Jan 09 2013

Looking Back on the Project Community Course

Long Post Warning!

I was reminded by a post from Alan Levine reflecting on a course he taught this past Autumn (Looking Back on ds106 – CogDogBlog) that I had promised a reflective post on the Project Community course I co-taught Sept- November at the Hague University of Applied Business with Maarten Thissen, Janneke Sluijs, Shahab Zehtabchi, Laura Stevens and technology stewardship by Alan himself. It is easy to let the time pass, but all those ideas and observations tend to fade away. So after a few bites of fine holiday chocolates, it is time to dive in. (This will be cross-posted on my course Tumblr blog which feeds into the overall course site.)

What was it?

Course Goal: Here is the text from the course description:

The intersection of technology and social processes has changed what it means to “be together.” No longer confined to an engineering team, a company, a market segment or country, we have the opportunity to tap into different groups of people using online tools and processes. While we initially recognized this as “online communities,” the ubiquity and diversity of technology and access has widened our possibilities. When we want to “organize our passion” into something, we have interesting choices.  It is time to think about a more diverse ecosystem of interaction possibilities which embrace things such as different group configurations, online + offline, short and long term interactions, etc. In this course we will consider the range of options that can be utilized in the design, testing, marketing and use of engineering products.

My shorthand is that the course was an exploration about how online communities and networks can be part of a designers practice. When and how can these forms be of strategic use? You can review the whole syllabus here – and note that we tweaked it as we went! The students were all international students and this was one of their first courses in the Design Engineering Program. Some did not have strong English language skills, and the course was in English.

The Design: Let me start by saying this was designed as an OPEN experience, but it wasn’t a MOOC or anything like that. Maarten had asked me to design the course, building on a set of learning goals previously used for this course, but to translate the ideas into practice by DOING much of the course online. While the class met F2F once a week and had access to the Netherlands based faculty, we engaged, worked and explored together online. This stuff needs more than theory. It requires practice. And by practicing and learning “in public” rather than on an institutionally protected platform, students could tap into real communities and networks. If there is one thing I harp on when I talk to folks in Universities, it is the critical importance of learners connecting with real communities and networks of practitioners in their fields of learning BEFORE they leave school. These connections are fundamental to both learning and developing one’s practice out in the world.

I also wanted to focus on some sector to help us think practically about using networks and communities along the design process and avoid grand generalizations, so I suggested we use design in the international development context. This fit with my background, network (to draw upon) and experience. I was leery of stepping into the more distinct world of commercial product design about which I know NOTHING! What quickly became a huge lesson for me was that many of the students had little knowledge about international development, Millenium development goals, etc. So we all had a lot to learn!

The other aspect of the design was to bring three elements together: sense making discussions about the subject matter (synchronously in class and asynchronously on the class website), insights from weekly “guests” shared via 5-10 minute videos (to bring a variety of voices), and action learning through small group experiences and team projects. I know there are strong feelings about team projects, but building collaboration skills was part of the course learning objectives, so this was a “must do.” And we spent time talking about the how – -and reflecting on what was and wasn’t working as a vector for learning these skills.

The Resources

We knew we wanted real examples, a variety of sources and we wanted multimedia. Many of the students are speaking English (the class language) as a second, third or fourth language, so the use of visually rich media was important. What we did not count on was the lack of time to USE the resources. ;-) A typical pitfall!

  • Readings and examples .  We collected a wide range of resources on a Google doc – more than we could ever use. We then picked a few each week as assigned readings, but it became clear that most people were not/did not make time to read all of them. So when I felt something was particularly important, I harped on it and the on-the-ground team asked people to read it during the weekly class meeting.  The examples we used more in an an ad-hoc manner as teams began to develop their projects.
  • Videos- from faculty and guests. For example, here is my Introductory video and the other guest videos can be seen in each weekly update. All the interviews I did (via Google Hangout) can be found here. The students final project videos are here. I have not done an analysis of the number of views per video, but since they are public, I can’t sort out student vs. external views. That said, some of the videos have fewer views than the number of enrolled students. Go figure!
  • Visitors – I had hoped to bring people in live, but we quickly discerned that the tech infrastructure for our online/F2F hybrid meetings was not good enough, so we brought people in via recorded videos and encouraged students to ask the guests questions on the guests own blogs and websites. There was just a wee bit of that…

