Twice each year I teach a course that depends a great deal on students thinking-out-loud in blog posts and various forms of online discussions. Most of this is conducted in a private community space we use specifically for the course but at times the conversations seeps out into Twitter or Google+.
Each time the course begins there is tension. Will the community dialogue be made up of posts that read more like formal responses to a course assignment? Or will people share thoughts and engage in discussions in a way that shows some vulnerability – that they are struggling to make sense of course concepts or ideas and see the community as a place to work out their thinking?
That is the point of the course, after all; understanding the role that technology plays in our ability to share and create knowledge. I try to teach some theory and share case studies to get underneath the how and why this might be a good thing. But at the end of the day the course works best only if the students feel it, intellectually and emotionally.
The more I go through this period of community tension, the more I am beginning to believe the leading indicator of pending success is the presence of half-baked thinking.
Sometimes the clues to a blog post or discussion comment being half-baked are as obvious as the cold in Chicago in February. The authors literally say “this is half-baked thinking” or “I haven’t thought this all the way through but…” Other times it’s more subtle. Someone may post a longer, thoughtfully written piece about a particular idea but they indicate in some way (a phrase in the post, or how they respond to comments or additional discussion) that the original piece was draft thinking. They were looking for discussion to sharpen their point-of-view.
The presence of half-baked ideas isn’t the only indicator of success. You clearly want some passion and argument (dissenting points of view); some synthesizing of ideas into a current-point-of-view that aligns the community (even temporarily) around the meaning of a set of ideas or concepts; and some community members taking on informal roles to keep the community dialogue engaged and productive (mediator, synthesizer, idea-starter, protocol officer). In this point of view, I am indebted to the authors of Knowledge Collaboration in Online Communities (Faraj, S., Jarvenpaa, S., Majchrzak, A. 2011). Faraj et al explore the idea of fluidity in online communities as a fundamental, positive characteristic. They describe both tensions (e.g., “passion” has both positive and negative consequences in a community and therefore creates a tension) and generative responses to those tensions (e.g., emergent community roles such as “mediator”). The work of these authors establishes a framework for understanding online communities that certainly proves useful in my own particular case.
But as a practitioner whose goal is to periodically start-up a new online community and nudge it into some valuable state, the presence of half-baked ideas is key. To me it is an indicator of trust and safety; if the majority of participants feel secure enough to think-out-loud online – brave enough to go half-baked – then the community likely has achieved some level of trust among its members. Thus begins a virtuous cycle and a real learning community comes to life.
A side note: The inspiration for the phrase “brave enough to go half-baked” came via a Twitter chat with two students (Alison Servi @alisonservi and Ashley Punzalan @ashpunz). They were also instrumental, along with my Northwestern peer Keeley Sorokti (@sorokti), in validating the idea as a useful call-to-action in new communities. Being surrounded by clever people makes life a joy.
Photo credit: “Dinner for Two” by T.R.G via Flickr