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American Evaluation AssociationI recently completed my first formal internal evaluation for a large federal grant. This process piqued my interest in evaluation, since I usually use a generic evaluation design for proposals I write which was given to me by a project evaluator some 30 years ago.

My expertise in evaluation was obviously dated, so I decided to become a member of the American Evaluation Association (AEA) and receive blogs and topical discussion from their Linked-In members e-mail list. Subsequently, I attended the AEA 2010 National Conference. To my surprise there were several thousand participants at the conference in San Antonio this past November. Some had come from as far away as South Africa, Australia and the United Kingdom.

My team had been struggling with the budget of another federal grant that we just received, related to limits on travel and insufficient funding for our Project Advisory Committee. The first meeting of our committee members was quite successful since we enticed them with lunch. Yet, as we formulated our plans for subsequent grant-related meetings, it became evident that committee members would have time conflicts and could not come to our campus from across the two county region that our grant serves.

Lumina FoundationI decided to attend specific sessions at the AEA conference to figure out a way to overcome these issues. One relavant session was, “Communities of Practice, (COP) as a Foundation Strategy,” presented by the Lumina Foundation along with the Censeo Group, which was evaluating the Foundation’s efforts in this regard. COPs are “groups of people who share a concern or passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly." The Lumina Foundation’s Big Goal is to increase the proportion of Americans with high quality degrees and credentials to 60 percent by the year 2025. The foundation is approaching this goal by aggressively conducting meetings via social networking.

Hmmm, social networking as a community of practice tool?

This then lead me to attend another session, “Multimedia Advances in Evaluation: The Use of Skype, Eluminate and Virtual World Technologies in Conducting Focus Group Interviews,” by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Several tools with social networking applications were discussed, including the following:

  • Audacity (a free, easy-to-use and multilingual audio editor and recorder)
  • Skype (free for audio, small charge for video and requires webcam)
  • Teleplace (3-D virtual meeting place with avatars-software charge)
  • Elluminate (Free to California community colleges from CCC Confer)

CCC ConferThe last solution is the one we will use for our Project Advisory Committee. CCC Confer has many functional options that will allow us to overcome a shortfall of travel funds and synchronize a variety of disparate schedules, and the robust product satisfies the social networking needs of our community of practice centered around evaluation. Further, CCC Confer understands the specific needs of California community colleges and because it is funded by the California Community College Chancellor’s Office it is free to those in the California Community College system.

Clearly, new social networking applications—many of them free—can be empowering for many organizations. They provided a solution for a specific issue my grants team faced, and they may provide a solution for you.<>