This is the first of two posts related to a recent presentation that Keeley Sorokti, my collaborator at Northwestern University, and I gave at the Chicago eLearning & Technology Showcase. This post is about the content of the presentation. The second post goes meta.
The presentation was a current-point-in-time case study on the work we’ve been doing at the Master’s Program in Learning & Organizational Change at Northwestern University (MSLOC). For the past 4 years, we’ve been continuing to experiment with using Enterprise 2.0 technologies (blogs, wikis, microblogging) as a key element within and across courses in the program. In the presentation we share some of our insights about one aspect: Community management of semi-closed communities focused on learning.
The title may be a bit misleading – we may have a few “non-believers” among our graduate students, but I think it is more accurate to say that they have not yet had a good opportunity to begin developing their digital literacies. Graduate students in MSLOC are experienced working professionals – average 12 years of experience – who are all truly geeked out about going deeper on organizational learning, change, strategy and knowledge sharing. They are a brilliant bunch and bring a great diversity of professional backgrounds into the program. Classes have the feeling of being part of an innovative new company where everyone is open to contribute their own personal best self.
So – “non-believers” may be too harsh. This is an open-minded group. But still, we intentionally nudge them into incorporating technology into their personal learning routine in entirely new and different ways so a) they benefit individually and b) they become more aware of the role that technology plays in learning and organizational change.
This strategy adds another layer of complexity, as well, for the instructors. And that is essentially the experience that formed the basis for the presentation: If you are in some formal role as “facilitator” of an online learning community, what do you do? How do you know if you are creating an online environment that enhances learning – and is not just a place where students politely post content because it’s an assignment?
There is a good deal of subtlety in learning how to address that issue, but here are some insights:
You need to be able to recognize the (relative) health of the network or community of interest. In my experience this means:
- Not worrying about lurking. Just because people read but don’t contribute (especially initially) doesn’t mean they aren’t learning or thinking. And in many cases, they may just be expressing their insights or ideas outside of the community beyond your visibility.
- Look for passion and temporary convergence. You want to see signs of participants getting passionate about something – anything. Even if it is tangential to the course topic. It brings energy to the community and starts to open things up. Temporary convergence is when divergent ideas start to come together, maybe along one little thread, and maybe only among a few participants. It’s not a full-scale routine like brainstorming – in which many many divergent ideas are whittled down to a single workable concept. But it’s got that similar kind of movement. An insight. A glimmer of an idea. It’s these little bits that likely lead to larger connections downstream.
- Recognize signs of trust and safety. You want the environment to be one in which people can go off half-baked – that requires trust and safety. Look for signs that tell you the community is becoming more trusting.
- Look for short-term value. Someone discovers a new resource (article, book, website) or makes a new connection that would not have occurred without the community being in place. These short-term bits are the flour in the cake.
- Look for emergent roles. A healthy community will have participants assuming productive roles – even temporarily, and without being aware of it. Someone helps mediate a tense discussion. Someone synthesizes a big discussion into a thoughtful summary or graphic. Someone spends time to greet newcomers and help make connections for them.
That last bit – emergent roles – is also important in that it provides insight in the same way that social modeling might in an office or group environment. As the facilitator of the community, I need to know when and how to participate. If I jump in too much, I become the focus of attention. Too little, and I may not nudge the community to life in the short term I have with it (in our case, 10 weeks). So I think of myself as being a performer of sorts (Etienne Wenger and Beverly Wenger-Trayner have coined the term social artist – which I think is appropriate here). Do I need to be a connector, and link ideas or people? Do I need to initiate a discussion? Do I need to synthesize or mediate? Many of the roles I’d like to see played by others in the community I have consciously (and carefully) modeled in my own participation.
Above all, I think, is exhibiting an attitude of authentic participation in the private community while recognizing the benefits of being more broadly digitally engaged. The case situation I am writing about here involves 30 students in a course where students do also meet face-to-face (so there are differences from MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses — in both theory and practice). But I know the more I engage actively in the practice of creating and developing personal learning networks, and participate in innovative events like MOOCs, the more I recognize the layers, and the tremendous learning benefits of connecting.