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).

Thursday, August 7, 2008

SO here begins my blogged learning journey.

First up, a short intro on me:

  • first generation Aussie to Dutch parents; grew up in gorgeous Tasmania.
  • biology science degree and ecological research (freshwater invertebrates)
  • moved to teaching, primarily maths/science (with a couple of years at AQIS)
  • NOW: teaching on a remote island (Groote Eylandt) in the Northern Territory (Australia) and involved in a PLC with growing interest in online learning.

I added this smattering about me, since one of the factors I believe are important in online communities is connecting socially. More on that in the future.

The idea of this blog has been around for a while, and has now achieved actualisation with the impetus of informal participation in the course Facilitating Online Communities, run by Leigh Blackall.

Excerpt from the wiki: This course has been developed by staff in the Educational Development Centre of Otago Polytechnic and is designed to help both formal and informal learners access and interpret models, research and professional dialog in the facilitation of online communities. After completing this course people should be confident in facilitating online and/or be able to critique and offer advice to other people in the facilitation of online communities.”

My life-long learning journey is now taking me along the path of studying and facilitating professional learning, and how this can benefit from connecting online.

I am involved in facilitating a Professional Learning Community of school teachers and allied professionals seeking to improve the competence and confidence of teachers of Mathematics, recognising that teacher quality is a key factor in determining student outcomes, which (as in many countries) are not what they should/could be.

I hope to achieve from this course a greater insight into the technical, structural and social factors involved in creating an online learning environment that would support a blended learning community. In fact, I hope to create such an environment for the maths PLC by the end of the year. This has great potential, since there are many very remote teachers who suffer a ‘tyranny of distance’ with limited access to support and limited opportunity for collaboration and discussion with other maths teachers.

I am keen to link with anyone out there interested in PLCs and improving teacher professional development.

I have seen some great things happening in the PLC I am involved with. Many teachers are becoming actively engaged in improving the way they teach. We are only in the early phase of development, but the journey is exciting.