Disappearing digital resources

One of the most striking aspects of our JISC funded Open-Educational-Resources Impact study was the extent to which using digital resources has become embedded in teaching practice. Digital resources are ‘disappearing into use’ as they become part of the fabric of higher education.

We interviewed strategists, academics and students to find out how they found and used digital resources. It wasn’t surprising to find that students were Googling for anything they could get their hands on but the extent to which academics are doing this as well was unexpected. The difference between the groups was that staff have the expertise required to critically evaluate what they find while the students are nervous about waiting-time using resources which might prove to be off-topic. They are also uncertain of how to cite non-traditional resources or if they should admit to using them as all. This is a good example of where digital literacy and traditional research skills are both essential.

But what about licensing? Well, those whose practice was highly visible on the web and therefore closely tied to the reputation of their institution were keen to use openly licensed materials. E.g. an online distance elearning team or groups that make modules which are rereleased out onto the web. Those in course or programme teams were less focused on licensing because their practice is largely private – within the VLE, in the lecture theatre etc. In day-to-day teaching the technicalities of reuse come second to the potential of a resource to make the student’s learning experience richer.

The OER Impact project analysed the link between the value of use and its impact in teaching and learning. There is a full research report and a shorter ‘accessible’ report available for download from JISC. Or you can watch the short video below to get an overview of our findings.

The video is published under a Creative Commons Attribution licence (CC BY)

OER Impact project team-

Technology-Assisted Lifelong Learning:
Mr David White
Ms Marion Manton

Learning Technologies Group:
Dr Elizabeth Masterman
Ms Joanna Wild

Product or Public Good?

I was delighted to be invited to speak about our Study of Online Learning our group authored for the HEFCE Task Force at this years ALT-C conference. I  focused on the issues that I felt arose from the long awaited report which is due to be published shortly.

Or view the talk in the ALT-C youTube channel

The vast majority of online distance offerings are postgraduate ‘professional’ courses. eg. Masters in Law, Medicine, Business, Engineering etc.

I made it clear in my presentation at ALT-C that I don’t see this as a problem in of itself. The institutions providing these courses have found that the online distance format works well for those in full-time employment and that these types of courses have a ready market. Setting up successful online distance programmes is challenging enough so it make sense to pick the low hanging fruit in terms of potential customers when developing new products.

Did that last sentence grate a bit? It does for me and not just because of the dubious grammar. As soon as we talk in terms of ‘customers’ and ‘product’ I get nervous. There seems to be something inherently at odds with the philosophy of higher education as I understand it when it is couched in economic terminology. This is then compounded by the apparent keenness of the government to involve private partners in the delivery of higher education programmes online with the possibility of giving some companies the right to award degrees directly.

ALT Proceedings
A fortifying cup of tea with some mini-chedders

I was at an amusing talk recently given by an American company who claimed that their “for-profit university was not preoccupied with money”. It’s very easy to sit in a university and poke fun at commercial educational providers, too easy in fact, especially as I’m quite happy to take my salary home each month. I haven’t done an MBA so I’m not an expert but I find it difficult to distinguish the financial approaches of public and private sector bodies sometimes. Universities are diverse businesses and have many money-making activities some of which are funded by the government and some which are straight commercial ventures. I believe that a simplistic argument around ‘for-profit’ and ‘not for-profit’ masks the real issue which in the case of online distance learning is to do with diversity.

Almost every institution in this field whether a university or a big corporate is providing an extremely narrow curriculum because certain courses have a better Return on Investment than others. The problem is not what we are providing online but what we are neglecting to provide. Where are the humanities and liberal arts? Where are the foundation and undergraduate degrees? There are a few examples of these (I cited The Sheffield College) but certainly not enough to reflect the character of our face-to-face universities.

The reason for this lack of diversity in both curriculum and academic levels is because non-STEM, non-Business, non-Postgrad courses have a less reliable income stream. It’s expensive to kick start an online programme. It’s a lot less expensive than building a lecture theatre or a library but because it’s a ‘new’ mode of delivery it’s assessed outside the economic machinery embedded in our institutions and has to be seen to pay-for-itself. Here is where the financial challenges bite. At ALT-C I made the statement that “Universities should enrich society not make society rich”. I admit that this becomes increasingly difficult when money is scarce but I feel that it’s important that we retain those aspects of our activity which work towards the public good. A public good which is not predicated on wealth and material growth but on wellbeing, one which equips individuals to be more than economic units.