Technology stuff…

The Course WordPress site: It is online, so of course, there is technology. Since there was no appropriate platform available from the hosting university (we  did not consider BlackBoard appropriate because it was not open enough and we did not have programming resources to really customize it.) So I called my pals who know a lot about open, collaborative learning configurations – Jim Groom and Alan Levine, some of the amazing ds106 team. Alan was ready and willing so he was roped in! Alan built us a WordPress base with all kinds of cool plug ins. You will have to ask Alan for details! He has been doing this for a variety of courses, and blogs about it quite a bit, so check out da blog!  The main functions of the course site included: providing a home for weekly syllabus/instructions, a place to aggregate student blogs, and a place to link to course resources.  Alan set up pages for each week and taught the team how to populate them. (Edit: Alan wrote a post with more details on the set up here. Thanks, Alan! )

Tumblr blogs: Instead of a multiple user WordPress installation, Alan suggested that we use the very easy to set up Tumblr blogging platform and then aggregate into the site. Again, I’ll leave the detail to Alan but the pros were that some students already had Tumblr blogs (yay!), Tumblr could integrate many types of media (strong w/ photos),  and it was easy for people to set up. The key is to get them to set them up the first week and share the URL. Alan set up a form to plop that data right into a Google spreadsheet which was also our student roster, as well as a great Tumblr guide. The main con was that the comments via WordPress were dissociated with the original posts on Tumblr, so if you wanted to read the post in original context, you missed the comments. There were tweaks Alan implemented based on our team and student feedback, mainly to make it easier to comment on the blogs (in the WP site — Tumblr is not so much about commenting), and to help make new comments and posts more visible on the main site though the use of some sidebar widgets. I liked the Conversational views but I also found I needed to use the admin features to really notice new posts and comments. Plus we had to do a lot of initial comment approval to get past our spam barrier in the first weeks.

Each faculty had a Tumblr blog, but in truth, I think I was the main member actively blogging… I also used tags to filter my general reflective blogging with “announcement” posts which provided student direction.

I tried to comment on every student’s blog at the beginning and end of the course. Each of the other team members had a group of students to follow closely. I chimed in here and there, but wanted to make sure I did not dominate conversations, nor set up the expectation that the blog posts — mostly reflective writing assignments – were a dialog with me. Students were also asked to read and comment upon a selection of other student’s blogs. At first these were a bit stilted, but they got their text-based “conversation legs” after a few weeks and there were some exchanges that I thought were really exemplary.

Google Docs: We used Google Docs and spreadsheets to do all our curriculum drafting, planning and coordinating as a faculty team. I need to ask the team if they would be willing to make those documents public (except for  the roster/grading) as a way to share our learning. Would you be interested in seeing them?

Meetingwords.com: Synchronous online meetings for large groups create a context where it is easy to “tune out” and multitask. My approach to this is to set up a shared note taking site and engage people there to take notes, do “breakout” work from smaller groups and generally offer another modality for engagement and interaction. We used Meetingwords.com and Google docs for this, later sharing cleaned up notes from these tools. I like that Meeting words has the shared note taking (wiki) on the left, and a chat on the right. It is based on Etherpad, which was eventually folded into Google docs. So we were using “cousin” technologies! As one of the team noticed, chat is also a great place to practice written English!

Blackboard: Blackboard was used for enrollment and grading as I understand it. I never saw it nor did I have access to it.

Live Meetings: Skype, Google+/Google Hangouts: We considered a variety of web meeting platforms for our weekly meetings. We did not have access to a paid service. We tried a few free ones early on and had some challenges so started the course with me Skyping in to a single account projected on a screen and with a set of speakers. Unfortunately, the meeting room was not idea for the sound set up and many students had difficulty hearing me clearly. This and the fact that I talk too fast….

We then decided we wanted to do more with Google Hangouts, which the faculty team used in early planning meetings. At the time, only 10 active connections were available, so we both used it as we had Skype with me connecting to one account, and later used it for smaller team meetings, breakouts and, with each team in a separate room, we could have one account per team with me. Sometimes this worked really well. Other times we had problems with dropped connections, noise, people not muting their computers etc.  In the end, we need to develop better live meeting technology and meeting space for future iterations. That was the standout technical challenge! You can read some Hangout Feedback from the first group experiment here.

