Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

On @vconnecting as Affinity Space 1/2


Reading Time: 4 minutes

(continuing reflections on our (OER17 vconnecting presentation coming up)

“…Human learning becomes deep, and often life changing, when it is connected to a nurturing affinity space” – Gee & Hayes p. 8

I’ve been aware of James Paul Gee’s work for some time now, mostly because I teach educational games and I use his stuff for that. Recently I came across his work on identity which benefited me in a cross-cultural learning workshop. I was always aware of his work on affinity spaces but I don’t think i read any of it properly until this week. Thanks to a comment by Laura Gogia during the vconnecting focus groups (I promise I was listening to other participants in the focus groups!). 

The article I am reading (I am only 2/3 of way through) is by Gee and Elizabeth Hayes and entitled Nurturing Affinity Spaces and Games-Based Learning. (It’s available open access). I know there’s earlier work but this is the one I have been reading, so bare with me. I don’t *think* it’s different in its explanation of affinity spaces. It goes further, though, to talk about what “nurturing” affinity spaces. I found lots of parallels with vconnecting and what we have been thinking about and finding in our research as well.

The “meta-thing” around social practices 

The article talks about how some of the value-added of Games-Based Learning isn’t just in the game itself but in the social practices surrounding it, such as fan sites for games which involve players interacting and supporting one another.

This is very much the case with Virtually Connecting. There are the actual sessions which everyone can watch online or which people can even join and be part of the conversation. That’s the “thing” and it is valuable to many people. But there is also a meta thing that has more value for those who are part of it: the backchannel on Slack of “buddies” who organize and plan and execute these sessions, from choosing which conference to go to, to coordinating with organizers, to inviting guests, to coordinating an internal team of onsite and virtual buddies, to creating hangouts and announcing on blogpost and promoting on Twitter and inviting virtual folks to join in. Whew. And that’s not even counting the work of finding suitable spots onsite, running the actual hangouts and so on. So much happening offline or in the backchannel that helps build a sense of community within the team, but also so much happens with guests and participants (who aren’t on the team) to make them comfortable in hangouts. We haven’t necessarily been doing the best job ensuring others at conferences know they’re welcome to join in, though.

Defining Affinity Spaces

It seems affinity spaces arose because “community of practice” didn’t seem to cover what Gee and Hayes needed to express what they were observing. Namely, that affinity spaces were usually “geographically distributed, technologically mediated, and fluidly populated social groupings” p. 5. They’re talking about online game fan communities. But this is so much of what a lot of connectivist/connected learning experiences are, including vconnecting. 

Group Membership continuum

One of the key things Gee and Hayes say is that affinity spaces are defined as spaces precisely because group membership is unclear, fluid and a continuum. This will come up again, but overall, they’re talking about how someone can be a lurker or occasional Participant whereas others are more fully committed and a continuum. They consider thus an “one of the attractive features of affinity spaces”.

Of course much of what describes affinity spaces is an ideal that’s difficult to apply in practice and to sustain. And what we all know is that even affinity spaces that count as or try to be “inclusive, supportive, and nurturing” (p. 7) may end up giving the sense of “us” vs “them”. And that’s not even considering how some affinity spaces are more competitive than not cooperative in the first place. 

Features of Affinity Spaces

So there are 14 features of affinity spaces Gee/Hayes identified (and it’s hard to be critical of ones they might have missed, because 14! But I did feel some were redundant). I am going to list them and comment on VC

  1. Many people in the space have a common passion (not identity). This seemed obviously the case for VC, but I struggle to name the passion. Is it a passion to enhance virtual participation at conferences? Is it a passion for edtech or open education? Is it a passion for connecting? Probably the latter or all of them? In the affinity spaces Gee/Hayes studied people also were able to hide their identity if needed via pseudonyms and avatars – that’s not the case for VC for obvious reasons. However, status in the real world is not a factor in VC. Nadine Aboulmagd mentioned how new she was to the field when she joined and how this didn’t stand in her way. However, others have told us they’re sometimes intimidated and don’t feel like VC is for them, or that our discourses intimidate them…this bears further unpacking. An additional point here is that even though human relationships form within the affinity space, it’s the passion for the “thing” that keeps them together not the relationships (though they help of course!)
  2. Not segregated by age. Obviously the case. If we take age here to refer to experience with VC, the article talks about sharing expertise and knowledge with others. That’s a lot of what VC is about (and will come up again) BUT we do a better job onboarding some people over others. And we have been working on improving this aspect. 
  3. Newbies, masters, all share a common space. This depends. I guess we are talking the backchannel here and all our Slack channels are open. So i guess so. Anyone can step up to do pretty much any task: buddy onsite/virtual, create hangouts. Twitter and WordPress is more limited but we give it to whoever needs to use it. It would be a bit crazy to have everyone of our 100+ team using our Twitter account. One feature of a nurturing affinity space according to the article is that “not everyone in the space needs to be passionate or fully committed” and this is definitely the case for VC (more soon). Of the 100+ people on the team, some get involved just in one event, some are spectators abd others just support on Twitter. Others do just onsite. Others do almost everything. I am not sure how well we make “entry for newcomers easy” (p. 12) – this has been uneven but we are working on it.
  4. Everyone, if they wish, produce and not just consume. Consumption here would be watching videos. Any other role is a productive role, honestly, even tweeting while watching or being a guest is an active role. And it’s easy(ish) to join the team, although sometimes just fact that ppl aren’t comfy w Slack can be a barrier. We often TALK about Slack inside Slack to newbies.

I need to stop now. Will write a follow up post with the other 10 features of affinity spaces and how they apply to VC

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