What exists before communities?

October 2, 2007

I’m taking a qualitative research class. It’s a condensed, one semester, class where we do a full QR project on a very small scale. I’m exploring the experience of being part of an online community when it precedes a face-to-face event. As part of my mini literature review, I ran across this study by Dianne Conrad called Deep in the Hearts of Learners. It’s also a small scale study but provides, I think, some good insight into what makes an online community.

(The author suggests) Participation in online learning activities exists before community, contributes to community, and is the vehicle for maintaining community, eventually becoming the measure of community health. Greater senses of community were not reflected by the learners in the online environment per se but the shared character and common purpose of the online community.

Critical difference lies in the nature of the enterprise. Shared character and common purpose—the glue that holds community together and forges an entity where there was none—emanate from an inherent affinity to purpose, passion, or pursuit.

In support of this, Conrad cites Wallace’s (1999) physical example a carload of elevator riders. “Their ‘groupness’ was not apparent until the car jerked to an unexpected halt between floors. From that moment on, a shared and immediate experience created a new social dynamic among them.” {see article for full cite}

When you hold this up to communities you belong to, or have belonged to in the past, does it hold true? My Master’s program was online. The University created an elevator which I paid to ride. Each class started with a halt and turned into a ride to the top with some stoppages along the way. The edublogosphere I think is similar. When you create your first post you get on the elevator…alone…start pressing buttons and doors to new communities. These are examples of successful communities I belong to.

The unsuccessful communities seem to be an elevator only. Sometimes with no buttons. Sometimes with empty floors. Usually you ride alone.

Creating an elevator is easy to grasp. Creating the ‘unexpected halt’ which serves as a catalyst for community is a bit harder for me to grasp.

  • http://karynromeis.blogspot.com/ Karyn Romeis

    I’m sure there’s proper research on the human need for community, but my unofficial observations are that people look for ways to form and/or become part of communities in just about every area of our lives, and perform better that way – why should learning (on or offline) be any different?

    People do seem to pull together when the squeeze is on (witness “their finest hour”). When everything moseys along, that sense of community seems to take a lot longer to develop.

    Perhaps we should bear than in mind when we design leaning resources for online groups… and find a way to put the squeeze on 😉

  • http://karynromeis.blogspot.com Karyn Romeis

    I’m sure there’s proper research on the human need for community, but my unofficial observations are that people look for ways to form and/or become part of communities in just about every area of our lives, and perform better that way – why should learning (on or offline) be any different?

    People do seem to pull together when the squeeze is on (witness “their finest hour”). When everything moseys along, that sense of community seems to take a lot longer to develop.

    Perhaps we should bear than in mind when we design leaning resources for online groups… and find a way to put the squeeze on 😉

  • http://wallylarsen.wordpress.com/2007/10/01/the-balancing-act/ Wally Larsen

    “Creating an elevator is easy to grasp. Creating the ‘unexpected halt’ which serves as a catalyst for community is a bit harder for me to grasp.”

    Very insightful. I wonder if the “unexpected halt” is both something you can create and something that can just happen randomly on its own.

    It seems to me that if you attempt to create it, you can end up having the opposite effect you intend. For example, to create a halt on a blog, you can throw out some crazy, extreme idea you might not really believe in just to generate discussion. But would such a discussion create a useful community, or merely a community of disagreement?

    I always enjoy the sites where you find little gems on the beach, randomly and unintentionally scattered there, which lead to profound conversations.

    Great entry!

  • http://wallylarsen.wordpress.com/2007/10/01/the-balancing-act/ Wally Larsen

    “Creating an elevator is easy to grasp. Creating the ‘unexpected halt’ which serves as a catalyst for community is a bit harder for me to grasp.”

    Very insightful. I wonder if the “unexpected halt” is both something you can create and something that can just happen randomly on its own.

    It seems to me that if you attempt to create it, you can end up having the opposite effect you intend. For example, to create a halt on a blog, you can throw out some crazy, extreme idea you might not really believe in just to generate discussion. But would such a discussion create a useful community, or merely a community of disagreement?

    I always enjoy the sites where you find little gems on the beach, randomly and unintentionally scattered there, which lead to profound conversations.

    Great entry!