Team Spaces – Facebook and…: Each project team was asked to pick their own collaboration platform. Quite a few chose Facebook, and an overall course group was also set up on Facebook. One team chose Basecamp, which they liked, but after the 30 day free trial they let it lapse. Other team spaces remained a mystery to me. I think their tutors knew! When you have multiple platforms, it would be good to have a central list of all the sites. It got pretty messy!

Twitter: I set up a Twitter list and we had a tag (#commproj12, or as I mistyped it #projcomm12!) and asked people to share their Twitter names, but only a few in the class were active on Twitter. In terms of social media networks, Facebook was clearly dominant, yet some of the students had not been previously active on any social networks. It is crucial not to buy into assumptions about what age cohort uses which tools! I did use Twitter to send queries to my network(s) on behalf of the class and we did have a few fruitful bursts of interactions.

Email – yeah, plain old email: Finally, we used email. Not a lot, but when we needed to do private, “back channel” communications with the team or with students, email was useful. But it was remarkable how this course did not significantly add to my email load. Times have changed!

Overall, I think the students had a good exposure to a wider set of tools than many of them had used before. Our team was agile in noticing needed tweaks and improvements and Alan made them in the blink of an eye. That was terrific. I wonder if we could get a couple of students involved in that process next time? We also knew and expected challenges and used each glitch as a learning opportunity and I was grateful the students accepted this approach with humor and graciousness — even when it was very challenging. That is learning!

What happened? What did I learn?

Beyond what was noted above, I came away feeling I had been part of a good learning experience. As usual, I beat myself up a bit on a few things (noted below) and worried that I did not “do right” for all of the students. Some seem to have really taken wing and learned things that they can use going forward. Others struggled and some failed. I have a hard time letting go of that. There is still data to crunch on page views etc. Let’s look at a few key issues.

Team Preparation & Coordination (Assumptions!): I designed the course but I did not orient the team to it at the start. We had little time together to coordinate (all online) before the course began. You don’t even know how many students there are until a few days before the start, and THEN tutors are allocated (as I understand. I may have that wrong!) Maarten was my contact, but I did not really know the rest of the team. My advice: get to know the team and make sure you are all on the same page. We’ll do that next time! That said, I am deeply grateful for how they jumped in, kept a 100% positive and constructive attitude and worked HARD. I could not wish for a more wonderful, smart, engaged team. THANK YOU! And I promise I will never again assume that the team is up to speed without checking. PROMISE!

The Loud (and very informal) American: As noted above, our live meeting tech set up was not ideal. So when I was beamed into the weekly meetings, I was coming across as loud, incomprehensible and fast talking.I was grateful when the teaching team clued me in more deeply to the challenges based on their observations in the room. That was when we shifted from large groups to small groups. I think I was much more able to be of use when we met at the project team level. I could get to know individual students, we could talk about relevant issues. And I could then weave across the conversations, noting when something one group was doing was related to another group’s work. Weaving, to me, is a critical function of the teaching team, both verbally in these meetings, and across blog posts.  This ended up being a better way to leverage my contributions to the students. That said, I did not connect with all of them, nor successfully with all of the groups. We need to think through this process for next time.

On top of it, I’m very informal and this group of international students mostly came from much more formal contexts. Talk about a shift as we negotiated the informality barrier. During the course we also had to address the difference between informality and respect. At one point we had one learner anonymously insert an inappropriate comment in the chat and our learning community intervened.

Language, Language, Language: Writing backgrounders and instructions in the simplest, clearest language is critical. I can always improve in this area. We do need a strategy for those students who still have to strengthen their English language skills. I worry that they get left behind. So understanding language skills from the start and building appropriate scaffolding would be helpful.

