Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

On @vconnecting as Affinity Space 2/2

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This is a continuation of y/day’s post, reflecting on Virtually Connecting as Affinity Space, using the attributes mentioned in Gee and Elizabeth Hayes article Nurturing Affinity Spaces and Games-Based Learning. 

(I have also now re-listened to 2/3 of the focus groups we did ahead of OER17 so I have that feedback at the back of my mind also)

So the next few points are all related to knowledge and how it’s constructed and negotiated in affinity spaces, so I will just list this here and discuss it all in one go. These are attributes 5-9 as described in the article :

  • 5. Content is transformed by interaction and “is a product of not just the designer…but of ongoing socual interaction in the group” p. 13. Content isn’t fixed, and people negotiate not just content but also norms, values, etc. 
  • 6. The development of both specialist and broad, general knowledge are encouraged, and specialist knowledge is pooled. Everyone sees their knowledge as partial and people share a good amount of what they know, hence benefiting from different strengths of people in the group. 
  • 7. Both individual and distributed knowledge are encouraged. “Nurturing Affinity Spaces tend to foster a view of expertise as rooted more in the space itself, it the community that exists in the space, and not in individuals’ heads” p. 16
  • 8. The use of dispersed knowledge is facilitated. This means not all knowledge is in the space itself, but people link out to other spaces as well 
  • 9. Tacit knowledge is used and honored; explicit knowledge is encouraged. So whereas tutorials are common, there is still a reliance on personal contact to spread tips and tricks

So commenting on VC. Lots of this seems to apply for people who are “inside” VC running the show rather than people outside who are participating as guests. There are some of us who have more experience on the virtual or onsite side. Some of us do more Twitter, others do more of other stuff. It’s not always the same person exploring how hangouts is changing and what we should do about it. We also get feedback from participants and conference organizers and discuss how we might change our norms to make it easier for people to participate. We discuss what kind of license to have on our videos. We find ways to make it easier for folks to watch later, to calculate timezones, and this kind of learning is distributed among us. We will link out to existing tutorials outside and make our own for our stuff (we need to do more of it) and yet there are still subtle things that come up in interaction that aren’t clarified somewhere. I think we need to do better on

  1. More formalized knowledge for newbies 
  2. More personal contact for newbies who want to ask questions – though usually someone will most definitely be there to respond if someone asks, some people may need a little more explicit invitation to learn more

Here comes my absolute FAVORITE one of all the attributes because it came up in the focus groups and I realized it is totally ok and acceptable and embraced:

10. There are many different forms and routes to participation. Some people participate peripherally and some centrally, daily or sporadically. 

Now even though we recognize it’s difficult for people who don’t know VC or don’t know anyone inside VC to actually participate, I think anyone who considers participating has a wide range of ways of participating to choose from (this came up in focus groups and in Slack discussions over the past month or so)

For virtual folks, they can

  1. Watch a recording later (spectator). This is important because times will never be suitable for everyone 
  2. Watch live and tweet along, or not, either is fine. (Active spectator if tweeting)
  3. Be inside the hangout live and either participate orally or in writing in the text chat (some people prefer the latter)
  4. Be a virtual buddy organizing the hangout from a technical and facilitation perspective, or be the backup buddy doing that also in a backup capacity (we have more details on this now in an orientation video for virtual buddies) 

And it’s perfectly ok that some virtual participants only ever join us once for that one session that interested them. I And also ok to join many of these but never become a buddy (I’m looking at you George!). And it’s also ok for anyone to become a buddy even if they had never participated at all (we have quite a few of these, Joe Murphy, Ken Bauer, Nate Angell come to mind). Therw are people who are part of Slack and participate actively there but rarely can make live sessions (Harriett Watkins comes to mind, and she said in the focus group she watches many sessions afterwards). 

Useful suggestions from focus group 1 on making this kind of thing easier for newbies is to have faculty bring their students with them (happened before, can be done more intentionally for education students) or for any Participant to bring a buddy with them (again, happened before but can be encouraged further). 

There are also different ways to participate onsite, and focus group feedback (esp group one) questioned how we can be more inclusive about this. How can we be more sensitive to the (social capital?) needs of onsite “little people” who are privileged to be at an event but not privileged to have anyone to talk to over coffee, let alone talk to keynote speakers the way VC allows). Currently, we have 4 kinds of onsite Participant

  1. Lead onsite buddy, using their device to connect us, bringing guests, communicating with virtual buddy, finding a good space to meet and such, facilitates conversation 
  2. Backup onsite buddy, helps with above, takes photos 
  3. Onsite guest: someone we invite to join us. Sometimes personal invitations via Email or Twitter , sometimes open calls. Sometimes someone will ask to join when we didn’t know they were there for example. Open invitations tend to bring more privileged folks. Women and less famous people rarely respond to open calls
  4. Onsite Participant/drop-in: people onsite who are interested but weren’t originally invited. They can either watch off camera or on camera, depending on their comfort and how crowded the session is. Some rooms allow them to sit behind guests so they’re with us but less prominent. It depends 

Anyway I will move on from this attribute to the next one!

