Monday, August 16, 2004

What Inspires Participation?

As I talked with my friend David K. today, he told me that he's become active in a review board of some sort or another in the town in which he and his family live. I asked him why he got involved and he said that it's because the issues the board is dealing with "have a direct impact on me and my family."

As we struggle to build communities online and to foster collaboration among students or employees, it's important, I think, to keep this in mind. It's the old idea of "WIIFM"--What's in it for me? All the talk about building online community seems to resist such a selfish notion, but the bottom line is that people will get engaged when there is a direct impact on them and their work, yes?

I'm reminded of Etienne Wenger's work on "communities of practice." I think that part of the idea is that such communities form around a common interest. But I think it's more than an interest--I think that people join communities of practice when they feel that there will be a payoff.

In creating online communities, whether for a class or for a group of co-workers, or just some sort of affinity group, we should keep in mind the need to articulate the payoff. Or maybe we just need to create the opportunity for participants to express what they want in terms of payoff?

Effective for Whom?

I'm reviewing this online course from University of Vermont called "Teaching Effectively Online," designed to help UVM faculty make the transition to online teaching. As I read the assignments and reflect on this idea of "teaching effectively," I struggle with the idea that "effective" means something very different depening on your context.

We lead instructors to read what others' have done--"read these 'best practices'," we tell them, "and you'll know what to do yourself." These "best practices" (I prefer the term "effective practices") are in all the articles and on all the web sites that we use as resources for this kind of thing (among them, the Sloan Consortium web site and Educause).

What I find lacking in these listings and descriptions of effective practices, though, are contextual descriptions and things to help the reader understand the circumstances under which the practice was effective. Even when the effective practices resource includes some contextual information, few tools are given to the reader to help them examine their own context in comparison and make some decisions about how to migrate the effective practice to their own environment.

For institutions, such contextual information might include student demographics, financial resources, staffing, etc. For faculty members, such contextual information includes content area, number of students, type of technological tools, teaching style. Without comparing these contextual factors--between the effective practice example and the target school or class--it's difficult to figure out how best to integrate the practice, and impossible to predict whether the practice can be successful.

What's needed is a set of tools that allows for more in-depth analysis of effective practices, and thoughtful planning for integration of such practices.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Walking Before We Can Run

Do we need to be using technology effectively in the day-to-day administration of the school--in student, faculty and staff transactions, etc.--before we can really effectively integrate technology into teaching? I think the answer is "yes," it seems I'm on the same page as the strategy folks at SNHU.

As part of a discussion regarding the schools strategic plan, one of the strategic objectives was outlined as doing a better job of making use of technology to support the administrative enterprise. As President LeBlanc pointed out, this kind of objective isn't really strategic--more operational--but if we don't get up to speed with the right software tools and availability of the right kinds of information online, we can't really move forward with a number of really strategic plans. One of these might be doing a better job of using technology for teaching.

What's the connection? For me, it's a cultural thing. If effective use of technology becomes part of the day-to-day activity of the school, a culture grows up around that. It's a culture of information and knowledge management, communication and collaboration. It's a culture that recognizes that technology can free us to spend more of our thinking and time on higher level activities rather than pushing papers. It's a culture that is less about force-feeding information through the pipeline and more about generating and creating information together.

This kind of cultural shift, I think, helps set the stage for truly effective use of technology in the academic enterprise. I'll have to be on the lookout for resources related to this and update this entry with links...

Sunday, August 08, 2004

System Dynamics and Distance Learning

Fred Saba, of, gave a presentation at last week's 20th Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning, reflecting back on 20 years of research in the field. I was intrigued to find out that Dr. Saba uses a system dynamics framework in his own research, and that he sees the fundamental system dynamics concept of a negative feedback loop as central to much of distance learning research in the last 20 years.

As one example of these dichotomies, he pointed to the idea of "transactional distance," developed by Michael Moore, explaining the negative feedback relationship between structure and independence (as structure goes up, learning independence goes down). He also talked about some other dichotomies: between instructor centeredness and learner-centeredness, between asynchronous and synchronous communication, etc.

Dr. Saba explained that the field now needs an overarching philosophy that brings the dichotomy of ideas together. Fascinating idea.

And all that talk of system dynamics got me to thinking about my plans for a doctorate--gotta get those applications going! Maybe I'll think about how to apply system dynamics to my research...

Learning Community at the BBC

Absolutely inspired last week by a keynote address (at the 20th Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning) by Nigel Paine, head of BBC People Development. Mr. Paine showed off an impressive set of online community and learning tools, including the BBC intranet (called "Gateway"). Elegantly, he pointed to the need for learning resources and tools to be embedded in the everyday work of employees.

He also made a point about online communities that echoed something I've been thinking (and saying, to anyone who'll listen)--that you can't just expect people to show up at an online community like an intranet. You have to remember that it's the everyday transactions and interactions that will draw people and create traffic--not necessarily big ideas, invitations to discuss topics, or even resources. He used the example of arranging taxicab pick-ups at BBC--a transaction that people conduct a lot and that the intranet facilitates.

Paine's presentation started with a viewing of the short film called 405 (not a BBC production). His point was that the challenge of creating a learning community at BBC is one of keeping young, energetic, creative people engaged while they grown and learn, because if they're not engaged they're likely not going to be patient enough to hang out until they're in the role they want to be in.