Thursday, October 30, 2008

Managing Multiple Memberships

With many people now joining multiple social networks the problem becomes how to manage them all. I had started using netvibes for that, and then came across this excellent guide written by Steve Hargadon (of and classroom20 ning fame). He describes using pageflakes to collect the forum posts, video and photo additions etc onto a separate page for each ning ocmmunity he is a member of. I used his method succesfully with Netvibes (though had a rpoblem witht he blogs feed), with the modification of having three sites to a page, with each site in a column).
Follow this link for Steve's guide at his blog.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Online Community Tools

Well I have been around the traps trying many different types of online environments from wikis to blogs to enterprise LMSs and more. The needs of each community will be different, however I am narrowing down my preferred tool.

The decision has been difficult since there are many competing feature choices:
Integration of features provided by enterprise systems compared with a need to mash together multiple websites
Price and flexibility of workspaces
Attractiveness of the site
Ease of use
Ability to facilitate social connections

In the end the latter element, the ability to promote social networking has become the determining factor, without that there will likely not be a community where particiaption is voluntary and the membership relatively inexperienced and unfamiliar with online community environments.

For a fully integrated system with good pricing schemes was CentralDesktop. It does a lot of things extremely well. The killer however was the cost and inflexible pricing scheme with multiple workspaces being available however the number of users for each workspace is restricted.

So my preference now is Ning , though follows closely behind.

Slick, attractive
Great social networking elements
Good forum, notifies by email when new discussion are added
Chat feature for instant messaging
Who is online feature
Can feature members and videos, e.g. someone has made valuable contributions recently, feature them on the front page.
RSS feeds updating with changing content on the site (and external RSS feeds); this makes the frontpage dynamic and up-to-date which is very important for encouraging frequent return visitors.

No file repository, though can integrate
Wiki does not appear to be as fully functional as dedicated wikis

I think that this oculd be used to engage in very effective collaborative professional development
for teachers. It would be nice to see the ability to have a member blog feature so techers can reflect on their learning journey.

I have also explored and there does not seem to be a great deal different, except for a file repository and a few minor features.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Blog-on and teacher-coloured glasses

First, 11 comments. Wahoo and thankyou. Of course this reawakens my need (duty as a community member) to engage with the blogs of others. Reciprocal fairness is important, and I think should be explicitly stated in a new community. A case of making expected community norms explicit (Australian Flexible Learning Framework). Also amounts to how we socialise, we will naturally miagrate away from those who do not respond in kind and towards those who do. However this was not going to be my 'point for the day.'

Horses-for-courses was. Now I should research that phrase but I want to go home soon, and what I want to it to suggest is that as facilitators we should support tools that best meet the needs and competencies of the community. Blogs seem a more mature tool, are more demanding: demand more confidence and time, require more effort to go to other blogs, requires more effort to put often spontaneous, unstructured thoughts of others together (which may often need to be deconstructed and the context inferred - good understanding of a person's context and 'voice' or personality may only come with reading a lot of their blog (Alexander springs to mind).

My feeling is that with a newbie community, little experienced might be better to start with a discussion board (forum) : easier to comment on a topic (less personal). Over time as confidence builds, include blogs. This is from the perspective of building a professional learning community of maths teachers which I am researching and hoping to help build. The blogs seem to me to be important in providing a tool which teachers can use to reflectively document their learning journey, how their understanding ois changing, particular issues that have transformed their thinking, sharing 'a-ha' moments with the hope they might be of benefit to others. A good tool for applying the action research model of professional development.

I also see the value of the personal voice coming out in blogs. It is in the blogs much more than the forums that we are likely to see meaning being made, and see learning and PD occuring. In many cases they might also add to a sense of ownership, particularly if they are a boundaried blog (i.e. all blogs togetehr on one site), as opposed to a Single Blog/Blogger Centric Community, the Central Connecting Topic Community and the Boundaried Community. Nancy White has a great podcast or article (your choice) on blogging and community.

As Leigh's comment to the previous post suggests, like water, community members in a blogosphere will find their level, they will find their niches which will usually be places that match their level of safety and provide the level of energy and interest and relevance to motivate connecting and reciprocal commenting. Some potential dangers though?: feelings of exclusion, elitism, missing out on meaty/worthy content, the formation of self-benefiting subgroups that is a little hidden under a bushel (weird, but Hayse's poetic discourse is a little contagious, though maybe this is the reality of me writing in my blog and now feeling more comfortable to express my voice - relates a bit to what you said in an earlier comment trishus; and also raises the issue of is it safe to share who you really are to big wide world - open/closed).

But yet I still see the forum as being the central tool for sharing information and collaborating. For my mind, with many members, topic structured comments with easy-to-follow threads of ideas will probably be of greater worth than chronological blogs for a professional learning community with clearly defined goals.

In conclusion: It is not an either/or (like most dichotomies we as humans love to generate), but rather a complementary association.

