Wednesday, February 23, 2005

What makes communities successful

The Australian Flexible Learning Community has a great post entitled "Learning in Communities". I like a lot of what I read there. I like the people they quote, like Howard Rheingold.

The section that I would like to mention here is entitled "What makes a community successful?" The authors cite eight attributes .

The first strikes me as being most important: a community has to be about something. That makes the community authentic. If the community has no real focus, it can't be sustained. If the focus is not really of interest to the participants but is imposed from the outside, I don't think it will work, either. This seems like it might be part of the problem when students don't want to blog. We have to find a way to make students take ownership. And we have to really want them to take ownership.

Second, the authors believe that the members must feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves. This is facilitated by interaction among the members. I wonder if the type of interaction, the type of messages shared by members matters. In my recent experience with another online course, there was a lot of interaction, many messages shared. But I never felt I was part of it. For me, anyway, the type of message made a big difference. I wanted to discuss the topic differently than the others, it seems. Judging from the reduced number of messages as the course progressed, I don't think I was alone.

The third attribute is that content and communication must be integrated. This means, as I understand it, that the discussion remain focused. I actually think this was the problem with the other course. I don't want to say discussion was hijacked, but it didn't seem to be widely applicable. And it didn't always seem on-topic.

The fourth is that participants' contributions must be appreciated. I think that is one of the many things that made the community created by this course so successful. Our early posts were always acknowledged and commented on. Commenting on the blogs was a group assignment that first week. The facilitators continued commenting throughout the course. Our questions were answered as soon as they were asked. Because of their example and the way the course was designed, I think most of us felt that sense of community.

As a fifth attribute is that a community needs ongoing communications if it is to continue. They say that communication must be a primary objective of the community as opposed to a sideline. Because this course was about blogging, it would have been hard to leave communication out of it. Here again, I have to refer to the other course I was in. The communication was not necessary. It wasn't really required. Communication consisted of answers to assigned questions and reports of activitied undertaken. In other words, there wasn't much real communication.

The authors offer the fact that a successful community empowers its members as the sixth point. The go on to talk about the special value of this in learning communities and explain that it is done by means of organizers giving participants the resources and information they need to "build their own learning". Here again, the organizers of this course deserve high marks. We were given access to the knowledge, to the resources, to the "experts". We made our own learning and, as a result, that learning is real and solid. And ours.

The seventh attribute is that a learning community must have an educational orientation. What happens within a learning community must have a pedagogical purpose. In a classroom community, there must be a gradual progression to more and more complex discussion. This is something we have really seen in this course, I think. The organizers set it up so we could get our basic introductions and such out of the way before the course actually began. Then we becan with just learning to do the basics - and all the questions that came along with that. As we have moved through the weeks, we have learned to so more complicated tasks and we have started looking at the theory, the principles underlying blogging. That is where we find outselves this week -- looking at the core issues involved rather than the surface niceties.

Lastly, the authors state that a community must have a sense of history if it is to be successful. We have to know that this isn't all going to end this coming Sunday. The authors say that as part of this history there should be a class archive. This is what we have been doing with the wiki all along.

Based on the characteristics of a successful community outlined in the article, I would have to say that this is, indeed, a successful one. I am grateful to have been a part of it. The challenge is to take what we have learned here about blogging and about communities and put it into practice in our own situations.

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