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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Dave’s top 10 musings on the encouragement of community in Multi-User Virtual Environments.

So, if you are interested in building a ‘community of learners’ in or around an MUVE rather than simply diving in, doing a set activity and then leaving this may be of interest. What I am exploring here is what it takes to move from an institutionally prescribed network of individuals, such as a cohort, to a community with members. This is the difference between being involved and feeling a sense of ‘belonging’.

What we have to consider is that a community is a social entity that exists within a culture. The elements that need to be in place to encourage a community to form and thrive are a hybrid of the social and the practical or in our case, the social and the technological. It’s not easy to separate these notions and as such some of the points below can be engineered in the facilitation of a community and some have to be driven by the community itself.

I have constructed the following points after considering the manner in which community is fostered in World of Warcraft (WoW), both by the form of the game itself and by the players. WoW is a good example of a working through of the challenges faced by those of us interested in encouraging communities in MUVEs.

Separating the ideas below into 10 points is a convenient simplification. In reality the notions tend to flow into one another and may call for a daunting Venn diagram at some point.

1. There should be shared or mutually supported goals.
These goals could be wide ranging and interdependent, including the social, personal, educational etc. Clearly, any community needs some basic underpinning goals bring members together with a sense of purpose. These act as a benchmark for progression and can help roles to emerge. This purpose of these goals could be highly focused as in the case of learning a specific skill or more nebulous, for example, having fun. Ultimately these goals should be best achieved or approached by collaborative means.

2. Members need to be able to control the presentation of their identity.
This could be a ‘genuine’ presentation of your real life identity or a version of your ‘professional’ identity. It could also be a fantasy identity wrapped up in a complex role play scenario. The important factor is that the technology needs to give the community member the ability to define their identity in a form that suits them. It shouldn’t be prescriptive for example providing a template for a ‘student’ profile. This is likely to restrict the vitality of a community.

3. There has to be a smooth learning curve.
These environments are complex, including multiple modes of participation and levels of interactivity. The social norms in an environment are often implicit and can only be learned initially by observation. The environment needs to have a number of simple structured tasks that beginners can engage with and make mistakes / discoveries in private before entering into more public areas. In the case of WoW the user interface options builds as the individual progresses through increasingly challenging tasks or quests. These quests start as challenges for a single player and gradually become more complex, requiring collaborative groups. This continues until the top levels of the game which require groups of 25 to achieve certain goals.

4. The MUVE should be part of a larger ecology of services.
No successful virtual environment exists without supporting services such as an associated website. These websites often give a back-story or rational to the environment. They set the scene and hint at appropriate uses / behaviour within the environment in question. They can also act as a reference point or a location to manage groups and events. In the case of elearning the MUVE will probably need to be supported by a virtual learning environment or some other form of group management system. The ‘guilds’ which are communities that form around WoW always have a home site. It is usually based round a discussion forum and news / events system. Many guild members would consider these sites rather then the game itself to be their ‘home’. The MUVE is just part of a larger landscape of tools and should not be considered in isolation. It is also worth noting that MUVEs tend themselves to be a collection of services including, text chat, search, instant messaging, object repositories, VOIP etc. The 3D presence of avatars is only one aspect of the MUVE and the way in which members of a community appropriate the other services within the environment can’t be easily predicted or guided. No community survives in a single tool or service. Often email actually underpins the interpersonal relationships in even the most sophisticated of MUVEs or social networking sites.

5. There should be flexible grouping systems.
Any healthy community will facilitate a range of events that involve the whole community right through to allowing private one-to-one conversations. Communities tend to contain multiple sub-groups or overlapping ‘communities of practice’. The MUVE and associated services should allow members to easily create and disband groups of different sizes. The rational for these groups will vary from the organisational / institutional to the social / private. A system that only allows formal, visible groups will not encourage a ‘ground-up’ flow of information and will reduce the opportunity for socialising. This form of sub-group socialising is one of the most important factors in an online community giving members a sense of belonging.

6. Members need to feel a sense of ownership.
This ownership could be of objects, ideas, skills, identity, role etc. This is why it is essential to have a persistent presence in the environment. The artefact or concept could be individually or collectively owned, it should also be possible to trade certain items in a bartering, monetary, intellectual, or social economy. Some artefacts will have a relatively fixed value while others will loose value over time, such as certain skills / knowledge. This erosion of value over time can be one of the prime motivators for frequently engaging with a community.

7. There should be an opportunity for roles to emerge.
The notion of role is closely related to that of identity and group. Members of a community are not equal in power or responsibility. Members are comfortable being part of a hierarchy of roles. This hierarchy is likely to be more subtle than classic corporate structures it may be relatively ‘flat’ but whether it’s explicit or implicit a community will have an understanding of the differing roles played by its members. With roles, as with group structures, there is a clear distinction between those ascribed institutionally and those acquired or built socially. For example, in WoW each player chooses a fantasy role from a list prescribed by the game i.e. dwarf, elf, healer etc. These roles come with certain skills and a back story and therefore help the player to find their place within the grand narrative of the environment. If the player engages with others in the environment then social roles may emerge which go beyond the initially prescribed role. These may be based on skill, reliability, trustworthiness, sense of fun, leadership qualities, pastoral qualities etc. They might build on the institutionally prescribed role or diverge from it. The overall point here is that members need to play a role within a community whether true to themselves or fantasy. They also need to feel that they can change their role or reshape it if necessary. In WoW and in many MUVEs this is often achieved by members owning multiple alternative characters or avatars. This clarity in individual roles but fluidity to move between roles within a community is a powerful aspect of virtual social environments and is in contrast to many real life communities.