Dave Walks
I got quite animated (Image: Creative Commons "Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales" : Mark Gregory of Photoshy.com)

This challenge is distinct from abstract notions of ‘quality’. I can’t honestly say what the standard of teaching and learning is like on the offerings our study discovered but I see no evidence that a lucrative course is destined to be a less ‘educational’ experience than one that loses money. In many cases I suspect that the quality of online learning is higher than equivalent face-to-face courses because students expect significant amounts of contact when at a distance. In face-to-face teaching scenarios the lecture (a controversial subject this year) provides a very efficient sense of contact and notional cohort cohesion. For online this cohesion has to be built by regular feedback, tutor-student contact and peer-to-peer learning. The risk of a lack of social presence in a predominantly text based medium coupled with the influence of the micro-contact culture of the web means that only the online courses with excellent learning design will survive. The mode of delivery inherently demands good pedagogy and active engagement or students simply drop out.

I think it’s helpful to consider this area in terms of identity because this forces a consideration of values beyond the economic. As it stands the ‘digital identity’ of online higher education provided by the UK largely looks like a highly academic professional development programme. I must reiterate that I’m not criticising this activity in of itself rather I am holding out hope that future funding models will allow programmes outside this area to move online and better represent the varied and excellent teaching and learning this country is rightly known for.

If you are keen to discuss the role of technology within/around higher education in a political context then you might want to consider registering your interest for the proposed ‘Tech, Power, Education’ seminar series.

Slides from the talk:

Does the Technology Matter?

Recently I have given keynotes at the Plymouth e-Learning Conference (video here .wmv format) and the  Technology Enhanced Learning Symposium at DeMontfort University (slides here), both of which explored the flow of technology from shiny innovation through to  embedded use within an institutional environment. I did this from the perspective of the individuals/groups involved rather than by describing the evolving affordances of digital platforms. This approach being an attempt to avoid the ‘what’ of technological determinism, concentrating instead on the ‘why’ of institutional/individual motivations.

A few of the things I covered included:

  • Drawing out the similarities and differences between the geeks gate keeping the BBC Micro in 1982 with the beautiful people (in expensive jeans) ‘life-styling’ the iPad in 2010.
  • Highlighting the daunting breath of activity and motivations that now come under the increasingly useless banner of ‘digital’ by contrasting the excellent Hierarchy of Digital Distractions with the contents of the 2009 GCSE in Information Communications Technology.
  • Asking the audience to reflect on their own personal motivations and positions relative to my ‘Six Very Simple Diagrams’: Role, Desire, Pedagogy, Technology, Motivation and Bickering.

Of these ‘Role’ seems to cause the most discussion:

Role

Do you see your role as one of successfully embedding technology  until it becomes ‘transparent’ or is it more about challenging current practices using the tech as a driver for change? It could of course be a combination but my experience within the Higher Education sector is that groups coalesce around either ‘disappear’ or ‘disrupt’. This, in my opinion, is why individuals who can facilitate communication between these groups are crucial to the ongoing innovation-embedding flow within any institution.

The apparent opposition within the disappear-disrupt paradigm was brought back to mind when I was invited to take part in a ‘Does the Technology Matter?’ debate for the ALT-C conference later this year. Inspired by some slightly belligerent Tweeting around the concept by myself, @josiefraser and @mweller Dave Cormier hung the tensions embodied in the statement very elegantly on Smartboards (although he could have chosen any number of technologies) in his ‘It’s about the technology and it isn’t’ post. In the post he neatly balances the push-pull nature of the introduction of new tech into a classroom situation, highlighting what the effects of a new technology can be and what is simply foregrounded by the presence of that technology.

