Features of Online Communities

First, what are they? Online communities can be defined as a group or social network of individuals who interact through online through specific media. I would say it simply as ‘an online network of individuals’.  Although online communities have some common features, there are different ‘types’ of online communities. Two common ones are:

Discussion boards – where individuals typically share interests/ ideas on the same topic, (can be people with similar interests).

Social network and entertainment websites (such as Facebook).

Some of the features that I see that online communities have in common are:

  • They provide the opportunity to maintain or build relationships. This will often will happen exclusively online, or will e exist alongside a ‘face to face’ relationship (such as what can happen on social networking sites.) For it to be a ‘community’, relationships need to be present in some way. Being on an email distribution list would not be considered being part of an ‘online community’ if it is simply used as a way of disseminating information.
  • All online communities will have some ‘norms’, expected ways of doing things, processes that are followed.
  • All online communities have some features in common with ‘traditional’ communities. Virtual communities resemble real life communities in the sense that they both provide support, information, friendship and acceptance between strangers. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtual_community 

What, though are the features of online communities that are likely to lead to it being a successful online community? Successful online communities:

“An (online) host is like a host at a party. You don’t automatically throw a great party by hiring a room and buying some beer. Someone needs to invite an interesting mix of people, greet people at the door, make introductions, start conversations, avert fisticuffs, encourage people to let their hair down and entertain each other.” (Rheingold, 1998)

I agree that is so true!

  • Have a clear purpose and reason for existing.
  •  All succesful online communities encourage positive interaction. 
  • Maintain momentum. Morris talks about ‘weeding and feeding, tuning and pruning’. People not only need to be drawn to an online community initially, but held within it, for it to be successful. This may happen, for example, through high energy discussion, which it is a facilitators role to encourage.

One of the things that interests me about online communities is that they have features in common with traditional communities. Some of the commonalities are that people will naturally take on ‘roles’, there are group norms, a ‘core group’ will often develop within the wider group. Also, they tend to attract ‘like-minded’ people, or people who identify with one another in some way. Equally, I think that the are elements missing from online communities. Some of these are the ability for people to express themselves through verbal expression and non-verbal communication, and the fact that online communities do not form within a ‘physical space’ or place. I find the lack of this second factor to be significant – human relationships often develop within a ‘place’ and that place can become significant within the relationships.

 Links between online communities and online facilitation:

In thinking about this from an education perspective, a lot of learning (not just online) is done in social groups. For example, in a classroom people may be involved a small group discussion, and sharing of students knowledge and experience will ideally help all individuals in a group to learn more about a particular topic. In a similar way, online learning can mirror this to a degree. It is therefore an important role of a facilitator within an online learning environment to provide the platform for and encourage development of relationships.

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Marketing Events

Again, in reflecting on my event I think what I did not do well was the marketing of the event.  Looking back to the course material, one of the questions that we need to ask ourselves in marketing an event is:  ‘What networks do I need to develop and what communities do I need to access in order to market my event/ activity?’   Developing more online networks is something I need to set myself the challenge to do.  The second is being confident in getting information about the event out there.  I am also so conscious of how busy people are, and therefore in this case was possibly too cautious in inviting people to the session.  Something to work on!

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Further Reflections on Online Faciliation

Following facilitating my mini-conference, I’ve been looking back over some of the coursework (partly because I need to do a bit of a catch up!).  I was reading about the question “What is online facilitation?” and the dictionary definition of to “make easy or easier”.  Sometimes when I am in facilitatory roles (not just online) I feel like I should be doing or saying more.  I did have a sense of that last week when facilitating the conference, and questioning if I should be inputting more of my ieads into the session.  But I guess I need to constantly remind myself of the meaning behind the word, and when I looked back on the session I do think I fulfilled the role of facilitator, in essence enabling the event to run smoothly.  In particular when I look at ‘Four Pairs of Shoes’ (Ed Hootstein) as referred to in a previous post, I did take on the roles of social director (e.g through getting participants to introduce themselves), and programme manager by directing the agenda.  I am quite relieved I did not need to take the role of technical assistant!

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Reflections on my Mini-Conference

Organisation and promotion of event:

I promoted my event on the course Wiki, my Blog, and by sending an email to course participants.  The email was sent two days prior to the event, and I was nervous that this would have been too late for participants to commit to coming.  In my advertising I aimed to conscisely describe the event, emphasising factors that I thought may grab participants interest.  I believe I covered information about the event well, aiming to make it relevant to the audience.  Blogging had been a key requirement of this course, and I believed an event focused on blogging with a speaker who had experience in the area would interest participants.  The main weakness here was that I did not advertise the event with a back-up option.  I was fortunate that on the day I did not need to resort to a backup (such as Skype), but recognise that I should have had a back-up.  This is something I will need to consider in any future online events.

Managing and facilitating the event:

There was a technical hitch with the event resulting from the way I had logged into Elluminate.  This meant that I did not have rights to record the event.  At the beginning fo the session this problem was pointed out by Sarah Stewart, who suggested the option of logging out and back in again.  However, I saw this as being potentially disrupting to participants and to the flow, and decided to proceed with the event without recording it.  In retrospect I believe it would have been better to log out and in again and this should not have been time consuming – but I am not great at making on the spot decisions under pressure!

