Social Capital and Community Development in the Pursuit of Dragon Slaying

What can the massively multiplayer game ‘World of Warcraft’ teach us about how to facilitate learning communities? Below is a video of the talk I gave at the Games Learning and Society conference in Madison Wisconsin. (Running time 26 minutes)[flv:http://tall.conted.ox.ac.uk/video/maina.flv 500 375]

If you want more details before watching here is the abstract…

This presentation is an evaluation of ethnographic field work conducted in and around the World of Warcraft MMO. The study focuses on the motivation of guild members to construct communities of practice both to learn and to socialize. This suggests that the guilds can act as useful models for understanding how online social networks function and how they could influence the ideology of next generation e-learning services.

Successful collaborative learning can only be sustained if the individuals involved feel part of a group or community in which they can trust. The most robust communities tend to be those that form via a collective aim or interest; their formation has a social underpinning and is not totally utilitarian.

If an aspiration of e-learning is to move away from simply providing online programs of study, demarcated by subject, to increasingly fluid spaces in which students can build social networks, then we need to understand how contemporary collaborative and participatory environments encourage the formation of these types of groupings.

Some of the most sophisticated examples of online community creation and management take place in and around MMO environments. The current apex of this field is the ‘guild’ system which suffuses the World of Warcraft MMO. Guilds are effectively goal-oriented clubs or societies, many of which utilize the latest Web 2.0 technologies out-of-game and multi-channel text chat and VOIP systems in-game both to organize and to socialize.

This paper is based on data collected over a period of six months from an ongoing ethnographic study comprising self-reflexive observation and semi-structured interviews conducted in World of Warcraft and face-to-face with guild members. This extends into a study of the social software used out-of-game by community members that acts as a communication base for the guilds.

The data is evaluated using Wenger’s notion of communities of practice, which highlights the interweaving of goal-orientated learning and the immersion of those participating in trusted social networks. This has the effect of generating and communicating what Bourdieu calls cultural capital, the lack of which often makes online learning a poor second to traditional face-to-face learning.

The challenge here is how to abstract underpinning principles and practice that will be of value to e-learning away from the immediate goals or ideology of a particular MMO. This is not to suggest that killing dragons in collaborative groups is the future of e-learning. Instead it proposes that much can be gained from reflecting on the success of MMOs in motivating the formation of vibrant online communities and the ways in which these communities interweave socializing and learning.

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Web 2.0 Analysis and Statistics

You may be interested in my report on Web2.0 take-up and usage which I submitted to JISC a few weeks ago. It’s analysis of some data that blogged back in March. I included the responses to the data in the report. It was all very ‘participatory’. The report can be downloaded from here: www.jisc.ac.uk/media/documents/programmes/digitalrepositories/spiresurvey.pdf

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Structure vs Community?

This post assumes that you agree that collaborative/group work is a good method of online learning and that effective learning takes place when the individuals involved are part of a community. The ideas in this post are as a result of some in depth discussions with members of emerge. This post is not very well put together in it’s use of terms like ‘community’, ‘group’ and ‘collaboration’ but I hope you can see the basic principles I’m trying to work with.

The basic dichotomy?

  • Too much structure = restriction on community formation, groups stay in pre-defined ‘networks’ and do not thrive?
  • Too little structure = lack of direction, lack of coherence, community less likely to form?

We agree that it’s not possible to mandate a community but we understand that a community forms only when certain structures are in place. We are not sure exactly what those structures should be or who should be responsible for putting them in place(?) We are also not sure how much structure should be put in place by the educational institution or tutors and how much space/flexibility should be provided for the students to experiment with.

Some basic questions?
Where should the structure come from to encourage a successful community?

  • How much should come from the facilitators within the community?
  • How much should come from the members of that community?
  • How much should come from the nature of the tools used by that community?

What is the difference between a facilitator and a member? Can one become the other? In a community are we always both?

The rise of web2.0 and immersive environments brings the above questions to the fore. I think that it has only recently become practical for elearning to be relatively unstructured online as social networking etc has become more main-stream. We can see the emergence of online communities and the significance this has for learning but we don’t know precisely how to encourage the formation of communities (It may in fact be more of a craft skill than a science). We can see how engaged, motivated individuals are keen to communicate collaborate and participate, thereby forming communities (emerge is a good example) but we aren’t sure how to encourage/lead a bunch of slightly alienated first years to act in a communal manner.

I would argue that innovative work/research in elearning needs to find answers to the questions posed above. ‘Next generation’ elearning will increasing be about managing and facilitating collaboration and communities, about encouraging cohorts of students to move from being an institutional defined network of individuals to members of learning communities that reach beyond traditional institutional boundaries.

So, what would an attempt to answer these questions look like as a ‘project’? Well here is my first, very sketchy attempt to outline one possible route.

The focus would be on Second Life in this particular case but with the understanding that any educational activity in SL will probably actually be overseen by associated 2D systems (Moodle, FaceBook etc) As I mentioned in an earlier post I think that most healthy communities exist in more than one tool or environment. i.e Emerge uses Elgg, Elluminate Skype Email etc. The community has the same relationship to a single tool as a virus has to a single host. If the tool creates the right environment then the community will grow stronger. It will have stronger bonds and will potentially expand in numbers. As the community evolves it will move hosts/tools or at least shift its emphasis within a group of tools. For example moving from a Blog focus to a Skype focus and back again as ideas circulate.

Clearly it would be a good idea to look at other successful online communities to try and discover what kind of structures they have put in place. It would also be useful to gather together examples of current good/successful practice of teaching/group work in Second Life.

Next we would plan a series of group/collaborative activities that range from the highly structured (eg step-by-step with a tutor) through to the open (eg form your own group and build a demonstration of a scientific principle of your choice). We would then put a range of students through these activities to discover which combination of students and activities fostered community like activity.

The main outcome would be guidance on how to encourage online community and how best to run collaborative activities in an immersive environment. An ideal result would be a series of activity models that gradually move from the structured to the unstructured and draw a cohort of students through to a point where they are a relatively self-supporting community. We could learn from the gaming community in this respect. Below is a chart that shows the amount of time it takes to reach each ‘level’ in World of Warcraft.

Leveling_TimeFrom ‘Alone Together?’ Ducheneaut et al. 2006

As you can see the time/effort needed rises fairly steadily from level to level. This is good game design, could it be good course design? The game has the advantage over a traditional course in that there are explicit rewards every other level (spells, amour etc) is there an educational equivalent?

The higher the level the more likely you will need to be in a group to successful tackle and quest (activity). The groups need to be larger as you reach the ‘end’ of the game with groups of 20 or more some of the quests above level 50. The forming of these groups is organised by the players themselves and is the main reason that guilds (communities) form. So you start the game doing structured activates alone and could end the game collaborating as part of a community inventing methods and tactics. Sounds like a good educational model to me…

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