Social Networking for Virtual Collaboration: DigEnt

Victor Perotti

Associate Professor, Area Leader Entrepreneurship & Digital Business
E. Philip Saunders College of Business
Digital Entrepreneurship
Undergraduate, On-campus

Victor Perotti is Associate Professor and Area Leader, Entrepreneurship & Digital Business, in the E. Philip Saunders College of Business.  He currently leads the Digital Business initiative at RIT and was the recipient of the Provost's first Innovative Teaching with Technology Award in spring 2012 for his exemplary use of technology in advancing teaching and learning. 

The project that led to the award was the design and implemention of a social networking portal called DigEnt, where students learn through collaboration and exchange of ideas with their classmates, RIT alumni, entrepreneurs, investors, and instructors from all over the world. DigEnt gives RIT students an opportunity to interact with professionals in an open forum where they can create, refine, and advance their project ideas. Vic's expert teaching has led to other prestigious awards, such as the Richard and Virginia Eisenhart Provost's Award for Excellence in Teaching (2000), and the Eisenhart Award for Outstanding Teaching (2004).

Vic's most recent research examines social networks, social computing, mobile collaboration, digital entrepreneurship, electronic communities and video game business models.

Teaching and Learning Goals

Vic wanted to use a tool that would promote a lot of class discussion, not just in the classroom, but outside of the class as well. He wanted his students to start thinking like entrepreneurs, learning to interact with potential partners, investors, and other entrepreneurs in the real world. He designed DigEnt to provide his students a learning environment that is familiar to them, where they can unleash their creative ideas and share their work with professionals in the field on a global scale. For example, people from different stakeholder groups, such as other RIT students and alum, and known entrepreneurs, are invited to join DigEnt to share in an ongoing discussion about how entrepreneurs are running businesses on the Web.

DigEnt creates an environment for social learning, and free-flowing thoughts and opinions. It provides students with a wide array of assets and resources, the most valuable of which is the access to entrepreneurs who have been there, and are currently there, to share their knowledge. Not only do the students find the experience valuable, but participants from outside of RIT have really enjoyed the experience, creating a back-and-forth, two-way value proposition.

Vic decided on a hybrid nature for his DigEnt space; the front landing page has an overview of DigEnt that is freely accessible to anyone in the world to connect. However, to view the content and participate in discussions, users must become a member of DigEnt. Vic personally approves each member, requiring that they show a commitment to participate in the learning environment with RIT students and to help maintain high-quality interactions on the space.

Screen shot of DigEnt Landing Page

Screen shot of DigEnt Landing Page

Teaching Strategy

Vic doesn’t believe in rote memorization and spends little time in a traditional lecture format. He uses Problem-Based Learning because he believes that learning begins with a problem to be solved, thus is the best motivator to learn. He fosters an active and challenging classroom environment that encourages students to take ownership of their learning.

"I give the students realistic problems they would encounter in industry and businesses in the global marketplace. Technology comes and goes, so the ability to assimilate new information and run with it is essential for future business leaders."

Vic believes that by giving unstructured and realistic problems to the students, it helps them understand problems better and find better and more relevant solutions. He is involved at every step of the project with his students to support and scaffold the learning that is taking place.

DigEnt portal helps Vic promote the formation of interdisciplinary entrepreneurial teams. Designers, technologists, business professionals, entrepreneurs, and investors collaborate on this boundaryless and informal space to incubate ideas, share expertise and resources, support and collaborate. It is an open space that leverages social media and offers a number of popular tools for communication, such as blogs, videos, pictures, links, and messages.

Vic grades his students on lot of creative and different kinds of projects and ideas. Early in the quarter, students research and write a paper on prevalent revenue models and their relevancy in the current landscape. Mid-quarter, they brainstorm new business ideas and pitch for the best ones to form teams. Students spend the restof the quarter moving their ideas as far towards implementation as they can. Many of them get to the point of building prototypes, meeting with potential investors, and even establishing initial startups. Students are graded on their overall performance and participation, including on DigEnt, during this period.

Experiences and Results

Using his background in computing and cognitive psycholog along with his teaching experiences, Vic designed engaging environment for his students. Building the DigEnt portal also presented several learning experiences for him as well, as when he had to adapt the DigEnt site to meet the changing revenue model of the hosting platform He first conceptualized the DigEnt project in 2007 when RIT students were already aggressive social networking users. He chose the social network, Ning, to build his DigEnt learning community, and students continue to participate and and use it as a resource after their course has concluded. Today, DigEnt has seen the formation of many successful student startups and partnerships. Nearly a thousand individuals have found their way to the DigEnt network--entrepreneurs, faculty and students from around the world, and RIT students all learning in this innovative environment.

Vic believes that to create an effective and engaging virtual space for learning, it is important to understand and embrace the organic nature of interactions of 18-to-22-year-olds on social networks. Instructors also need to model the behavior they want from their students in that space by posting and inviting intelligent comments, and bringing more resources to the community. Vic shared, "You are a leader but you are also an exemplar for how you want them to behave and they will observe that and follow that behavior."

He also feels that forcing students to adapt to tools that are very different from their natural inclination, habits and current trends can be counterproductive. Instead, faculty need to observe and integrate the tools and technology that students are already using (or would like to use). This can be a great encouragement for them to participate.

DigEnt Google Hit