Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Community Heartbeats - when synchronous interactions matter (Communities of Practice series)

Online community learning is great in that it provides us the opportunity to learn anytime, anywhere we have connectivity. But that is a pretty rosy view when we consider the competition a course has against everything else going on in our lives. Often "oh, I can do this anytime so I'll do it later" leaves a course to be done in the wee hours of the night or on weekends when we really might like or need to be doing something else. A learner who stays away too long may begin to feel they have fallen too far behind, or isolated from their community. That's where synchronous events can help. They can keep the heartbeat of a learning community going strong. For some, they create a sense of community, relationship and "realness" -- voices and not just words on a screen.

What are synchronous events?

Synchronous online events are when some or all of the learners are online at the same time and interacting using tools such as Voice over IP (VoIP), telephone bridge lines, chat rooms, web meetings and instant messengers. They can be discussion based, or can be a presentation by a guest or tutor with time for questions and answers. They can be large group or small group breakouts from the larger community. Some examples include:
  • Weekly online tutor "office hours." Learners can log on and ask questions, get support and just check in. These could be mandatory or voluntary. I find that if you do one first that is "all hands" people can get a sense of the value of the office hours, then are more likely to participate in the future.

  • Presentations and guest speakers & lecturers. First of all, if you aren't planning any interaction with the learners around lectures or presentations, don't make them synchronous. Provide them as web content. But if you can bring in a special guest, that is worth a fixed meeting time and it makes it -- well - SPECIAL. But this is not about pushing powerpoints. A good online presentation will mix presentation with interative activities - a good mix is 7 minutes of content, 7-10 of interaction. An hour is good, and 90 minutes should be the maximum. Include audio, text and visual elements. Some of us are not so good at just listening!

  • Small group meetings. Is there small group work? Encourage learners to set a time to meet each week. This builds full participation and helps reduce procrastination. They can meet in a web meeting room or even just on an instant messenger or Skype.
How often are they useful?

How often are they useful?
For new learners, it is helpful to have regular synchronous events until they have figured out their learning and participation rhythms. Virtual team expert Martha Maznevski likens it to the heartbeat of a runner. New runners' hearts are still weak so they beat fast early on in their runs. But trained runners hearts beat slower. So experienced learning communities may not need to meet as often, unless meetings are their preferred mode of interaction.

How do we bridge between the synchronous and the asynchronous?

How do we bridge between the synchronous and the asynchronous?

Synchronous meetings don't work for everyone due to schedules, internet access and personal learning preferences. So we need to have strategies that bridge between the synchronous and asynchronous.

  • Post recordings, notes and artifacts of synchronous meetings. Make sure your learners know where they are and how to access them.

  • Follow up on synchronous action items in the asynchronous interaction spaces. Notes taken "live" in a web meeting can be shared right afterwards, with action items highlighted. If additional conversation is needed, continue in a discussion thread, blog or wiki area.

  • Prepare for upcoming synchronous meetings by involving the group in planning, again using the asynchronous tools you have at hand. You can even use scheduling tools like to pick a meeting time!

Finally, check in with the group as to how the "heartbeat" is going. Ask for feedback and use that to improve the meetings and the timing of the meetings. Each group is different and we can use iterative planning to make the most of that diversity, rather than stifle it with set plans.

Synchronous telephone conference tips
Designing and Facilitating meetings:

Image Credits on Flickr/Creative Commons:

This is part of the Community of Practice series of blogs with Nancy White

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Content and Community (CoPs with Nancy White)

We have talked throughout this series on communities of practice about "content." Well, what the heck is content, why is it important and how do we make the most of it - especially when there is a LOT of it. First the what and why, then one idea about how to work with volume.