And to end: Thankyou to Leigh for raising the challenge of taking off our teacher glasses and looking at a facilitator's role with new eyes. What sprung to mind: a teacher-facilitator thinks about facilitating learning; an unincumbered facilitator tries to create?/ massage an environment that is conducive for learning to occur. More thoughts on that later.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

What a load of blog

Here follows alittle bit of a end of the working day rant. To be honest I always thought the word blog was annoying. Now that I have one and read some I am coming around a bit, but have yet to perceive their great value in promoting community.

I am yet to be convinced. I don't know if I am a Scrooge, but 'bah humbug' springs occasionally to mind when I hear people effusing about blogs. Mind you my opinion has slightly changed over this. My participation in FOL has to do with following Leigh's blog. I suppose that is the heart of it, trolling through blogs, eventually finding one or two you admire and respect, RSSing them, learning, commenting engaging, following links to things you may not have found out about yourself. All well and good.

The bad as I see it mirrors problems with the internet as a whole. Miles wide and an inch deep. In the end we can spend a lot of time reading through the opinionated blogs of others with no vetting of what they say. Using your own noggin is a valuable way to do this I know and will probably help in formulating your own ideas and constructs. Yet some external measurement, support or correlation with authenticity would be nice.

Here are some rambling thoughts on potential issues when trying to use blogs as a community-building/facilitating/sustaining tool:

- it takes time. there are too many blogs fed into my reader to bother going through them all. There is limited time at work, and I like to spend time with my family. I am happy to hear what people ahve to say but I don;t want to have to open their feed have a look to see if is anything useful.
- related to this is the disorganisation of the content and the difficulty in browsing previous content. It is categorised usually chronologically. How do I know if that person has blogged something useful? I might be able to search if the blog has the facility to do so and I knew exactly what I was looking for. But often I wouldn't have a specific idea and identifying worthwhile posts/topics is difficult. Chronology lacks a great deal of value as a way of storing information. Tags are ok, but limited. This is where a website/wiki is a better option. Put what you think is your 'good oil' on the front page or provide clear links to it with short descriptions. Then it takes a small time commitment on the viewer to ascertain yes I will look further or no I will wait till next time.
- People probably get their favourite blogs and then ignore the rest. If a blog has been quiet for a while (like mine) then many people will probably be less likely to look, even if they see that new post has been made in their reader. I wonder if there are people out there who feel a little disenfranchised because they perceive their blog is less well visited or even largely ignored.

I am sure for many of those who have or dedicate the time to perusing the blogs, making the comments, going to another blog, and so on, are establishing productive connections with others and mutually enagaging in productive learning. I will try and find a blog of someone in here who waxes enthusiatically about a blogosphere and obtain their perspective.

Even the group email we have makes it difficult to read through., Not sure if I am using it incorrectly, but a flood of emails come in, and when I go online to the google groups site, it doesn't seem that much better. I'd like a nice threaded discussion list.

I feel that an online discussion forum is a better idea, structured on ideas rather than time, collated rather than dispersed, easier to skim through. Occasional comments by peripheral users are more likely to be noticed and responded to. Yes, a nice threaded discussion board, such as

Well time to go home. As I said a bit of a ramble, not 100% thought out, but then general feelings and considerations play a huge role in how people interact anyway. A blogosphere may be of use for a bundle of tech-savvy time free bloggers, but not so great for the vast majority of everyone else. There are other better ways.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

A visual matrix of aligning elements of community with terms

Well, having thought a bit more about semantics and definitions, I thought I might try and create a visual matrix of trying to distinguish the terms. So I am not sure given the confusion of definitions whether this is useful or not. I do believe that the underlying elements of community is what is important, so maybe we can graph groups, networks and CoPs (to use three) along three dimensions. I would like to add a fourth, which is difficult to graph visually (maybe could do the lvel of brightness, share of colour or something to that effect.

I used MS Word drawing toolbar to do this.

What do people think, is this helpful? Use alternate dimensions, suggestions for a fourth?

I am double-dipping here a bit maybe, but I am including a post I made on the FOC discussion group on my blog as well. I suppose this reflects my perception that the discussion forum is where a lot of the active community is at.

With regards to whether a community can be intentionally set up. My experience and research suggest yes and no. I see a general order of evolution:
1. A need/purpose arises that is commonly felt or recognised
2. One or two people perceive that this need/purpose is felt by others. They may attract a few more around them. These are the ones who 'set up' the community, they are it's initiators or founders. They/he/she are passionate, energetic and enthusiastic. They hold a shared vision and are 'evangelistic'.
3. Others that have the same need/purpose who are risk takers, the 'early starters' are attracted to what they perceive is a way to address that need. Many, particularly if this is their first learning community, will start off as legitimate peripheral participants (Lave and Wenger), others (the more experienced, confident and with high levels of inter-personal intelligence) will be collaboratively and communicatively active from the start.
4. Participants take on leadership roles of moderating discussions, running face-to-face events, etc. The facilitator may always be there since there may be a continued need for administration, maintenance and encouraging 'aliveness'. Once the community has a sense of shared identity the facilitator is definitely more nurturer than architect.

