Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 42 seconds

The need for intentional community building

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 42 seconds

OK… so I’ve been reflecting on the importance of intentionality in building community lately for so many different reasons:
1. I’m about to finish teaching a f2f course where I felt I did not do a good enough job of building community (I have been reflecting throughout the semester about WHY this is the case and have some ideas but will write these later)
2. I’ve been reflecting (and this is non-stop) about how the #rhizo14 community became so strong and so important for me while recognizing also that this was not the case for all participants, that there were overlapping, intersecting, and exclusive aspects to various communities in rhizo14 (e.g. the facebook group was not accessible to folks outside facebook; comments on blog posts there were visible to our facebook friends who had nothing to do with #rhizo14 but invisible to folks on #rhizo14 who chose not to use facebook). I recognize rhizo14 is not perfect, and the whole inclusion/exclusion thing is getting to me very much both emotionally and intellectually BUT there is still a group of us who have formed a strong community and that perspective is valuable and worth cherishing, I think (sometimes uncritically because of the emotional need for it; but intellectually, one does need to be critical of it; just not every minute of every day for me, please)

and most recently:
3. I started #BlendKit2014 because I saw the self-paced content and worked with some of it over the past couple of months – GREAT STUFF that I hope to adapt for my own context; but when the MOOC started, I noticed a couple of things that were a little confusing. Jen’s wonderful blogpost here explains part of the confusion; the other confusing thing for me was that there was no introductory or community building activity for the MOOC. I already know a few people on the MOOC from f2f and online, but there must be a host of other interesting people on the MOOC that I can meet and learn with and from. I already did parts of the content self-paced, I thought the MOOC would enrich that experience with the interactivity.

So… I posted this on Twitter today:

To which Kelvin replied:

And an interesting Twitter chat ensued (While I was oblivious, working on a word document on my PC and muting, not checking my iPad for twitter notifications). I’m sure Mark McGuire will storify that and I’ll post the link to it sometime 😉 For now, apologies for missing attribution (it’s past midnight and I wanted to post this before I go to bed), but the people on this discussion were my friends from online Mark McGuire & Sarah Honeychurch, plus #blendkit2014 course instructor Kelvin Thompson, plus Jen (@injenuity whose blogpost I link to above), and Christie (@cmdecarolis)

Anyway… I thought it might be easier to respond to Kelvin’s question with a blog post.

Among the responses to my tweet by various people were:
1. Someone agreed with me that this was missing in the course (at least an intro activity – Christie, I think)
2. Someone felt that people can/do build their own community and find themselves, even if the course designer does not do anything about it (and there was a sense that the course designer need not necessarily try to do anything about it – Mark, I think)
3. Someone commented that some people might NOT wish to connect with others
4. Another responded that there should at least be provision of space for connecting for those who do want it (Sarah, I think).

My point is multi-fold:
a. There *should* be an option for people to know how to connect. Twitter hashtag is good but it does not provide space for introductions and getting to know each other; you bump into people randomly but that’s probably not enough
b. Since this is a course *about* blended learning, I thought it might model ways of building community/interaction with students online – most people on the course are going to be adult learners and educators who have enough independence and self-motivation to build their own network (as the twitter conversation we just had shows) BUT for undergrad students it might be different and might need a different scaffolding; the MOOC/course about blending could be a good “model” for how to do this…

So what kind of activities could we have done?
1. A simple discussion forum thread with “who are you, where are you, and why are you here?” as many courses do
2. A prompt to write a short blog post with the same ideas above and tweet it
3. An ice-breaking activity with either a fun, light, or provocative twist to get people engaged and interested and wanting to know each other. One MOOC (which was otherwise not great) encouraged people to post a photo of something they love.
4. A “cafe” location on the Canvas LMS itself (there may be one but I have not noticed it; not a big fan of Canvas)
5. A number of “social” locations for people to meet and discuss things beyond the LMS – e.g. facebook, google plus (participants can still create their own, of course!)
6. An introductory post that clarifies all these options.