What do we mean by "content?
By content, we can mean many things. Books, papers, self-paced learning modules, resources, learner discussions, reflective logs/blogs, images, audio, video. All the "stuff" that carries both the subject matter information and the artifacts of our interactions to make meaning of those subjects. Today we can capture both the resources and the interaction artifacts. We can draw from a closed, defined set of resources, or tap into the larger set of resources on the world wide web. The content may be dynamic, changing and evolving so one set of static resources that works for todays course is outdated in six months. So content is never fully "done." It is alive in our learning communities.

Why is content important?
From a communities of practice perspective, it is important for two reasons. Content embodies or captures what we know about the domain (see

Second, the creation of content during the learning process is a key part of that very process. In CoP terms, this is "reification." Here is a bit from the upcoming book by Etienne Wenger, John Smith and I that talks about reification.

"Members of a community of practice need to interact with each other as well as produce and share artifacts such as documents, tools, and links to resources. Sharing artifacts without interacting can inhibit the ability to negotiate the meaning of what is being shared. Interacting without producing artifacts can limit the extent and impact of learning. Indeed, the theory of communities of practice views learning together as involving the interplay of two fundamental processes of meaning making: Members engage directly in activities, interactions, conversations, reflections, and other forms of personal participation in the learning of the community; members produce physical and conceptual artifacts—words, tools, concepts, methods, stories, documents, and other forms of reification—that reflect their shared experience and around which they organize their participation. (Literally, reification means “making into an object.”) Meaningful learning in a community requires both processes to be present. Sometimes one may dominate the other. They may not always be complementary to each other. The challenge of this polarity is how successfully communities cycle between the two."

So not only do we have the content provide us a base resource or curriculum of the course, we have the content created by the members as part of their learning. As Etienne likes to tell us, the community becomes the curriculum. This is why content is important!

Members Creating Content
Over time, learners create content related to courses and their learning communities that may have value beyond the "course." Learners may wish to track and organize their own content. Portfolios, particularly ones that are not bound up in a proprietary platform, allow this portability. There is also the value of the content to other learners and communities of practice. Contribution of articles, blog posts, links to external resources that learners or tutors have tagged can all enrich the content of what used to be viewed simply as a course, and is now an ongoing potential learning hub.

Bringing in New Content
Learning content is not a static element, particularly for topics that are deeply embedded in our rapidly change society. So a childcare course may need to have a "line of sight" to changing policy, or local trends. We need a means of identifying emerging and related content and weaving it back into the more traditional "course" is a newer role. This curation of content can be an organisationally drive or user generated aspect. Probably both. This is where technology and human beings combine to make a strong contribution. While we have human bees in platform, particularly in the community context mentioned "across courses" in the last blog post (see, we can use technology to scale human curation. Consider things like aggregated content pulled in by persistent searches and tags, Amazon style interests. The ability to use these tools to find and aggregate content can also be used to link people to that content. This could be organised by the instructors and/or the learners. In fact, it has been my experience that learners who find their own content tend to be more deeply engaged with it. Plus learning how to find and critique external content is a core skill in today's world. So rather than be afraid of what "junk" students will find, equip them to be critical assessors of content and find the gold among the dross.

In the new Ufi learndirect Childcare portal pilot, learners can create "their learning plan" and can draw on learndirect content and bookmark and rate content. Through technology (Amazon style), there is also "suggested content" based on their interests/previous use.

Organising and manage their own content
The mechanics of finding, labeling and sorting content have direct impact on the later findability and usability of that content. Does your learning and community software enable easy tagging of content so learners can find it on their own terms later? Do you organise external content so it can be aggregated into course domains? Let's look at tagging as a specific example. Tagging is when a person associates some key words of their own choosing to a piece of digital content. This can be done outside of a learning platform using a social bookmarking tool like, or (the latter is specifically designed for research and education contexts). These allow a person to embed a bookmarking tool in their internet browser, and then when they want to tag something, they click a button in the browser and a pop up screen appears, and the person fills in the fields. If individual learners are tagging on their own, you can pull in their tags into your learning platform using the RSS feeds provided by most of these tagging services. This way the learner maintains control and ownership of their bookmarking, but the learning community benefits from the activity. This build longer term learning and finding capacity, rather than locking the content (and the learner's access to it) inside the learning platform of your organization.