Rhythm of Online and Face-to-Face: Unsurprisingly, we need more contact and interaction early on and should have scheduled perhaps two shorter meetings per week the first three weeks, then build a blend of small and large group sessions. I’d really love to see us figure a way that the small group sessions are demand driven. That requires us to demonstrate high value early on. I think a few of the early small group meetings did that for SOME of the students (see this recording from our hangout), but not all. The F2F faculty team has suggested that we do more online and they do less F2F which I think, given the topic, is both realistic and useful.

Student Self-Direction and Agency: There is a lot of conditioning we experience to get us to work towards satisfying the requirements for a grade. This seems to be the enemy of learning these days, and helping students step out of “how do I get a good mark” into “how do I thrive as a learner and learn something that takes me forward in my education” is my quest. At the start of the course, we tossed a ton of ideas and information at the students and they kept seeking clarity. We declared that “confusiasm” was indeed a learning strategy, and that generating their own questions and learning agenda was, in the end, a more useful strategy than hewing to a carefully (over-constructed) teacher-driven syllabus  That is a leap of faith. With good humor, some missteps on all sides and a great deal of energy, most of the group found ways to start owning their learning. This was manifest in the changes in their reflective blog posts. I was blown away by some of the insights but more importantly was how their writing deepened and matured. I hypothesize that it was important to get comments and know they were being “heard.” It is always an interesting balance for me. No or not enough feedback dampens things. Too much and the learner’s own agency is subverted to pleasing the commentors vs working on their own learning agenda.

I was intrigued to watch students get used to the new experience of writing in public. Few of the students had this experience. I’d love to interview them and hear what they thought about this. Especially those who had comments from people outside the course (mostly folks I linked to from my network — and I’d like to do more of that. ) It is my experience that an open learning environment fosters learning reciprocity, both within the class cohort and with professionals out in the world. I’d like to deepen this practice in future iterations.

There is also the problem of making too many offers of activities. Each week there was a video, a discussion around a key topic, 2-3 activities, reflective blogging and, after the first few weeks, significant group work. The design intent was that these things all worked together, but some weeks that was not so clear. So again – simplify! Keep the bits integrated so the learning agenda is served, moving forward.

We also had some ad hoc offers like helping co-construct a glossary and adding to the resource page. That had just about ZERO uptake! ;-) Abundance has its costs! We did get some good questions and some of the students were note taking rock stars at our live meetings. Speaking of that, a few of our students were rock star FACILITATORS and TECHNOLOGY STEWARDS. Seeing them in action were perhaps the most satisfying moments of the whole course for me!

Student Group Projects: The project teams were designed around the five parts of design that the program uses. With 9 groups of 5-6 students (one group was alumni who only marginally participated) that meant some topics had two teams while others had just one. Alan set up the tags so it was easy for teams with shared topics to see each other’s blog stream, but I’m not sure the students picked up on/used that. A clear learning was that we needed to help people see the whole as well as the parts, and the projects could have been designed to be interlinked. That would add more coordination, but if we picked a clearer focus than “helping an NGO” and maybe even worked with an actual NGO need identified up front, the projects might have had a bit more grounding in reality.

I’m not sure we set up the five design areas well enough. That warrants a whole other blog post. To both understand the concept, put it in the context of a real NGO need and then create a short video is a tall order. It took the teams a number of weeks to really dig in to their topics and establish their own collaborative process. And of course that put a lot of pressure on video production at the end. I think the single most useful design change I’d institute is to have a required storyboard review step before they went into production. Then we could have checked on some key points of understanding before they produced.

A second production element came to light — literacy about what is acceptable use of copyrighted material. This relates to good practices about citing sources and giving supporting evidence for conclusions. There is always a space for one’s opinion, but there is also useful data out there to inform and support our opinions. I think I’d set the bar higher on this next time, and do it early – with good examples.

Student Response: I have not seen the student evaluations and really look forward to seeing them. I expect some sharp critique as well as some satisfaction. I personally know we learned a lot and can really improve a subsequent interaction. I am also interested to understand how this experience lands within the institution as they explore if and how they do more online elements in their learning structure. I smiled often when I read comments from the more social-media literate/experienced students and wondered how we could leverage their knowledge more as tech stewards in the future. Here is a comment we loved: Geoffrey – “the world is freakin bigger than facebook.”

Alan wrote something in his ds106 reflection that resonated for me in Project Community.

