Thursday, August 14, 2008

You decide when it's a community

It's been a busy couple of weeks in the Facilitating Online Communities (FOC08) course while we explore the question: What is an online community? It seems like a simple enough question but it gets messy when you start looking closely at the terminology -- like what is the difference between a community of practice and a learning community?

Bronwyn Stuckey asks an interesting question: When do you know its a community? I responded on her blog:
Yes! I was asked this question in a job interview, and fumbled through the answer because there are so many little indicators. One that stands out is when you see evidence of people starting to give back. A community cannot be consumed (I’ve seen “communities” that do little more than push content). Another is when you see a feedback - feedforward trend — always seeking to improve the practice.
This started me down memory lane. In 1999 I was a research associate with the TeleLearning Network of Centres of Excellence, a national research project led by Linda Harasim at Simon Fraser University. We started the Global Educators' Network as a means for researchers involved in TeleLearning NCE theme projects to share their progress and findings. However, word spread quickly and gradually more and more educators, researchers, administrators, software developers, consultants, and students joined in and appreciated the value of engaging in timely discussions. At one point in this evolution it struck us that we had become a community. We didn't call GEN a community at the beginning of the project. We didn't even set out with the idea that we would create a community. It happened.

As GEN was winding down in 2003 (funding) Linda Harasim asked me to reflect on what made GEN a successful community. This was my summary:
  • GEN provides an environment for exploration and sharing of ideas, where learning is a collective and participatory process. GEN is unlike traditional teacher professional development which focuses on individual learning. Rather, individual learning is implied, and necessary, for the advancement of knowledge as a group.
  • GEN offers new opportunities for dialogue across disciplines, geographical borders, professions, levels of expertise, and education sectors.
  • GEN provides a connection to the everyday realities, current thinking, and practices of education professionals.
  • Participation in GEN is flexible and inclusive. As a web-based and platform-independent environment, members are able to log on from any location, and from shared computers. VGroups conferencing system is easy to use, allowing participants to focus on the discussion rather than the technology. There are no costs associated with membership and asynchronous discussion allows for members to participate according to their own schedule. There is no obligation to participate according to a set structure. Reading along is acceptable, and members are encouraged to join a discussion at any time that they have time, feel compelled, or feel comfortable. As such, there is an opportunity to become acculturated, and ease in gradually if that suits the individual.
  • GEN operates on a basis of shared goals and experiences. Facilitators volunteer their time because they are committed to the advancement of both online education and the GEN community itself.
  • The community has evolved according the needs of its members. GEN began as a means for researchers involved in TeleLearning NCE theme projects to share their progress and findings. However, GEN quickly evolved into an international learning community and ideas for discussions, format, special interest groups, etc emerged through participation.
  • New events are scheduled by topics that emerge through participation, so there is always something new and fresh to build expectations.
Some of these indicators of success didn't even line up with our original goals.

Now leap forward to 2005 when we began the research and planning phase for SCoPE. During the early days we struggled with a name for the community. Even when we decided on the name SCoPE we had several discussions about what it actually stood for... SFU's Community of Practicing Educators, SFU's Community of Practice for Educators, and so on. I didn't feel comfortable calling the project a CoP before we had even started. It felt like something you become rather than a starting point. We continue to have conversations about whether or not SCoPE is a CoP or a Learning Community. As an aside, I was reluctant to even have SFU (Simon Fraser University) in the name because I didn't want people to feel that the community was intended primarily for SFU, and anybody else a welcomed visitor.

Through my participation in CPSquare.org I've heard community leaders ponder these same questions. During one event I was sharing my story and Etienne Wenger put this label dilemma to rest, explaining that it no longer seems important to distinguish between the various types of communities. People do get wrapped up in the semantics, and communities do change -- they shift, grow, evolve, and dissolve -- and we continue to rethink our purpose together. Are we mostly bound together by common interests, to learn, to practice? Possibly all of these things at different stages.

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