Of course there will be many exceptions to this process, and many contexts where this does not occur. In some cases there may be no defined coordinator, but I think cases of democratically formed CoPs with no definied leader would be rare, and usually composed of experienced people anyway, some of whom will naturally fill the role of facilitators though they may not be perceived as such.

In the Professional Learning Community I am involved in there was one major person who coordinated its formation. We would not exist as a community without this person, and we would fold at this stage without this person, though maybe someone would come in and step into his shoes. We are not yet self-sustaining. SO YES, I think in my experience and the model suggested above, many communities will be 'set up'.

BUT, when I say that I am referring ONLY to the creation and organisation of a 'set of conditions' that allow social connections/social capital/trust/communication to form. The actual relationships developed cannot be built by any facilitator. Someone bandying around that they are going to set up a CoP can be presumptuous. They may create a base on which a CoP can grow, but they cannot create or build one as such.

Maybe a CoP should be perceived to be more a VERB than a NOUN (a bit like love). It is people, doing, relating, connecting, collaborating. Without the doing there is no CoP.

I realise in the steps mentioned above Andrew, that this is different to the higher ed. context. Context influences the style, demands and role of facilitation.

Andrew Chambers wrote: "My students are there to learn, not to gain a sense of community. Community helps but is not critical in this context."

I see that is the case for CoPs in general. They are a means to an end.

I like what DuFour has to say on this:

"The goal is not simply learning a new system, but creating conditions for perpetual learning. It is an environment in which innovation and experimentation are not viewed as tasks to be accomplished or projects to be completed; rather they become ways of conducting day-to-day business - forever. In short, becoming a learning community is less like getting in shape than staying in shape - not a fad diet but a commitment to an essential, vital way of life."

DuFour, R. 2001. 1st Organizing Theme: Professional Learning Communities. The Leadership Academy Developer (Winter 2000-2001).



Thursday, August 14, 2008

Here are some comments on the ongoing discussion on the group email of what is an online community. I am not yet entirely convinced of what I will write here, but these thoughts have arisen as I think about the nature of networked learning as I proceed along my learning journey in this area.

The issue with discussing ‘What is an online community?’ is that it is a case of semantics. In many cases a word means something slightly different to each person and is influenced by their past experiences of the word and the context in which they have seen it used, and how they use it in their mind when they think of it. Differences can be cultural, as well as whether the community resides in an enterprise, government or social context.

‘Online community’ is hard to define and probably will never achieve a commonly agreed upon definition because of the wide use of the two words. It is used in different ways by different people right across the world.

I have just read Bronwyn’s post on her research into the definition (many thanks) which I think accords somewhat with this. Naturally there are elements commonly found, as in the people, common ties, social interaction and place. And again those terms in themselves are broad and I think would be found in a huge diversity of groups on the internet, whether they be a book club, computer game community, an association of medical specialists, and so on.

I think that discussing the question is valuable in that it has us all thinking about the topic and learning and identifying the elements that define community (such as domain, social capital, emotional and personal connections, association with practice, etc.). Could it be the case that nutting out exactly what an online community is, might not be most valuable focus, since even if we come up with some definition, many in the group will have a slightly different view at the end of the discussion, and that definition will be limited to this group (though shared through our personal networks)? Ultimately global ambiguity and diversity will mean a clear commonly agreed definition will never be achieved. Let’s simply use it as a generic term to describe a whole swathe of groups, networks, communities, etc.

As humans we love to categorize and it is useful, it aids in communication. The reality of course is that all ‘groups’ (I use this term to refer to all groups whether communities, networks, groups, CoPs, etc.) of people online fall along a spectrum, and these categorising terms overlap. For example, looking at Stephen Downes’ video there will likely exist ‘groups’ that posses elements from both columns: groups and networks, and so which term should be used, and does it really matter?

Another issue is the dynamic nature of most ‘groups’, the key elements may vary considerably during the lifespan of the ‘group’, so they may not belong to one category, but rather move between them.

An online group should naturally use terms that they perceive best describe themselves. However, considering the thoughts above (international ambiguity and natural overlap), is their much point in worrying too much about nomenclature?

Delineating the key elements of community is where the value lies. A central question/focus could be: “What elements of community do we need to develop effectively in order to be ‘alive’ and achieve our goals”. Though key factors for success can be identified (I have almost finished a report on this for a Masters course) there is also great value in making it context specific where each community can

(1) identify what its purpose is, what limitations it has, what the characteristics of its members are, and their needs, etc. and then

(2) determine to what extent each of the elements (such as those mentioned above in italics) need to developed, and what needs to be done socially, technologically and structurally to address these factors.

In contrast to online communities, the term Community of Practice, is easier to define, since, though the words are also widely used, the two words are inextricably linked (well that is the way I perceive it anyway, almost as if it were one word), and the term has a specific origin with its subsequent use in the literature usually aligning with that of Wenger. I think terms such as these are useful and can handily be used to make distinctions (though again it is the nature of the underlying elements that is key and should be elucidated when participating in or examining these individual communities).