In the past 14 months I worked together with a group of teachers at Rotterdam University. In this posting I reflect on how the group was or wasn’t forming into a community, and how we used a platform for online interaction.
For a more general description see my earlier posting about the general results.
Rethink logo during final event (l), Informal drinks (r, by Anja)
Was this group a community? No!
Was this group of teachers a community of practice? Was it a group? I can answer that question with a ‘No’. We started with a group of strangers. All came from different departments of Rotterdam University, and did not know each other before. At the end, during the last interviews with group members, at least one (very active and committed) person said that ‘it still does not feel like a group to me’. Others were irritated about the (perceived) lack of commitment of other members towards the group, and the way people did not do their agreed upon tasks. Yet other members do not associate the term ‘community’ with them as a group, but with the fact that we used an on-line platform as part of our exchanges. Also we lost some group members along the way, who for different reasons could not continue their efforts. Also remarks were made about face to face meetings that indicate they were sometimes viewed as staff meetings or other more formal settings. All in all, these were signs there was not as much cohesion as we hoped to achieve.
During hands-on session (l), and me showing my terrible hand writing (r, by Jet Houwers)
Was this group a community? Yes!
Was this group of teachers a community of practice? Was it a group? I can answer that question with a ‘Yes’. Part of what one can see as sign of not being a community, are in fact signs of community. Having different layers of involvement (up to and including the point of withdrawing from the group), and especially having people care about other member’s level of involvement and commitment are signs of feeling a relationship with those others. Likewise people were not reluctant to talk about each other’s behaviour in the group, which requires a certain level of group safety. Also on their own initiative little sub groups were formed that worked together on different tasks. There was an enormous amount of constructive criticism and positive feedback, especially in the exchanges in the platform. The amount of energy exhibited by the core of the group clearly spoke of community forming to me, filling e.g. the roles of opinion leaders, group influencers etc. Another member was instrumental as a facilitator to other people’s progress, even if he did not really notice it himself. Hands-on sessions where talk was replaced by doing were experienced as very stimulating: ‘I still remember exactly everything I learned that day‘. There are examples where specific group members were essential in personal break through events for other members resulting in real shifts in attitude, as well as examples of people consciously intervening in the group’s dynamics on a very personal level. But most telling of all is the fact that the group largely wants to go on, even now the project has ended. Going on and at the same time welcoming in additional people into the group. In parallel with the project a large group of colleagues has found themselves in Yammer.com (Twitter for within your organization) where exchanges are taking place, adding different layers of involvement yet again. All those are most certainly signs of community forming (creating rhythm, spaces and layers of involvement, and being actively inviting). Had we put the group under more pressure regarding the intensity of working together we probably would have speeded the forming of relationships up, but at the cost of attaching it more completely to the specific context of the project. It would have heightened the risk of the group falling apart after the project once the pressure that kept it together vanished. Whatever happens now is of their own choosing, based on the context they created themselves in the past year. Part of the community building effort of the past year thus will only be reaped after the end of the project, and with people that weren’t part of the project. That’s an important transfer aspect, and transfer of knowledge was a key part of our goals.
During drinks (l), Screen showing the platform (r, by Anja)
The role of our online platform
Right from the start we used a Drupal based online platform for our interaction between face to face sessions. It resembles the set-up of Howard Rheingold’s Social Media Classroom in certain aspects (not a coincidence as we compared notes in June last year). Over the course of a year the dozen members wrote over 6900 entries in the platform. Interestingly enough eventually entries were posted during all hours of a 24 hour period. The entries show a classic power-law pattern. Some posted over 400 times, others posted only once or twice. Those that were posting only sporadically mentioned different reasons for doing so. The lay-out of the site was lacking contrast for easy reading (we originally styled it in black to give it an underground look and feel), some found having multiple navigational aids to get to the same information (in stead of having a clear hierarchical organization of content) confusing. Others had their own blogs they used to chronicle their work, even though it meant missing out on much of the interaction with the rest of the group. Also there was a specific group that at first was reluctant to share much on-line, as well as put a picture of themselves alongside it: they had been raised to be modest and unobtrusive.
The platform was intensively used for mostly constructive criticism and positive and encouraging feedback. Though at times members complained about not getting feedback on contributions at all. It was also used as a sandbox, to learn yourself how to embed video’s and photo’s for instance.
All in all the platform served an important role during the year. I certainly underestimated the time and energy needed to be able to adapt the platform to emerging needs over time. We planned to start the platform low-key and then add features when the group wanted them. In practice I only came around to a few minor changes early on (adding a bit of functionality, and fixing search issues in the platform), as I needed to spend virtually all my available time on working with the group itself. Ideally we would have had someone running the platform as a seperate role, working in tandem with me as group facilitator and the project leader, so different roles would not hinder eachother in competition for time and energy.
Two other things of note. After the project ended formally early April, no activity took place anymore in the platform. We resorted to e-mail to make sure that the information concerning the final group event we organized early June was received by all (including those that did not use the platform frequently). Second, the group that wants to go on now that the project has ended, has indicated that they would like to continue to use the platform, albeit in somewhat altered fashion. I have promised to work with them to make that happen, and will also keep the domain and hosting available to them.