  • 11. There are many different routes to status.  This is particularly relevant to VC in the sense that many people who are highly respected within VC aren’t really high status in their f2f context. But like Bonnie Stewart’s research about Twitter, this really just creates a parallel hierarchy type of thing. It’s not the same people as in f2f, and it’s definitely more fluid and permeable, but there are still status differences, inevitably. The key in Gee and Hayes is for a nurturing affinity space to be accepting of people who don’t seek high status or the commitment that goes with it. And that, i feel, is the case for VC. That some people are more or less committed and that’s fine
  • 12. Leadership is porous and leaders are resources 
  • 12. Roles are reciprocal (the article has two 12s, really!)
  • 13. A view of learning that is individually proactive, but does not exclude help, is encouraged 

These three seem related somewhat. I think in some ways we do this well but not consistently and not always. There are for example 3 co-directors and different people take leadership of particular events, but we are told we still don’t delegate enough. Partly we don’t do that coz we don’t want to ask volunteers to give more than they’re able to commit, but we have seen how, for example, someone who gets comped registration steps up and does much more work. There’s still an impression and certain people get more credit for this movement (I’m looking at you, mirror) when it’s really based on the coordinated work of a good number of people PER SESSION, let alone per event or as a whole. Coordinating across events is even challenging and doing work in between to enhance onboarding and such? All of that work is shared and different people step up to do it. Doing research to improve VC? This has never been just Autumm, Rebecca and me. It’s always involved others. Almost all our conference presentations ABOUT VC involve other people from the team. 

 I do think we have the reciprocity of roles thing. Different people lead different parts and follow others.

The one about learning – in the article about being welcoming of newbies questions and mistakes. I think we try to do this. It may or may not come across as nurturing, but for the most part, most of us in the core group want more people to learn so they can do more work independently and we value people who can problem solve. We often have discussions on Slack as people try to solve a problem and others help.

  • 14. People get encouragement from an audience and feedback from peers, though everyone plays both roles at different times

I’m gonna interpret this ooneas fluidity in roles where the same person is sometimes a buddy and sometimes a guest or Participant. When we did focus groups recently, we got feedback from people who were participants mainly but also from people who are part of the team.  We listen to these perspectives as we go, session by session, event by event, but it helped to pause and seek it explicitly. 

====beyond the attributes =====

Some other interesting points in the Gee and Hayes article:

  • These attributes are easier in online spaces than f2d because people are bound by common interests/passion and come by CHOICE. Fewer status differentials or institutional or geographic boundaries. YUP.
  • “Humans do not learn anything deeply by force. Humans do not learn anything in depth without passion and persistence” p. 25
  • Authors suggest the main things affinity spaces teach is how to assess success and take alternative routes when something isn’t working. This is written in the article in a weird way. I do think we individually and as a group are constantly learning to navigate and improve as one thing we try work or doesn’t. On the technical level we do this all the time to make hangouts just work! But also on a strategic level we try different models for working w conferences and for including new people as guests and participants and buddies
  • Pareto Principle: this one is Crucially important and mostly true for VC. That 20% of the team do 80% of the work and 80% of the team do 20% of the work. I was SO RELIEVED to read this. I thought we were doing something wrong, that some people were much more committed than others. It was good to know this is expected. I’m not sure where the Pareto princple comes from, but it seems to be that Gee and Hayes found it the case in online gaming spaces. Who the really active 20% are can change over time, but the overall ratio seems similar.

The article goes on to compare nurturing vs non-nurturing affinity spaces. Cordial vs antagonistic behavior. 

So here is where I think VC is at (based on focus group feedback from first 2 groups) and my own reflections 

  1. We are attempting to be a nurturing affinity space and have many aspects of it
  2. We may unintentionally or out of neglect (the latter is important because it is something to work on) be not very welcoming of new people in terms onboarding to the team and not be clearly welcoming to new participants because we look to be an “us” that they don’t feel part of. 
  3. VC may be an affinity space for a particular kind of virtual experience and not for everyone. Most extroverts who are comfortable with social interaction and making mistakes in public would enjoy it. Some people who are introverts can benefit from it and we need to see how we can help make that experience possible 
  4. We need to be clear on what our shared passion is. We are definitely not covering conferences in Chemistry or History. It’s education or edtech (and ePatients as a parallel venture). And our mission is in enhancing the virtual experience for those not privileged enough to be at events. How are we doing this well? How are we missing the mark? The focus groups gave us great feedback on this
  5. Who from our target doesn’t realize they’re invited and how do we make this easier for them? Again, focus groups helped with that.
  6. What about onsite people and conference organizers? Though they aren’t our target beneficiaries, they both benefit from, and more importantly, make VC possible. Without willingness of onsite people and conferences to have us, we would be doing much less impact, right?

I will listen to the last focus group soon and finalize some of my notes across the 3 focus groups and post those.

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