Tags have another great application. They can be visualized as a "tag cloud" where each tag word shows up in a size related to the number of times it shows up in a list of tags. This gives a quick visual image of what is getting most attention from an individual in their tag cloud or, for tags associated across a group of learners, of the group itself. This visual "hook" can engage those who would otherwise skip reading a text listing of tags, engaging a different learning style. It has been very interesting to me to see how a tag cloud invites in browsing of content from people who would otherwise glaze over at a list of files or links. (By the way, if you like playing with any kind of word clouds, you may enjoy!). Ufi learndirect's new Childcare portal pilot utilises tag clouds as a vital element.

Now you might start getting worried about people tagging things "correctly." Don't worry. Tags represent the participants view. Yes there will be typos. Look for tools that allow you to fix that, but don't fixate on the practice. You WANT people to tag, which is better than no tags. You may also want to introduce some key tags and use those as navigation points across key course content. You will see that others may actually follow your tagging conventions, so set some good examples at the start.

A final word on content
Yes, content is important. But if people don't use it, interact with it and making meaning of it so they can apply it, it is not worth the electrons. When you design for content, make sure it is attached to people and their processes. Then you get the magic happening!


Monday, 6 October 2008

Roles and scalability (Communities of Practice series with Nancy White)

In the last blog we talked about some of the roles that support successful learning communities and CoPs (communities of Practice). But when we think of these roles in the context of organizations like Learndirect, whose strength is providing services at a massive scale, some natural tensions are going to emerge. We might say "yeah, all these roles are nice, but there is no way to provide them a scale."

How can we creatively thinking about scalability of roles? What might be the interaction between paid, formalized roles provided by Learndirect and the cultivation of roles within a learning cohort or an ongoing community? How might technology help us? Let's look at some options.

  • Within courses/intense support - assessment, content, and tutoring. Tutors with both content and pedagogical experience help students assess learning needs and pull together relevant resources (at Ufi learndirect, the pedagogy and much of the tutor support is in-built within the e-learning couse). They are a "first line" of support with explicit boundaries on what they can do. This may be more or less needed depending on the course. Some content lends itself to being a solo student experience with little support. Others are more complex and need more support. Technology may assist to direct relevant content to the right learners through diagnostic paths (a la Amazon's recommendation system) on the assessment side.

  • Across "course" offerings/building community support - community cultivation, connecting learners. While there might not be able to be an intense level of support at an individual cohort level, can there be learning communities that draw from multiple cohorts for the same course? For example, I may be taking a self paced module on childcare for infants. Within that course, there is no "community" per se, but I can log into the "Infant Childcare" community and ask questions of peers and experts, get access to more content and come back when I have questions about what I've learned in application. This might be seen as a set of domain specific portals. This offers the ability for both tutor and peer support on a more scalable level than at the course level (another way could be to take a generic course like numeracy or employability and build a niche community around say financial management that is a key issue for some of the learners. The same principle could work for leadership and management and many other more generi courses). All this can augment the automated diagnostics with a community of people who might have more diverse or contextual recommendations. Developing good critical thinking to evaluate and assess recommendations - automated or human, may be something important to foster within the community(ies.)

  • Learning support from the "wider world" - tapping into networks, professional associations and local organisations. An important learning bridge is that place between the formality of a "course" and the ongoing application of learning in the world. This ongoing learning is primarily informal. We can link students to external supports for their ongoing learning. It may be professional associations, guilds, communities of practice or local organizations. Linking learners to these ongoing support not only bridges to application, but it may also attract people from the community who wish to participate in domain communities sponsored by the learning institution, offering value in both directions.

The bottom line is that support roles are neither fixed, nor limited to paid, internal resources. If we look at the value chain across this ecosystem, each layer, each player has something to offer and something to gain through cooperating.