  • http://eduspaces.net/vinall/weblog/ Joan Vinall-Cox

    I try to create the “halt” in a 3 & 1/2 month course by using assignments that require learning that I don’t lecture on. Small groups choose from a list of topics, all necessary to get through the course, present on them, and post the information in the course wiki. Then they become the class “experts” in the topics, and make themselves available (online) to the other students. It works best when students treat it as an experience rather than a limited assignment.

    From watching previous classes, they don’t stay “in community” but some friendships continue, and they seems to have positive feelings towards the experience

  • http://eduspaces.net/vinall/weblog/ Joan Vinall-Cox

    I try to create the “halt” in a 3 & 1/2 month course by using assignments that require learning that I don’t lecture on. Small groups choose from a list of topics, all necessary to get through the course, present on them, and post the information in the course wiki. Then they become the class “experts” in the topics, and make themselves available (online) to the other students. It works best when students treat it as an experience rather than a limited assignment.

    From watching previous classes, they don’t stay “in community” but some friendships continue, and they seems to have positive feelings towards the experience

  • http://www.brandon-hall.com/ Janet Clarey

    Wally- It would be great if the ‘halts’ just happened. I so agree with you that creating them could have the opposite effect. When I see online communities fail it’s because there was nothing to do there.

    The preconference online community we used at the IIL07 conference succeeded only for those who wanted to make preconference connections. Some of the heavy users were vendors making appointments with people who were interested in their products. Their incentive – the halt if you will – was the appointment. “OK, so this is the way I can make appointments…”

    In most cases, I think there has to be some sort of catalyst – a reason to be there. In the university setting you’ve paid your your tuition so the incentive to be part of the online community is money and college credit.(Joan said, “get through the course.”)

    The workplace is different entirely. The communities already exist. I could go off on many tangents here…

  • http://www.brandon-hall.com Janet Clarey

    Wally- It would be great if the ‘halts’ just happened. I so agree with you that creating them could have the opposite effect. When I see online communities fail it’s because there was nothing to do there.

    The preconference online community we used at the IIL07 conference succeeded only for those who wanted to make preconference connections. Some of the heavy users were vendors making appointments with people who were interested in their products. Their incentive – the halt if you will – was the appointment. “OK, so this is the way I can make appointments…”

    In most cases, I think there has to be some sort of catalyst – a reason to be there. In the university setting you’ve paid your your tuition so the incentive to be part of the online community is money and college credit.(Joan said, “get through the course.”)

    The workplace is different entirely. The communities already exist. I could go off on many tangents here…

  • http://www.daveswhiteboard.com/ Dave Ferguson

    In the workplace, I think a person is part of communities, but also part of what Vonnegut called granfalloons — things that seem like genuine communities but aren’t.

    Vonnegut’s example was Hoosiers; there’s only so much genuine community to being from the same state.

    I felt more sense of community with the technical implementation / services part of my company’s sales force than I did with the sales part, though we were all part of Sales.

    New arrivals in any community (face-to-face, or virtual) often miss “obvious” cultural elements (ALL CAPS MEANS SHOUTING), and I think it’s easy for slightly longer-term members to forget that. My own entry into Second Life was easier, I think, because I’ve participated in online chat since the GEnie alpha test in the mid-1980s.

    As for the halts, couldn’t they in the best sense be the epiphany opportunities, like those an instructional designer tries to create? Joan’s example is very good — especially from a “no right answer” or “no sole source” sense.

    I do think that people short on time are often looking for magic beans, and it takes them a while to realize there aren’t going to be any. Though people will offer to provide them.

  • http://www.daveswhiteboard.com Dave Ferguson

    In the workplace, I think a person is part of communities, but also part of what Vonnegut called granfalloons — things that seem like genuine communities but aren’t.

    Vonnegut’s example was Hoosiers; there’s only so much genuine community to being from the same state.

    I felt more sense of community with the technical implementation / services part of my company’s sales force than I did with the sales part, though we were all part of Sales.

    New arrivals in any community (face-to-face, or virtual) often miss “obvious” cultural elements (ALL CAPS MEANS SHOUTING), and I think it’s easy for slightly longer-term members to forget that. My own entry into Second Life was easier, I think, because I’ve participated in online chat since the GEnie alpha test in the mid-1980s.

    As for the halts, couldn’t they in the best sense be the epiphany opportunities, like those an instructional designer tries to create? Joan’s example is very good — especially from a “no right answer” or “no sole source” sense.

    I do think that people short on time are often looking for magic beans, and it takes them a while to realize there aren’t going to be any. Though people will offer to provide them.

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