For me this aligns well with the disappear-disrupt concept in that your position on this continuum will underpin your reaction to the ‘Does it Matter?’ statement. This brings me to extend the question into a more useful form: ‘Does the Technology Matter for What?’ which does not have an objective answer as it is inextricably linked with ‘What do you Think you are Trying to Achieve?’ Oddly the latter question is often passed over when ‘new’ technologies are being introduced with vague allusions to ‘efficiency’ or ‘it’s what the students want’.

Again it’s the ‘what’ not the ‘why’ which tends to get focused on. As an example I would cite the ‘digital literacy’ debate in which motivations to engage frequently go unexplored leading to a focus on how to develop and maintain a successful digital identity as if this is the only way to live and learn. This in turn inevitably moves onto interminable discussions around facebook privacy options that ultimately spiral into the nature of society as a whole until lunch brings the whole thing to an inconclusive finish. Too much ‘what’ morphs into a woolly ‘why’ just as people start to get really hungry.

What I’m lobbying for here is a properly balanced conversation around ‘Does the Technology Matter’ in which we avoid simplistic posturing by making it clear what our assumptions and motivations are. In this way the discussion will help us to reflect on our own positions and how we can successfully collaborate with those around us who hold differing views but might well be trying to achive similar things. I’m not saying that I’d-like-to-teach-the-world-to-sing I just think that our underlying approach to technology is still a little 1982 and it’s time to accept that the picture is a bit more complex.

Visitors & Residents: The Video

Last month I gave a presentation on the ‘Visitors & Residents’ principle at the ALT-C conference which was well received so I thought it would be worth videoing the talk under laboratory conditions…

Some of you might also be interested in our paper on Visitors and Residents:

Visitors and Residents: A new typology for online engagement
by David S. White and Alison Le Cornu.
First Monday, Volume 16, Number 9 – 5 September 2011
http://www.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewArticle/3171/3049

Just a few notes to go with the video:

The original ‘Prezi’ presentation is here: http://prezi.com/x0nxciep_mlt/

The tinyURL that is supposed to link to Andy Powell’s ‘Twitter for Idiots’ post is incorrect. Please follow this link instead.

At points I use the term ‘real life’ which seems to imply that anything which is online is somehow not part of ‘real life’. A better phrase would have been ‘offline’. Language in this area is difficult at best…

The quote “…just knowing how to use particular technologies makes one no wiser than just knowing how to read words” is a quote from Prensky’s recent paper on ‘Digital Wisdom’. In the journal ‘Innovate’. In other versions of the talk I refer to Prensky directly but seem to have omitted it when I was in front of the camera.  All other non-attributed quotes are anonymised statements from our students.

The images I used are under the Creative Commons license:

‘Tourist Trap’ visitor image http://www.flickr.com/photos/sharpshutter/232909207/
‘Rusholme’ resident image http://www.flickr.com/photos/raver_mikey/2224048987
‘Sunny Park’ web as a space image http://www.flickr.com/photos/nhudson/2504679411
‘Tool Box’ web as a toolbox image http://www.flickr.com/photos/howardstrong/3238293371

Post-digital – an update?

Earlier this week I ran a post-digital session with Rich Hall as part of the fringe (#falt09) activities around the ALT-C conference. We had an interesting time in the upstairs room of the Lass O Gowery in Manchester debating a series of statements which were designed to provoke post-digital thoughts, for example:

  • Learning technologists are obsessed with technology more than learning, which is why elearning will never make the mainstream.
  • We are purveyors of the worst kind of spin: ‘This new thing will solve all your problems’.
  • The speed of the change has left us with the mistaken belief that social change was somehow ‘created’ by the digital rather than simply played out on the canvas of the digital.
  • People with educations have huge advantages over those with skills and always will.

While these did lead to a lively discussion, I was still no clearer by the end as to how to describe post-digital as a concept. For many the term seems to imply a discarding of digital technologies as if they were no longer important. It also appears to promise some sort of new world order – which is not helpful.

After the fringe session I was even more convinced that the post-digital was a useful concept but that we hadn’t found the right way of expressing it yet.

