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).


Nellie Deutsch said...

Hi Marcel,
I really enjoyed reading your reflections on online community and community of practice.

Thank you for sharing.
Nellie Deutsch

Sarah Stewart said...

I have to say that I have been struck with the same thoughts as I have followed the email discussion. I guess the importance in knowing what it is, is that it informs how we utilise an online community in our teaching.

Illya said...

Hi Marcel,
I am also getting the feeling that the word 'community' is much more difuse than I had expected. And I'm still mulling over Leigh's question on my blog as to whether the members of this course have developed into a community or not.
This might be another question we won't be able to answer in unison.

But I think there has also been quite a bit of talk about what makes a group/community / course function successfully, and one of the key points in my eyes is the personal investment, which I see as being connected to emotional investment.

Is this any different in any other meeting of people who all are aiming towards the same goal?
Greetings, Illya