Archive for the ‘Communities’ Category

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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