A room with a view at ALT-C 2009

A couple of days later I gave my presentation at the ALT-C conference on my ‘Visitors & Residents’ principle. I had inserted a reference to the post-digital at the end of the talk to make the point that the Visitors & Residents idea rests on issues of motivation and personal preference rather than age or technical skill. This seemed to me to be a post-digital principle but, influenced by my conversations around the subject during the conference, I suggested that the term post-technical might be more appropriate.Ok so before I continue, yes this is a kind of semantic exercise, but what we have here I think is a strong idea which is difficult to express. One of the conclusions of the fringe sessions was that the rapid rate of change in technology is causing accelerated cultural effects which we are struggling to describe. (This was echoed in Michael Wesch’s keynote at the conference.) So I think it’s important to develop our thinking in this area even if it is a bit of a bumpy ride.

I can recommend Ian Truelove’s recent post on some of the pragmatic effects a post-technical approach can have in education. As Ian points out the technical is all about learning, and then following, a series of rules. Rules that we need to grasp before we can express ourselves ‘properly’. The manual for most software is written in this style – a button-pressing, linear approach. And yet the most successful (I’m thinking here in terms of uptake) online platforms don’t seem to have manuals. This is not necessarily because they are especially simple to use, but because they are massively multi-user and simply by watching the behaviour of fellow users it is possible to ‘pick up’ not only how to use the platform but also why you might want to use it. This should come as no surprise as we are particularly good at learning by observing fellow members of our own species. (There will be a fancy pedagogic/sociological term for this. If you know it then please insert it here as you read.)

Basic button-pressing, user-interface-comprehending activity is becoming culturally normalised and an ever-decreasing factor in our engagement with digital technologies (i.e. many of us are already digitally literate, if you will excuse the terminology). In effect our approach to technology need not be technical.

A simple post-technical example: the substantive effects of Twitter as a platform cannot be described by its technical functionality. Reading a technical manual for Twitter would not help a user to become resident in that online space. As Andy Powell suggests this in his ‘Twitter for Idiots’ post, individuals have to experience the culture of the groups/communities/networks/flocks/whatever to really ‘get’ what the platform is all about.

The post-technical then does not put technology second or first, it simply liberates the debate from those who build/code/provide the technology and puts it into the hands of those who appropriate it, the users, or ‘people’ as I like to call them, who write essays and poetry in Word, transform images in Photoshop, sustain friendships in Facebook, learn stuff by reading Wikipedia and express opinions in blogs.

The perspectives we are currently using, to come to an understanding of the cultural/educational influence of digital technologies and the opportunities therein, need to be reconsidered. I’m not sure yet if the answer lies in post-digital or post-technical approaches but I’m looking forward to tending these ideas over the next few months and seeing if something beautiful grows.

Reflections on the ‘Conference that Cares’

Attending the Staff and Educational Development Association (SEDA) conference in Brighton last week was an intriguing experience for me. There was something in the atmosphere that I had trouble tuning into, something which pervaded every session but which I couldn’t pin down. Until, at the end of the first day I had sudden moment of clarity, the mysterious and all pervading dimension to this conference that was evading me was the fact that these people really care about what they do.

The first clue was an impassioned keynote from Ronald Barnett, Emeritus Professor of Higher Education at the Institute of Education. This was a presentation from someone who believed in education and had a real feeling for the emotive realities that students face, pulling out terms such as “anxiety”, “excitement” and “scary” from student quotes. In my opinion we often forget the emotional rollercoaster learning can be and how that ‘ride’ is integral to the experience not something that should be entirely ironed out.  In tension with this notion is the challenge that tertiary education continues to face under an implicit acceptance of ‘students as consumers’. This topic was not shied away from leading to a pithy debate on Twitter which included the plea: “We must kill off this idea before it kills us off”…

The importance of not allowing educational research and teaching practice to continue to diverge was a key theme which suffused the conference. This trend is to the detriment of both groups who need to learn from each other. It seemed clear to me that institutions should to do more to create roles which are less segregated, roles sit under the larger banner of ‘academic practice’ that can denote research and teaching.  The challenges inherent in making this happen was an area which I touched upon in my session entitled ‘Not Killing the Creative’. I reflected on the methods employed (some more successfully than others) in the recent JISC funded ‘Open Habitat’ project. Methods which attempted to make the overlap in the centre of the ‘educational researcher’ and ‘teaching practitioner’ Venn diagram as wide as possible.