This is not about revolutionizing education or scaling some thing to world changing proportions, it is not even about us changing students, its showing them how to change themselves. I see in their writings new awarenesses of media, of the web, of their place in it, I see unleashed creativity, I see an acceptance of a learning environment that pushes them to reach out and grab their own learning.

 Next time?

First of all, I hope I get invited back to participate next year. We challenged ourselves and learned a lot. I think we can build on what worked and certainly improve many things. And from this, make it less work for the team. We learned a lot about the online/offline rhythm and from our team debrief, I sensed a strong inclination to do MORE online. But we also have to simplify things so that we can spend most of our time co-learning and facilitating rather than “explaining” what the course, the assignments and the projects were about. Clarity, simplicity — two key words for another round!

If you made it all the way through this, do you a) have any questions, b) insights or c) find something you can use the next time you design a course? Please share in the comments!

Artifacts:

Later Added Interesting Connections:

As I find some cool things related to this post, I’ll add them here. So expect more add/edits!

8 responses so far

Oct 10 2012

Shahab from #CommProj12 Interviews Me About Online Facilitation

IMG_07112012_160533We are deep into week 5 of the Project Community course. The course explores the role of online communities and networks in open, innovative design engineering. (See previous posts here and our shared Faculty blog.)

Shahab, one of my co-faculty, and I did a Google hangout on online facilitation. Here is the short 12 minute version. You can find the longer 19 minute version here. I mentioned the Community Roundtable about half way in and want to share the link so viewers have an easy link to follow! The week’s reading on online facilitation is here.

via Nancy white on Online facilitation – YouTube.

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Oct 05 2012

What is Online Facilitation in the Context of Open, Innovative Design Engineering?

Note: this is an update of an older article I wrote on online facilitation. You might say, this has been steeping for a while. ;-) I have both updated it, and tweaked it to meet the needs of the Project Community Course at the Hague Technical University. 

Nancy White, Full Circle Associates
For CommProj12
October, 2012

In your teams you have looked at various online communities and networks that might contribute to an innovative and open design process. You have determined purpose or focus, you have identified some exemplar communities or networks in order to examine them more closely and have analyzed what activities they support, and how technology assists in that process. But in the end, we are dealing with human beings, so we need to also attend to the social practices. How do people interact? What norms, agreements or rules shape this interaction? How do individuals facilitate this interaction?

To begin this exploration, lets think about a few things.

What is Online Facilitation?

Online group interactions do not always “happen” spontaneously. They require care and nurturing: facilitation. The core of facilitation is to serve the group and assist it in reaching its goals or purpose. Some describe this role as a gardener, a conductor, the distributed leadership of jazz improvisers, a teacher, or an innkeeper. It can be this and more. Levitt, Popkin and Hatch, in their article “Building Online Communities for High Profile Internet Sites” wrote, “Communities are organic in nature and site owners can’t make them successful or force them to grow. As site owner can only provide the fertile ground on which a community may grow, and then provide some gentle guidance to help the group thrive. Much of the challenge in fostering an online community is social, rather than technical.”

Facilitation is a balance between functions that enhance the environment and content, create openness and opportunity, and functions that protect the members from harassment. It involves the sacred rituals around freedom of individual expression while preserving something of “the common good.” It is juggling, tight-rope walking, often without a net. The distance to the hard cold ground varies with the community or group goals.

The clearer the purpose, the easier it is to craft the facilitation approach. Purpose provides participants and facilitators expectations upon which they can base their actions. Facilitators foster member interaction, provide stimulating material for conversations, keep the space cleaned up and help hold the members accountable to the stated community guidelines, rules or norms. They pass on community history and rituals. They “hold the space” for the members. Perhaps more importantly, hosts often help community members do these things for themselves. Without someone taking on these responsibilities, it is easy for an online space to get sidetracked, disrupted or simply abandoned. For more specifics on online facilitation, see Some Considerations for Facilitating Online Interaction.

Online facilitators’ most important skills are as a skilled group facilitator and genuine, authentic communicator. In a text environment, that means people at ease reading and writing with care and clarity. While these ideas were fairly unusual in the mid 1990’s and the early online communities, they are fairly common now.

