Thursday, August 30, 2012

Engaging course alumni using Facebook: the case of Ruforum

It's been a bit quiet on this blog because I had a nice long summer holiday - with a trip to Cambodja with my family which was wonderful. We visited friends, rode tuktuks, bicycles and elephants and visited the famous temples around Siem Reap. Here you see us on the boat in Bangkok.

From now on - I'll try to blog weekly again. To start with an interview with Carolyn Nandozi from Uganda about her experiences facilitating a facebook group for alumni. I met her during an online facilitation course which I facilited (online of course :) and found out she has some interesting experiences with an alumni group. This is a question I often get: "When organise courses -how do we keep in touch with our course alumni online?" RUFORUM has done this using Facebook. RUFORUM is the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture, a consortium of 29 universities in Eastern, Central and Southern Africa established in 2004. RUFORUM has a mandate to oversee graduate training and networks of specialization. Below my question and Nandozi's answers
Nandozi, can you describe how the Facebook group started? "The group began in 2009 through a need to track and engage alumni. The group was started by the RUFORUM Secretariat by inviting a few alumni and asking them to invite others. One of the strategic objectives of RUFORUM is to increase the use of technology to support effective, decentralized learning and the sharing of knowledge. Therefore, the increasing use of social media as a network connection was one technology aspect for use that was explored to bring alumni in a network connection to support this objective and also keep track of their work. Thus, the introduction of the online group. There were no guidelines or rules created. Just an objective for the group and goals- connect alumni all over the world.We have several platforms such as Youtube, Flickr, Twitter, Linkedin but I will focus on the Facebook Alumni Platform-/ (see the picture to have an idea how the facebook platform looks like)."

How does the group function? "The group has several administrators and an appointed Virtual Intern to moderate discussions (me). We make monthly work plans (with targeted milestones) to plan the discussions and find the best ways of engaging the alumni. For example we plan how many posts to share for the particular month usually five (5) or more but usually also members share and we triple the target. We also target the particular number of persons to join per month for instance we began with 10 and became optimistic to 20 and are blessed to double the numbers some months while others are a bit quite. However, one thing for sure is every other month our numbers are increasing and this makes us happy. Thus, currently we have 269 members and counting.

The facebook group mainly focuses on posts aimed at sharing of opportunities such as scholarships, fellowships, skills writing, newsletters, jobs, consultancies and project fundings among others and we encourage them to circulate and feedback any successful applications (we want to track the success of the platform in offering successful opportunities). Such postings usually lead to increased invitation of members to the platform. We really want alumni to share their experiences and knowledge but are yet to achieve that.

We have also began discussions of the international events and days to invite Alumni contributions to such events. These discussions have been really lively such as the recently concluded one on World Hunger Day event we celebrated  on 28th May this year. RUFORUM will find ways of implementation of such contributions as some have led to prompts of proposal writing and face to face meetings. These discussions have led to bringing out the challenges and needs Alumni face in the field and pathways for responding to such challenges. We wanted alumnis to share with us any challenges and any needs thus, such discussions have been helpful.

I do a monthly report of all the activities that have transpired on the platforms (as I mentioned we manage a number of platforms such as Linkedin for professionals to target all people as some people may have phobia for Facebook which is more active)."

How do you facilitate? "I usually post any opportunity and wait for member response. If I don’t get any I will still prompt; prompting/pestering is a must. For example I can put a like or comment myself. Some posts will be interesting to members and will invite a like or contribution immediately. I also thank and encourage members who post or like their posts or sometimes I post comments.  Saying Thank you may be too much in case one person is constantly posting (which happens). I have noticed two persons who constantly share opportunities and usually like and comment. We would like other members to share but some don't share. However, they may be more active in commenting. I have noticed some members imitate what I post for example picture postings this means I have to be more creative to prompt more.

Since people are still in the initial stages of being active, I am the conductor and have to intervene here and there and also kind of motivate members know there is someone keeping the platform active. This is when the platform has been quiet for a while. Though sometimes I would like to be the invisible chameleon and let the discussions flow, but it’s a bit hard. Since I need their contributions I will have also to contribute!"

How do you invite and grow your membership? "RUFORUM has a database of members whom I send emails inviting them to the platform. Having exhausted the database, I had to come up with other means such as writing the steps for members on how to invite other members on the platform. I write a thank you message to every member who has invited someone to the platform and encourage them to invite more persons. I also write a thank you message to every invited member and also encourage them to invite other members. I thought about this when I could not meet the target of a particular month yet I had exhausted the database. It was amazing looking at the turn up!  Thus, these plans and innovations that have been put in place have almost tripled the member numbers in four months compared to the one year trend."

What are your challenges? "I will talk about the challenges I encounter in the Facebook group and the other platforms like LinkedIn.
  1. How focused on topics do you want to be? Members usually comment questions or wider discussions which usually get wider views and contributions. Thus, we have to think of such posts to get such member contributions apart from the more focused opportunities and contributions. RUFORUM is aimed at agricultural sustainability thus focused on posting agricultural opportunities - however usually some Alumni have ventured in other fields and need opportunities in such areas.
  2. How to engage the members? Another challenge is that we do not get as much response as needed, ie from a platform of 269 persons less than 15 persons contribute to the group and less than 20 persons are really active.
  3. How do I engage persons of different areas of interests? I face the challenge of being at the same thinking of all persons of different ages, work, experiences, diverse disciplines, etc to fit into what their ideal discussion would be.
  4. What style and tone? How do I respond/comment in an easy down to earth manner with some joking for all parties?
  5. How to engage people who are not on Facebook? Some members tell me they want to invite other persons who are not on Facebook and I am not sure how to help them. Yet, they find it difficult to go into other engagements for next steps such as writing them an email or giving me member email for contact. There are some Alumni on Facebook invited by email but do not respond thus it would necessitate me to become their Facebook friend and add them to the group easily- but I don’t have to be a friend of everyone, I prefer not to friend them first.
  6. Who to engage? Do I also engage with organisations or unknown people? How do I responding to organization invitations and them joining the platform- thus how do I keep this online partnership active? This also includes responding to invitations from unknown members especially on the LinkedIn group.
  7. How to manage multiple platforms? RUFORUM has a number of online platforms like I said, thus challenge of managing all platforms at the same time- not to mention the weekend interruption when Alumni usually have some free time. How do I differentiate posts in one group from the other because same posting may not motivate members to join the other groups. RUFORUM has its own inbuilt platform but its very difficult to engage persons in this platform as they are more focused on the other worldly known social platforms such as Facebook. How do we get Alums to join our own inbuilt platform?
  8. Do we organise Face-to-Face meetings? The platforms are majorly focused on online discussions but recent discussions have prompted Alumni to request face to face meetings-yet to be revised.
Last question: why did you choose Facebook groups as one of your main platforms?  We knew the majority of our alumni had Facebook accounts thus it was very easy for invitation and thread creation. However, like I said we use other platforms like LinkedIn too and we hope to engage persons there as well…

Curious whether you have any questions for Nandozi or any tips because you also have an alumni group? I can forward them to her. Just let me know in the comments.