The majority of the SEDA delegates are in professional positions which act as a bridge between the highest tiers of policy making and the teaching/research (there’s that problem again) staff within universities. These are the people who have the ability to embed new teaching and learning strategies and to influence culture change within tertiary education. It was refreshing to hear the closing thoughts in the opening keynote including the phrases ‘We need to play the game” and “We have to be subversive”. If institutional approaches are to be improved from within then a subversive playing of the game by people who care is exactly what is needed.

Eventedness

Following on from my ‘That Was an Interesting Experience’ post I got to thinking about how to define what makes MUVEs distinct from other online spaces. The diagram below is my attempted answer, a diagram which I ‘trailed’ in my presentation at the Eduserv+JISC/Cetis Virtual Worlds event last Friday. (slidecast of the presentation at the end of this post)

Eventedness and Co-presence

During the JISC funded ‘Open Habitat’ project we piloted Second Life with art & design undergrads and with lifelong distance learners studying philosophy. The axes of the diagram represent two of the major effects we saw across the pilots that are central to what an MUVE provides.

Eventedness: This goes beyond a shared experience which could be aimless in activity terms and assumes that everyone involved is heading towards a particular goal even if this goal does not involve close collaboration. For example, a themed philosophical discussion which, if it goes well, should have a shared direction as the learning moves forwards.

Co-presence: As well as the Co-presence that comes from being embodied as avatars this definition includes what is experienced when an individual is certain that their contribution (usually in text form) will be read and responded to by others. For example it is possible to get a strong sense of the presence of others when microblogging because the exchanges are often frequent, they often reference each other and the response time can be a matter of seconds. Messages are linked to the particular point in time and their value erodes over time. There is a relationship between the speed in which the value of nodes of communication erode within a technology and the potential for Co-presence. In addition the individuals’ level of trust that their contribution will be understood and responded to within a particular technology has a large bearing on both Co-presence and Eventedness. It is of note that there is very little latent social presence in MUVEs. When you log-off your presence all but evaporates leaving almost no trace of your identity or that fact that you were in the MUVE. This is in contrast to social networking sites which are designed to extend your presence after you log-off. (See my ‘Visitors – Residents‘ post which discusses why this form of latent social presence is an important issue)

So, the green areas are not a quantative mapping of a range of functionalities but the qualitative potential of a technologies ability to provide a certain type of experience. The greater the chance of Co-presence the greater the chance of Eventedness and vice versa which is why the green areas have diagonal tops.

I should point out that the relative mapping of the technologies in the diagram could be debated until the cows come home because the axes are dealing with subjective terms. Individuals encounters with these technologies will vary greatly in the context of these terms hence the use of ‘potential’ which allows for a latitude in experiences.

A key point here is that the MUVE has the potential to support a huge range of experiences. This is partiality because of the effect of avatars but also because an MUVE is not a single technology but a cluster of tools gathered around a 3D environment. To tie this down a bit I will run through the types of experience that I think take place at points ‘a’, ‘b’ and ‘c’ on the diagram.

‘a’: At this point an individual feels isolated from others and alienated by the environment. They are directionless and have not discovered the ‘point’ of the environment for themselves. This sense of isolation and alienation is amplified by the knowledge that there are others in the MUVE who are enjoying being part of a social group that they are excluded from (either socially or because of a lack of technical skills). It is also amplified because they can see other avatars who appear to be much better looking, better dressed and with more elaborate hairstyles. They begin to fell anonymous, unskilled and lacking in a definable persona (they are part of the homogenous ‘n00b’ category). All of this is compounded by the fact that it is very difficult to ‘lurk’ in an MUVE. There a few opportunities to learn the in world culture(s) and mode(s) of communication that don’t involve social engagement. This is in contrast to other successful online social platforms have functionality such as an open chat channels (World of Warcraft) or the ability to see the flow of communication (Twitter) giving new users the opportunity to absorb the culture of that space before making their voice heard.

