faculties to create strong educational experiences with (and within) social networking sites.


On a separate but related note, I went to Facebook HQ this evening for a reception that reminded me of how much online interactions sustain community in an increasingly busy world. I’m struck by how long it had been since I saw many of the people there, but how because I ‘see’ so many of them on Facebook and Twitter especially it didn’t feel like that at all. This isn’t a consciously curated network, but rather one which has grown organically through the overlapping spaces many of us find ourselves in, but it serves to create a sense of communal dialogue and momentum which I think is quite cool. Also, they had coding problems to solve on the back of their toilet doors. Nuff said.

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