Blogging is encouraged in this course, which is great; and the various modes of submitting assignments (text, blog, gdoc, upload) are all great – I wonder whether the non-public assessments will get any kind of feedback from peers or otherwise? Because if they’re not public or assessed in some way, then they’re just like a self-paced thing

I know this has been designed as self-paced but also been facilitated as a MOOC before… it still feels kind of self-paced to me without some sort of community-building activity from the course designers… if that makes sense? I know a MOOC is v different from the kind of courses we’re all probably designing in our f2f context. Good practice in a MOOC about blending is different from good practice in a psych course in a liberal arts college or a physics course at a technical college or an online PhD program. I know that.

But I was still craving me some community interaction to get out of the self-paced mode…

Image CC-BY-SA by Mkhmarketing via Flickr from:
Image CC-BY-SA by Mkhmarketing via Flickr from:

How did I deal with it?
Basically, I used the first assignments about reflecting on the reading to insert a little bit about myself and why I’m here… tried to interact with a few others on twitter and on their blogs… I’m concerned not everyone finds things like this easy to do…

Now, reflecting back to my first reason for reflecting on community (or lack thereof) in my most recent course, it’s complex, but I think there was a pedagogical element missing. I did ice-breakers, I had them blog and asked them to comment on each other’s blogs BUT it was the first semester I did not do online discussions via an LMS with my students. Ever. Every single time I have taught, I have had online discussions. This time I did not. And the whole “comment on each other’s blogs” thing did not work very well – I also did not provide enough guidance as to what kind of commenting was expected… but that’s all not applicable to this MOOC, is it? But my point was – the community thing comes in online discussions when people all have time to reflect on the same thing over an extended period of time. It doesn’t automatically build community but it is less distributed than blogging. Which brings me back to rhizo14 – I think the facebook group provided that “one place” thing for some of us that reduced the sense of loss in the distributed world of blogging, tweeting, etc., so we could all come back to one place, see each other, have side discussions.

It’s 1 am – time to go!

9 thoughts on “The need for intentional community building

  1. Hi Maha – I’ve read your post very quickly – so apologies if I’ve missed a point or two – but just to say a big YES!! Community in learning is very important – Etienne Wenger=Trayner spoke about this at our Conference last week – I have blogged about that event – and here is my summary of what Etienne said about learning in times of super-complexity:

    Communities of Practice?
    Like many people in Education I have been aware of Etienne Wenger-Trayner (EWT) and his Communities of Practice arguments in theory and for many years. EWT in practice and in person was a revelation: warm, inspiring and profound in his outlining of the learning trajectory which takes us from peripheral encounters into the centre of various communities of practice – and various learning identities.

    EWT locates his theory in studies of apprenticeship practice. Apprentices especially at the beginning rarely interact directly with a ‘master’ but engage more in apprentice-to-apprentice interactions. In this way learning is ineffably located in the group and in our group interactions: learning is social, embodied and whole person.

    For EWT, learning experience models this apprenticeship trajectory. He described ‘learning’ as circled by complementary processes involving community (which offers belonging and a meaningful cadre with which to negotiate and define competence); practice (what we do – and how meaningful and valuable it is); meaning (that is rooted with relevance in the now – and not deferred to some indefinable point in the future); and identity (who we are becoming). In this model learning is not the transmission of a corpus of knowledge nor even a process or set of processes with which to engage with a corpus of knowledge; learning is how we negotiate a range of processes of becoming – that oscillate between the individual and the group.

    The EWT model allows us to see learning as becoming: it involves a realignment of competence and experience; it is socially defined – but personally experienced. Learning involves negotiating identity in a complex dance in complex landscapes of practice that navigate multiple tensions and meaning. It is identity-construction in a time of super-complexity: it is a learning relationship between the social world and the personal.

    The community is the curriculum
    As one who is still part of the ongoing MOOC: #rhizo14: the community is the curriculum, I could not help but see parallels between the EWT model and the rhizomatic model of learning espoused by Dave Cormier – and as poetically described by Deleuze and Guattari (1997, 2005) in A thousand plateaus. Cormier – who spoke at last year’s ALDinHE in Plymouth – gave birth to our radical un-MOOC. In #rhizo14, learning is/emerges from the connections, contingent or purposeful, between the participants in the different learning spaces we inhabit – Forum, FaceBook, Google+, Twitter, Blogs, Zeega… – and which are fruitfully complicated by the diversity and complexity and internationality of the participants. It is a tricky trickster idea – but actually very helpful when we take back to our classrooms whether F2F or virtual: for to enable learning to happen we must at the very least foster human relationships between the participants.