Once the event was underway it ran smoothly.  I asked participants to introduce themselves.  With the small size of the group (eight) this was appropriate and did not take too long.  It enabled me to check that nobody hd any technical problems.   I then introduced guest speaker Marcus Wilson.  I explained the aims of the session, and briefly introduced some of the topic areas that Marcus intended to touch on.  Marcus spoke and during this time questions came in from participants, both via the comments area, and audio.  I felt that the session quickly got into a good flow, with interaction from participants.  There was positive use of the comments boxes and some questions asked by audio.  There were no significant disruptions.  During this time I facilitated by managing questions and directing them to Marcus.  I am concsious of keeping within a ‘facilitatory’ role, allowing Marcus to talk with interactions from participants.  This can be a balancing act, and at times when I was facilitating I almost felt I should be saying more.  However, on reflection my role as facilitator was fulfilled, and I enabled participation which is what was required.  I had deliberately decided to keep the event simple (e.g. no Powerpoint, no break-out rooms), and I think this paid off.

I gave little consideration for provision of any technical support that may have been required.  I had planned to briefly run through the basics of using Elluminate for any participants who may not have been familiar with it.  Beyond this, it was fortunate that participants knew how to use Elluminate and that there were no major technical issues on the night (apart from the one that I created!). 

The most difficult aspect of the event for me was not knowing how many people, and who would attend the event.  I had two people indicate via email prior to the event that they would attend.  I felt rather nervous that there would be a low number of participants, and was not sure what to do if only two people turned up!  I was pleasantly surprised to have a total number of eight (myself and Marcus included).

Concluding the session:

To end the session I ensured that all participants questions had been answered, then thanked participants for attending, and thanked Marcus for speaking.  I also appologised again for the technical error and explained that a recording of the session would not be available.  It felt like the right time to close – there had been some animated discussion but this was beginning to die down.

The audience fed back some positive comments such as ‘great session!’.  I found it more difficult to gauge what people really thought not being face to face, without being able to observe body language.  But people genuinely sounded like they had enjoyed the session and found it useful.  Sarah made some positive and encouraging comments.

Key changes for the future:

In the future, the key changes I would make are 1) ask those who intend to come to the event to contact me to tell me beforehand, so I know how many/ who to expect, 2) make the whiteboard a little more interesting with slightly more text and a picture of me, and 3) ensure I practiced recording prior to avoid the mistake I made. 

Overall this was a great learning experience that encouraged me to extend myself and put some of my learning from this paper into practice.

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Mini Conference Idea

On Monday 8th November at 7.30pm (NZ time) I will be holding my mini-conference with guest speaker Marcus Wilson.  It will be focused around developing a successful blog, delivered via Ellluminate.  Marcus will talk with the group about his experience with blogging. He has a widely read blog called ‘Physics Stop’ and another blog that he contributes to regularly as part of a group called ‘Teaching Talk’.  (And is much more regular with his blog postings than I am!)
I would like to make this as relevant as possbile to those who attend, therefore am asking for ideas on what you think it would be useful to cover. Questions that I may focus the session around are:
How do you address a community/ audience that you don’t have a full handle on?
How can you make your blog attractive and engaging?
What are some of the key principles/ rules to follow to make a blog successful?
How do you attract people to your blog?
How can you encourage people to comment and connect?  (This question is something that I know Marcus would like to work on too).

I would love to hear any other ideas that people have, so this session can be as relevant as possible.  Please leave any comments on what you may find helpful.

Karen

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Social Networking Platforms

I’ve previously mentioned thoughts around the possibility of using Facebook more for online learning.  I see that Lynn Blair http://lynb.wordpress.com/ has mentioned some of the frustrations she has around Facebook, and plans to talk about this further in her mini-conference, which I’m looking forward to.  It’s made me think again about the question of how communities can be brought together through online networking and the use of social networking sites.  As I mentioned on Lynn’s blog, I do wonder if there is more scope for using Facebook with the students I work with.  Often it is difficult to get students to contribute to discussion forums on Moodle – but if we use a platform they are already very familiar with and confident using, and as Lynn has suggested sometimes addicted to, maybe this will help to solve the problem.   Just a thought at the moment, but I am keen to explore the possibility further for the future, and talk to others who I work about options here.

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Reflections on Cultural Competence

I see culturally competent facilitation as facilitating in a way that recognises that individuals have diverse ways of doing things and seeing the world, which will often not align with that of your own, and including and meeting those diverse needs as much as possible.  This will include ensuring that you do things in a way that will not ‘offend’ those with various viewpoints.  Wikipedia mentions the Diversity Training University International who see various components to social competence.  One of those is being aware, and conscious of ones’ own actions and reactions.  I think this is very true, and that developing such an awareness is a vital step in developing cultural competence.  A further point that is mentioned is that of effective communication.  I believe that a key aspect of cultural competence is communicating in a way, both verbally and non-verbally, that includes and does not offend individuals.

I think that in a classroom it may be easier to be ‘culturally competent’ than online.  Online facilitation is particularly challenging in relation to online facilitation for, I believe, two reasons.  First, online groups can be extremely diverse, for example they will often be made up of people from multiple countries.  Second, as pointed out by Steven Thorpe in the document ‘Enhancing Online Collaboration”, cultural differences online will be less obvious due to less emotional cues and feedback.  Certainly we ‘see’ far less online, such as non-verbal communication which can often tell us so much. 

I believe an important step to take in meeting diverse cultural needs, is getting to know our students. This should happen both whether we are teaching F2F, or only in an online environment – although this will be more challenging in an online environment.     The more we learn about individuals the more we will be able to account for and meet their needs. 

More thinking to do on some of the specifics here, which I intend to address in another post!

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