‘b’: At this point the individual feels like they are contributing to a shared endeavour, that they are part of a relevant activity. They have come to know and trust the other participants in their group and enjoy both the learning and the social aspects of the experience. This is only likely to take place if a member of that community has organised an activity. Or, to put it another way, the tutor has planned a relevant session. (The implication here being that the tutor needs to be part of a community of learners not above it in the MUVE space)

‘c’: At this point the individual is probably spending time with people they know and trust. They are socialising within the MUVE but are not attempting to achieve anything beyond simply being together. They are likely to feel part of a community but not that they are communally working towards a goal.

In terms of teaching and learning this huge breath of potential experience is what makes using MUVEs a high risk option. The better designed a session and the more responsive the tutor the higher it will map against Eventedness but a strong sense of Co-presence will only grow over time. Initially this happens as people get to grips with the technology then increasingly as they form relationships and trust grows. This breath of potential is in my opinion why a bad session in an MUVE leads to the suspicion that it would have been more satisfying and more effective to have simply used a straight text chat format or in some cases a traditional forum. This is compounded by the fact that MUVEs really lock you in and if a session breaks down it is complex and disruptive to sidestep to another format. Nevertheless, some of the most engaging and exciting online teaching and learning I have experienced has taken place in an MUVE.

As the diagram makes clear MUVEs do have the potential to outstrip many other technologies in their ability to provide a sense of belonging and purpose. However, if you don’t feel that words such as ‘belonging’, ‘communal’ or ‘experience’ are relevant to your practice then MUVE are probably not for you. Even for those of us that do think these aspects of learning are important MUVEs are a high risk option which require teaching sessions that are both well organised and highly reactive. We hope that the guidance and advice that comes from our experiences in the ‘Open Habitat’ project (to be published in March) will reduce this risk but it is like so many things in life MUVEs will remain a challenging option with the potential of great rewards.

Below is a slidecast of the my presentation at the Eduserv + JISC/Cetis Virtual Worlds event on 16/01/09 in Glasgow. Thanks to Rowin Young for providing the slidecast.

What has the Open Habitat project been doing?

As phase 1 of the Open Habitat project draws to a close it is time to take stock. We have run our ‘Multi-User Virtual Environments’ pilots with Art & Design and Philosophy students, gathered our data and are a long way through the process of making sense of it. Concepts are starting to cluster and hypothesis to be tested in phase 2 are emerging. We have edited together a 3 minute video of phase 1 activity that can be viewed here http://blip.tv/file/1208348 to give a snapshot of activity so far.

For anyone with a little more time a 25 minute talk summarising a number of the issues/concepts arising from phase 1 can be viewed here http://media.conted.ox.ac.uk/res02 .  As always a flow of posts which captures the thinking of the Open Habitat team meanders through http://www.openhabitat.org 

The Importance of the Cheesy Disco?

I have just returned from the Online Educa conference at which I was part of a symposium panel discussing Multi-User Virtual Environments (MUVES). The session was entitled ‘No Life in Second Life’ and was a look at some of the current practices and issues around teaching in MUVEs. My 10 minutes was on the range of environments in Second Life from amphitheatres to ‘cheesy discos’. Each brings with it a set of cultural expectations and modes of use.

After the session the point was raised that the term ‘cheesy’ may not be universally understood by an international audience. What struck me about this discussion was not its content but the environment it was taking place in. We were attending the conference dinner and ‘entertainment’. The venue for this entertainment was an oversized, modernist hall on the ground floor of the hotel with floor to ceiling glass and orange up lighters. The view out of the 12 foot windows was of a stark courtyard containing a number of neat, isomorphic trees and plants. Inside, small groups of smartly dressed individuals stood round in clusters and made small talk while an untidy mass of energetic attendees executed a range of jerky dance moves with no overall style or pattern. The music was slick and very definitely middle of the road.

In short we were in a cheesy disco which appeared to have been designed as a re-enactment of many scenes in Second Life, certainly in architectural terms but also socially. Love them of hate them it struck me that this real life cheesy disco was an accepted part of the conference system and designed to help people to talk and network. For undergraduates the nightclub or union bar is an integral part university life. For online distance students there is no clear equivalent. As we experiment with MUVEs for teaching and learning will the cheesy disco in prove to be as important as the amphitheatre?

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.