Being an online facilitator benefits from our offline facilitation experience. Here is something I wrote on my blog about this connection:

My early geographical community leadership work found legs when I learned things like mirroring to better hear and understand what others were saying – usually with a small gesture that started with eye contact, leaning in to listen, and paraphrasing to work towards understanding. When I first started facilitating online around 1997, the simple act of welcoming and reciprocating opened up the magic of text based asynchronous conversation. As I returned to more face to face meeting facilitation, again the gestures of showing that I was listening, of helping make the act of “being heard, seen and loved” (a central teaching of the Dalai Lama) central to group interaction proved powerful. More powerful than any method or tool.#

Who is the Facilitator?

The online facilitator can be the convenor, online community owner, or someone designated by the community owner. The role may evolve within a group. It is usually preset for large commercially oriented communities, such as customer communities and the role is often called the “community manager.”

Small communities may have just one, while large online spaces with many spaces and topics may use teams. Facilitators may be unpaid volunteers in the social communities, where facilitators in online work groups often draw from the team. Facilitators may be a team leader or outside contractor.

In some cases, communities and groups self-facilitate. They have enough awareness of the process issues and sufficient skills to spread these duties across the membership.

 

What Specifically do Online Facilitators Do?

Facilitators in offline situations have certain established roles providing leadership, focus, stimulation for group interaction, support, team building, refereeing, dealing with problems, timekeeping, responding to member feedback and group regulation. These may also be needed online, but there are also differences in text-based and synchronous web interactions.  Communication has a few more challenges, plus there are the advantages and disadvantages of electronic tools. Social presence manifests in more subtle and layered ways, like the layers of an onion. This is further complicated by the way our identities can and are expressed online across a variety of sites and media. (See more about the comparison between online and offline facilitation here.)

Facilitator approaches depend on the nature of the community. Some communities, such as conversational, text based  “salon type” communities, need a very low-key “host.” This is commonly seen in special interest and hobby communities. Some need very clear and rapid responses, or distinct leadership qualities such as in help and support communities. Teams online reflect many offline team leader characteristics. Some have very specific, named roles such as in gaming communities (World of Warcraft guild leaders, for example.) Others need facilitators to help raise the overall skill level of the community to facilitate itself.

In general, there are four pillars of online facilitation: 

  1. Understanding of group facilitation as it occurs face to face and online. This includes understanding issues around group size, differentiating convergent and divergent processes and having a range of facilitation methods to chose from.
  2. Knowledgeable about design. Ideally, facilitators are involved in the conceptualization, design and implementation of the online space to ensure that group member needs are accounted for. They participate in pre-assessment and planning.
  3. Grounded in the group’s purpose with full understanding. Facilitators understand the “why and what for” of an online group can convey it clearly to group members.
  4. Prepared with tools and technical practices. Facilitators have enough knowledge and comfort with technology to use it, to diagnose problems of others’ use of the tools and an ability to coach others to use the tools.


Facilitators use their group facilitation skills to enable the group to meet it’s goals. This involves a group of processes which often include: 

  1. Entry and engagement processes which help members become active participants. This can include both technical and social orientation or “onboarding.”
  2. Supporting sociability, relationship and trust building – particularly important for teams and bounded groups or where there is a lot of interdependent tasks and interactions.
  3. Constructing, adapting and modeling norms, agreements and accountability. Again, for more bounded and long term groups, this is important. It is a much lighter touch for short interactions or very open groups.
  4. Support discussion and dialog (foster communication). Understanding conversational dynamics, the power of rephrasing, asking good questions and surfacing meaning moves conversation forward.
  5. Support divergent, convergent and task-oriented group processes (help get work done)
  6. Anticipate and work with conflict and abrasion to both allow emergence of new ideas and protect people from harassment
  7. Work with full understanding of diversity in learning style, culture and personal styles
  8. Understand and make visible group participation cycles and “rituals” in the online environment.
  9. Summarize, harvest, weave and support appropriate content and connections
  10. Provide basic help as needed with the tools
  11. Ensure the space is kept “tidy” and navigable.