8. There has to be frequent opportunities to generate and exchange capital.
I use the term capital in a broad sense i.e social, economic, cultural, intellectual and practical / skills. If the environment does not allow a free exchange of capital then that capital rapidly looses its value and can be challenging to generate. The MUVE and games like WoW are very effective at generating and communicating / exchanging all five types of capital mentioned above. The services that make-up an MUVE such as Second Life are carefully designed to create opportunities to generate and exchange capital. In this sense a community could be seen as a social phenomenon designed to appropriate and further these opportunities. Many environments fail because they are too restrictive and stifle the flow of capital or are too prescriptive in the provision of channels for capital.

9. There should be a combination of structured and ‘free’ activities.
The ‘authority’ (and there always is one) should provide a number of structured activities. In WoW these are the quests which are discrete goal orientated activities that give a sense of focus and progression to the game. They also help to reinforce notions of role and identity, encourage collaboration and give a sense of a shared experience. All healthy communities engage in structured activities which relate to their overall goals. Often these activities lead to some form of socially recognised and visible symbol or reward such as, attaining a higher level, receiving a new piece of kit to wear or placing the letters ‘D’ and ‘r’ in front of a members name. These symbols may only have meaning within a single community or there meaning might extend out into a larger society. The environment should also allow or facilitate informal or unstructured activities. These activities are likely to help the formation of new peer / interest groups and can be a good opportunity to take a break from the more public requirements of community membership.

10. Members need to feel they have influence within their community and over their environment.
Members want to feel they can create and destroy aspects of the environment and that their presence influences the flow of activities, ideas and thinking within the community. This concept is interwoven with that of role, especially in relation to mentoring which is a crucial mechanism within a community. If a member does not feel they have the influence they deserve relative to the investment they have made in a given community then they are likely to disengage. Sometimes this problem can be corporate and effect an entire environment. Many of the disputes between the members of WoW or Second Life arise when the authority in question reduces members influence over the environment or their roles. Often the mere visibility of an action taken by the authority reminds members that they do not have total freewill. This can lead to a reduction in members wiliness to buy into or even ‘believe’ in the environment and therefore reduces their sense of belonging.

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Multi-User Virtual Environments: What are they good for?

An interesting discussion took place in the MUVE carousel session I attended at the ‘Emerge’ (emerge.elgg.org) event last week. It would seem that at the moment MUVE can be read as ‘Second Life’ although this is probably just a temporary state of play. In any event SL is a good place to experiment and whatever we learn will be transposable.

Many people / institutions had islands in SL but as was pointed out we weren’t being all that collaborative yet. For me the area of MUVEs breaks down into the following points to consider:

  • Does using an MUVE give a more powerful sense of ‘presence’ / identity to those involved. Is this more powerful / useful than purely text based interactions?
  • If this ‘presence’ is (cough) present then in what ways can we use it in the service of online collaboration / socialising?
  • How can being immersed in an environment help the learning process at an HE level?
  • Is this best for distance students or could it be a useful tool in the ‘classroom’ as well?
  • Is this type of environment more, or less, alienating for students / tutors to interact with than other online approaches?
  • Is the level of skill and technology required to interact with these types of environments too high at the moment? Will they ever be ‘mainstream’?

This is just a starting point of course. I’d welcome comments…

In practical terms is can see MUVEs being useful for the following:

  • Creating immersive simulations
  • Recreating contemporary or historical real world environments that have an educational value
  • Developing new forms of collaborative projects, taking group work online to a new level
  • Providing a social underpinning to groups of online courses or a f2f campus / department

The last two points interest me the most and are clearly happening in a slightly different form in MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft. However, the first two points are probably easier to demonstrate as clear practical uses especially to those who have no experience of MUVEs.

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JISC approaches the web with an open mind

Last week (April 25th -26th) I attended the first of JISC’s Users and Innovation strand events in London. The event was run by George Roberts and a team from Brookes University. There are just over 100 people in the ‘Emerge’ community (http://emerge.elgg.org/) within the strand and they are by no means the normal JISC crowd.

The whole format was very encouraging with Lawrie Phipps and JISC approaching the ‘new stuff’ that is happening on the web with an open mind. The focus was as much cultural as it was technical and it was one the very few days I have attended where the technology really didn’t come first. The main theme was that of community both online and offline. I can see that the members of ‘Emerge’ will find common themes around the provision of social spaces, the use of immersive environments and many others. It will be interesting to see how the community evolves as the process of putting bids together starts.

I hope that this new format works for JISC and that the individual members of Emerge will benefit from being part of what could become a really useful community. As far as I’m concerned it has got off to a great start.

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Some real data on Web 2.0 use

As part of the JISC funded ‘SPIRE’ project we ran a survey to try to discover which online services people were using and in what manner. We were interested to find out which services were popular and if they were being used for work, for study or socially / for fun. The SPIRE project was originally looking into the possibility of using peer-to-peer technologies in UK HE and FE for informal sharing but switched to a more Web 2.0 focus as it became clear that these types of services were already having an impact on the tertiary education sector. They also appear to be where most of the informal sharing and collaboration is currently taking place online.

The survey was advertised to the Department for Continuing Education’s online students and on the online courses marketing pages. We received circa 1400 responses which left us with a lot of data to analyse. I have processed this data in to a number of colorful charts which are in the PDF below.

I have already drawn a number of conclusions from these charts but have not included these thoughts in the PDF as I would be interested to know what others think the data might mean.

Results of the survey undertaken by the JISC funded SPIRE project (PDF)

For the full analysis of this data please download the final report here:
http://www.jisc.ac.uk/media/documents/programmes/digitalrepositories/spiresurvey.pdf

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