    1. Thanks for posting this here, Sandra! I keep think I need to re-read Wenger (what’s the “Trayner” part?). I have been struggling for a while and struggling still with the whole rhizo14 thing, how amazing it is for some of us (and this is still special) but also how exclusive it seems to have been for others. Does Wenger talk about that at all? If so, please point me to something to read on the matter 🙂
      Though i expect any learning experience or community will inevitably be exclusive to an extent… Right?

      1. Sadly, Maha, Wenger was somebody I always put on the *to do* list and then *did not* – so I was really pleased to get the chance to LISTEN to him… and as you can see from my summary he is very rhizomatic in his approach – but he’s not using the label himself. (Trayner is his wife – I think they have both double-barrelled the name).

  2. Community of Practice has been brought up several times on rhizo14, most notably by Jenny Mackness in that Dave Cormier found a bit at odds with his view and I think there is a lot of traction in these ideas. In fact, re-reading Jenny’s posts has given me some more ideas on understanding community formation in rhizo14 and ‘community is the curriculum’

    1. I know, yes Jenny often brings this up. I remember saying when I first read the ideas on CoP they did not resonate with me, but that was years ago and I should re-read them. I also recently read sthg (privately, w ppl outside rhizo14) about diverse CoP models outside formal contexts

  3. Thanks Maha for posting this. I read the entire twitter thread with a lot of interest. One thought though, nobody added the hashtag with the tweets, so I doubt everyone else taking the mooc will ever read this convo. If everyone had tagged this discussion, am sure many people would have jumped in and expressed their opinions which might have led to some connections. Sharing and reaching out is important.

  4. ahhh Maddie, good point (and you often make good points). It’s one of those technical things that make a HUGE difference pedagogically and for communication. It is also probably why Mark has not storified it yet – harder to storify an untagged discussion!!!

    I think it was tagged at the v beginning when I initiated it, then I went off to do something for like an hour and came back to find it had taken on a life of its own. Good point about us not using the hashtag. I wish Twitter would “automate” that (I heard they might) like they did the “retweet” so you don’t have to “waste” characters (like you don’t have to type in the person’s twitter handle and the words RT) – and so you never actually “forget” to put the hashtag. I’m usually more careful with that on a twitter chat that’s live coz I have the column open.

  5. Hi Maha! I’m so glad that you took the time to spell out your thoughts in this post (something I didn’t take time out to do). While I’m enjoying Blendkit so far, I think I perhaps (wrongly?) expected some kind of community building activity. Most of the text regarding online learning I have read strongly encourages this, so I kind of assumed, and this is my first try at a MOOC- so I had no other experience to pull from. I’ve read in places/heard at conferences that MOOCs are often successful because of the community built around the topic. In the first week of Blendkit, I feel I have only been able to connect to a few people (you, Mark, Toine) and it took a lot of work to just start connecting with you 3!

    I like how you mentioned community building in a f2f course, too. I think in any course- f2f or online- people remember most their experiences/relationships and not necessarily the content. I just came out of teaching high school (I changed careers only 1 month ago) and many of my former students have been communicating with me via email since I left. I don’t know if they’ll remember all the historical facts they learned in my class, but I’m hoping they’ll remember life lessons we’ve discussed in our emails after my departure.

    Thank again for the thoughtful post- it’s inspired me to take time to reflect, later on, on my expectations for the Blendkit MOOC vs. experiences so far.

    1. Hi Christie, thanks for commenting here. I agree with your expectation. I have done many MOOCs but also my master’s was completely online (03-05) and not sure I ever came across an online learning experience without an introductory activity. I think MOOCs are quite different from for-credit online courses, though, and it is not the first time I see a course designed by people who are experts in eLearning (or in this case blended learning) who don’t seem to necessarily be experts in MOOC design. I think BlendKit was run before as a MOOC, though, so I am surprised this never came up!
      Anyway, I am glad we connected. I dislike overly structured collaborative activities, but I like to have some. I guess the lack of structure has left us to connect on our own and find each other, which in itself is great. I have a few people on BlendKit that I know from before, so I’d actually be happy to have made a few good solid new online colleagues/friends like you 🙂 Looking forward to seeing you around as we go…

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.