Archive for January, 2008

Gilly Salmon’s book on designing e-tivities is one of those old stand-bys I keep on my night table. What I like about Salmon is, even though she’s been engaged in elearning for a while, she’s always fresh and insightful. Here she is talking about designing elearning …


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Just dance

just dance

(Photo, Just Dance, by Jason Carlin)

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contactsA couple of months ago I came across an article taken from ‘s book, Cultivating Communities of Practice. The article offers some design principles for creating communities. Its central question has been sitting in my head ever since. “How do you design for aliveness?”

The nice thing about thinking about communities is that there are so many different kinds and so many different ways that communities support people. For example, a community approach might support faculty development. It might support the work of a project team. It might help us coordinate learners as they navigate their own personal learning environment. It might help a facilitator develop a more flexible and creative approach to teaching. It might be a way to support distance or mobile learners. As a friend of mine says, learners aren’t looking for the kind of learning environments we’re used to. They’re looking for convenience, mobility and flexibility. How does a community approach get us there? How do we design in a way that opens up these possibilities? How do we design for aliveness?

Wenger, McDermott and Snyder offer seven principles for design:

First, design for natural evolution. Start out with less than you would traditionally. Communities are more organic and self-directed. For example, you might start with something simple like a schedule of weekly meetings. If the community is supporting a credit course or a research project, you might also start out with a set of outcomes or competencies so that the community has a general focus or goal. Your role isn’t to develop a structure or a process, but to help a community develop its own character, energy and sense of direction.

Second, open a dialogue between outside and inside perspectives. The collective experiences of the group need to be nurtured. Outside voices can help communities see their potential. Conversations between outsiders and community leaders can catalyze change. Welcome outside experts.

Third, invite different levels of participation. Allow people to participate depending on the extent to which their interests are engaged. Potentially, everyone in a community is a leader or a lurker (or a teacher or a learner). Wenger, McDermott and Snyder say that you have to build “benches” in a community so that people can observe from the sidelines. For example, at SCoPE members have access to seminars and sessions even when they’re not actively participating. Members at SCoPE can also facilitate a session if they have a particular expertise.

Fourth, design for private and public conversations. Establish a regular rhythm of public events to give members of a community the experience of belonging to the group and to see who else is involved. However, leave enough space between events to allow community leaders to “work the backchannel” by dropping in on members, talking about their issues or problems and sharing resources. As Wenger, McDermott and Snyder say, “use the strength of individual relationships to enrich events and use events to strengthen relationships.”

Fifth, focus on value. It goes without saying that communities need to have a value. Otherwise, why would anyone participate? However, sometimes it’s hard to draw a direct line between a conversation where an idea is discussed and later when it’s applied. Ask community members to be explicit about the value that the community has for them, perhaps by taking time to talk about it during regular meetings or events. Making it explicit will help others see the potential value of the community for them, and help them understand that they may need patience in order to realize the community’s value in their own lives.

Sixth, balance familiarity with excitement. Establish a schedule of regular meetings, activities and projects to give the community a comfortable rhythm. Create a “place” like a neighbourhood cafe where people feel they can go to ask questions or try out their ideas in safety. (The “place” could easily be a discussion board or a sandbox in Second Life.) Balance regularity with new experiences. Invite in outside speakers. Take the community on a new adventure — to a conference or on a field trip, for example. Occasionally, comfortable patterns of thinking need to be challenged.

Seventh, create a rhythm for the community that’s not too slow and not too fast, but steady and regular like a heartbeat. Allow for a tempo of regular interaction. Establish milestones or special projects. You may find that activity speeds up just before and after events and slows down in the space between. (A community I’m involved with recently collaborated on a proposal. It was one of the busiest months on our mailing list.) Find a steady rhythm that works for your group.

When you compare a community approach to a more traditional one like ADDIE or Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction, the contrast is stark. By designing for community instead of for content, you end up with something that’s potentially more learner-centered and engaging than what we currently do. You provide a framework that can leverage the community’s own energy and expertise. Less is more.

(Photo, contacts, by hobvias sudoneighm)

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Eve Gray had a great post this week about the launch of the Capetown Declaration this week where she calls for “opening the gates of education”. She makes some great points that are worth repeating. Open education initiatives, like MIT’s Open CourseWare Initiative, aren’t just about people having access to course materials. It’s about participation. It’s allowing people to use, adapt and build on these resources. How you license matters. The format of the resources matters.

One more point, unfortunately Canada is a bit behind in the open education movement. Capilano College in British Columbia is the only Canadian member of the Open CourseWare Consortium. All of us who work in educational institutions here in Canada need to think about how we can contribute. We talk about connecting to communities and service learning, yet the enormous opportunity of open education seems to be passing us by. Let’s step up.

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Advice to sink in slowly

For the past two years, graduates of University College Falmouth have designed a series of posters with advice to pass on to freshmen. Each new arrival to the College gets one. These are so whimsical and light-hearted. What a wonderful idea.

let go of what you think you know

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campfireThe bells went off in my head when I read David Wiley’s post about social objects. Campfires, says Wiley, serve the same purpose as content in a course.  They’re social objects.  A campfire is the thing we gather around. It’s the focal point for a good conversation, a debate, an exploration or a relationship.

In online courses, we spend a lot of time thinking about campfires. We plan. We gather wood. But in spending so much time on the fire, we sometimes miss the point. It’s not about the campfire. It’s about what it helps us do.

(Photo, Campfire, by Andreas Koberle)

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“For what is this much-trumpeted social networking but an escape back into that world of the closed online service of 15 or 20 years ago? Is it part of some deep human instinct that we take an organism as open and wild and free as the internet, and wish then to divide it into citadels, into closed-border republics and independent city states? The systole and diastole of history has us opening and closing like a flower: escaping our fortresses and enclosures into the open fields, and then building hedges, villages and cities in which to imprison ourselves again before repeating the process once more. The internet seems to be following this pattern.” ~ Stephen Fry in The Guardian

What do you think about Facebook & the social networks that you belong to? Do we like our walled gardens?

(Thanks to Chris for the heads up.)

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