Variations on the Facilitator Role

To get a sense of some of the variety of facilitator roles, you may wish to read first hand from Hosts on Hosting. As you consider your role compared to theirs, you will probably find that you are doing a combination job, utilizing skills from all areas. And it varies over time as a community matures and members start to take on various roles. People have created many metaphors to describe the role of online facilitator that help us visualize the roles. Here are some examples along with links to resources:

The Social Host

The social host or “host as innkeeper” is the most well-known online facilitation model originating out of long time discussion communities like The Well, Electric Minds (note, this page seems to be rarely up anymore) and Salon Table Talk. Any person who has created a group on Facebook will recognize this approach. This is the most familiar role, but is not the ONLY role. As a dinner host brings together the elements of a successful party, a social host helps create an environment where the members feel comfortable to participate. Part conversationalist, part counselor, part role model and sometimes even part bouncer. They are also usually part of the conversation.

Applications include:

  • social, conversational communities
  • helping entrants feel “at home” and acclimated in work groups and communities of practice
  • customer service

Key skills include:

  • greeter
  • social skills
  • conversation stimulator (content, style, process)
  • sometimes utilizes a persona or a “character.”
  • conflict resolution (particularly in open, public online communities)

Links to articles on this style of hosting, as well as some hosts on hosting who play the role with panache.

The Team or Project Manager

In communities with a strong task, work orientation or subject focus, the team manager pays attention to adherence to focus, timelines, task lists, commitments and process. This can be a leadership and/or support role. This can be aided by the use of static web pages to organize information, the combined use of linear and threaded conferencing space, and the regular use of summaries and reviews. Skills include traditional project management and organizing.

Applications include:

  • Virtual work groups and teams
  • Online events (especially time-delimited)

Key skills include:

  • traditional project management skills
  • writing and summarization skills
  • technical skills such as HTML to create information and summaries with visual impact
  • ability to abstract information and process it for the group

Links to articles

The Cybrarian

Cybrarians represent the gift of knowledge and information. They are “topical” experts. Cybrarians help members find information internally and externally of the community. They organize information and make it accessible. And they stimulate interaction with the introduction of or pointer to new and relevant information.

Applications include:

  • Virtual workgroups and teams
  • Topic-oriented conversation communities
  • Help desks
  • Distance learning settings

Key skills include:

  • web-savvy research
  • strong organizational bent
  • love of learning and information

The Community of Practice (CoP) Facilitator (or Coordinator)

CoPs share and build knowledge around a practice. Part of this process is being a group – having identity and reputation, being able to have agreements and some sense of accountability to the group. Facilitating CoPs online can focus on some of these “sociability” and relationship issues. This includes helping members get to know each other, articulating and making visible agreements, and watching/nurturing group dynamics. Skills include group facilitation and a working knowledge of CoPs.

Applications include:

  • Internal formal and informal CoPs
  • Cross organizational CoPs
  • Formal and informal learning communities.

Key skills include:

Links to articles

The Help Desk/Customer Service

In customer support communities and in online interaction spaces where there is an ongoing influx of new members, there is often repeated need for simple help pointers on using the software or understanding the community purpose and guidelines.

Applications include:

  • E-Commerce and service organizations
  • Larger communities where new folks need help with the software

Key skills include:

  • technical understanding/patience
  • clear communication skills

The Referee

Good cop or bad cop, this is the role of bringing attention to and/or enforcing community norms, rules and procedures. Referees help the community regulate, protect members and deal with problems. For example, if a community has a policy of no posting of advertising, the host has the job of deleting offending posts and asking the poster to refrain from posting ads. The clearer the rules, the easier the job. Likewise, where there are no clear rules, this job is often perceived as authoritarian and arbitrary. Referees are often not “regular members” who are “just part of the conversation,” but a role apart. These tend to be employees of online community sites and have rather small facilitative impact on a group.

Applications include:

  • social, conversational communities
  • topic oriented discussion groups
  • customer service
  • workgroups

Key skills include:

  • thick skin and a slow fuse
  • Internet experience
  • familiarity with common netiquette

Links to articles

The Janitor

It can get messy in cyberspace, as we leave our words in conferences and topics. The Janitor tidies up forgotten topics by freezing and archiving, and redirects activity if it is in the wrong area.

