Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Creating Online Learning Communities

Thank-you Bill Pusztai
My recent work has taken me back to thinking about and discussing the effective creation of technically focused online learning communities. Learning online is something I have been doing for a while. And given both my pedagogical and technical background, I often get into the nuts and bolts (or bits and bytes) of building online learning communities as well as the actual building of the community. Much of my recent reflection has been about engaging and building learning communities, particularly technology (or digital literacy) focused learning communities. This post is mostly about the engagement and pedagogical side of this community building. Another post about the technical side of building online learning community may come, but is well articulated in this slideshare from a while back; http://www.slideshare.net/prawsthorne/building-onlinecommunities

I believe some background information on where I am coming from in my thinking is important. There have been a number of experiences (professional and otherwise) that have set my thinking about building technically oriented online learning communities.
  • Being a software developer and working extensively with lean and agile teams - what is important: most developers are self-directed life-long learners and they owe a lot to their peers who have contributed to what they are reading and learning.
  • Being an enterprise architect and encouraging enterprise2.0 thinking - what is important: collective intelligence and learning/teaching is knowledge management. being patient.
  • The musings of Zuckerberg vs. Poole - what is important: anonymity encourages contribution, nuf said, read my post;  http://criticaltechnology.blogspot.ca/2011/03/ignore-copyright-and-blissfully-create.html
  • My time as a early contributor to WikiEducator - what is important: recognizing contribution, doing it in the open, monetize activities wherever possible, and governance can be done exclusively online and in the open. love your volunteers.
  • Implementing seven major projects in three years with CLEBC - what is important: open approaches work in closed shops. API's allow distributed approaches. recognizing areas of practice (or communities of practice) is important. Video resources can be long-tailed. love your volunteers.
  • My graduate studies were exclusively online - what is important: face-to-face and blended opportunities are worth every moment and should be encouraged if you want greater depth to learning. This may seem against the creation of online learning communities and favoring traditional learning environments, but the point I am making is that if the opportunity to get together in the same physical space with any community member presents itself, seize it!
  • Communities can be built in many places by many people - what is important: often communities can fracture into other communities, or seasoned contributors will disengage, move-on or start other communities. Be supporters of this action for it increases the overall size and reach of the subject and its growing content.
  • Authenticity can be community policy - what is important: based on an articulated policy the authenticity of the dialogue can be increased. While anonymity can create contribution and authenticity, the community can also set and enforce policy to encourage authenticity.
Engagement, engagement, engagement
Contributors are the MOST valuable resource, they are the community! Yes, lurkers are also a huge part of any growing community, and lurkers sometimes convert into micro-contributors. The people who are, or see themselves as, stewards of the community need to engage often and with reckless abandon. They also need to encourage the stewardship to be a shared activity. Engagement should be across social media, and where possible use tagging to bring it all together.

Freedom (without scholarly egos, well... all egos)
Its the micro engagements that grow into macro engagements. If people aren't given the freedom and support to make small contributions they will rarely make the larger contributions. And once a contribution has been made facilitating discussion should come from elsewhere (not the contributor themselves) with great encouragement and recognition being given to the initial contributor. An amazing community is grown with many small and meaningful events. People should never be made to feel badly about their contribution... and don't feed the trolls.

Small is beautiful
Encourage contribution in small chunks, build discussion and shared understanding around these chunks. Allow the chunks to coalesce into larger works. Trying to complete a larger works without community engagement, ends up teaching the creator. And the online community becomes passive...

Facilitators are stewards (and need to be tech savvy)
Online learning communities that are technical in nature need to be facilitated by the technically savvy, if they are not this is quickly noticed and the community will lose credibility. The facilitators must eat their own dog-food and be exemplars in engagement and encouragement.

Reaching Out Its all about love!
I know it sounds smoltzy, but building a great online learning community is an activity of the heart... finding people who are deeply committed to the subject matter of the learning community is essential for longevity and depth of learning. People quickly get a real sense of a community (online or otherwise) and if it is not genuine people will recognize this.

Building successful online learning communities has a lot to do with reaching-out and encouraging others. And for technology focused learning communities this includes drawing in people who make small technical contributions who often contribute in small and quiet ways. Surprisingly, it is often these small contributions that have the biggest impact.