Applications include:

  • any community with multiple spaces
  • high volume spaces

Key skills include:

  • familiarity with software
  • attention to detail

The Network Weaver

Today we have many online forms that aren’t bounded and can’t be simply managed or controlled. They represent the possibility of webs or relationships to serve a purpose. The skills in this context are more about noticing patterns, opportunities and connecting people.

Applications include:

  • Interactions in open networks like Twitter and Facebook
  • Working across group and organizational boundaries (which is very common in the international development context.)

Key skills include:

  • Ability to scan and see patterns between people and across content
  • Keeps one own social network in mind and has practices to keep tabs on it
  • Understands use of aggregation tools, tags, etc.

Links to articles:

In the end, why is online facilitation important or useful?

There are hundreds of reasons for online facilitation and they are context dependent. But there are some general patterns that have shown up in my work across various contexts demonstrating the value of online facilitation. Here are a few examples.

1. Connecting people matters. When we facilitate in an innovation or learning context, connection between people accelerates learning. It can also turn traditional structures on their heads and unleash new possibilities.

In 2000 I got involved in a small grant project in the Southern Caucasus, run by a small Vermont based nonprofit seeking to connect small business owners in three post Soviet countries using the Internet. In three countries with less than 10% internet penetration at the time. Two of whom were (and are still) at war with each other.  As you might guess, few of the entrepreneurs benefited, but the three country managers connected with each other in new ways, giving sufficient support to learn new things quickly and more easily than before, support each other in taking risks and rapidly iterating towards some amazing innovations.  Being connected changed their leadership experiences and increased their learning more rapidly than a typical “country program manager” might. They all went all to lead amazing programs there and in other places. At the same time their home office got a little freaked out… and they actually suggested (with some humor) that I had provoked a cult. But what turned things around was that their funders were so impressed, the home office eventually came around. It turned things upside down for  a while and made things uncomfortable, but in the end it cause a fundamental and productive change.

2. Small things matter. The practices of connecting for design, innovation, production, and support abound in the era of social media. We have more opportunity than time or attention. So it is interesting to observe that big changes often turn on little actions. Someone introducing two people who might share an interest. A small, sincere thank you for a contribution to a network. A shift in web meeting scheduling to better accommodate diverse time zones.

I was at a gathering of one of my core international networks some years back and we closed the meeting by “going round the circle” to briefly share what we were learning. A woman I had just met said something about appreciating learning from me. I looked across this circle and thought “who is this woman?”  Now that woman is one of my key learning and working partners, even though we are half a world apart. If she had not spoken up the connection would not have happened.

3. Jumping boundaries shines new light on ideation, design, creation and distribution. The online world gives us access to people and ideas that are far more diverse than those in our immediate geographic surroundings. We can see other ideas, practices, opinions, strengths, weaknesses and even entire perspectives that enrich and expand our thinking. This unleashes immense possibilities. It can change our practices. It can change our lives.

Years ago I used to doodle to endure long, bureaucratic meetings that were part of my job. People started asking to have those doodles, as they reflected something in those meetings that resonated for them. Years later I have begun to do graphic facilitation – the use of visuals in group process.  By stepping into a new practice – literally and mentally, it has changed the way I connect with others and make sense of my interactions with them. Changing modes has changed my learning. This shows up again and again as I work in new domains and parts of the world. Diversity enriches our learning.

What next? Here are some questions for you to consider this week

  • What are particular online facilitation patterns or practices that might be useful in each design phase?
  • What might you we looking for in our exemplar communities and networks?
  • How do we look for evidence of facilitation? How do we evaluate it?
  • Some of you have quite a bit of experience on social networks. What facilitation knowledge and skills do you have? How have you used them fruitfully?

Background, References and Related Resources that I’ve Written or Posted over the years

Online Facilitation Overview – Google Docs.

One response so far

Sep 24 2012

Chris Corrigan on Group Size in Innovation and Open Design

In our week three of the Project Community course, we are talking about group size. While I was at the fabulous Applied Improvisation Network World Conference this last week, I got to ask the fabulous Chris Corrigan for his insights to share with the class. The fabulous payoff is in the last 2 minutes or so!

via Chris Corrigan on Group Size in Innovation and Open Design – YouTube.

5 responses so far

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States.
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