Sunday, June 05, 2005

Serendipitous or Planned Communities

In spring of 1995 Burks Oakley, Larry DeBrock, and I started to play with some conferencing software called FirstClass (still used by the MBA program here) to figure out what it could do and how it could be used. The circumstances were these. As far as asycnhronous conferencing was concerned we were pre-Web. The campus had been relying on a Mac-based program called PacerForum which users loved because it was sooooo simple. But access from home required ARA (Apple Remote Access) and the campus was moving away from supporting that in favor of TCP-IP. FirstClass was compatible with this more standard internet protocol. And it ran on both the Mac and PC.

The other part of this is that Burks had just secured this big grant from the Sloan Foundation for the SCALE project and Larry and I were among the internal grantees who received funding from SCALE to put ALN (now eLearning) into our respective courses. Larry and I both planned to teach in the Summer I, the 4-week intensive summer session that starts in mid May. And we both intended to use FirstClass. This was to get a leg up on our project for that year. So the exploration into how the software worked seemed sensible as a way of getting ready.

At the time it didn't occur to me why other SCALE grantees weren't right there along with us. It just seemed like a fun thing to do so we did it. I had absolutely no thought whatsoever that this would establish a credential for later as an "expert" in ALN or that it was an initial step to building a larger community. Burks probably had some ideas on the latter. In the SCALE proposal he had a variety of activities planned to get ALN inbred on campus and to generate a certain number of ALN course for each of the three years of the grant. But for me this was about 50% sheer exploration and about 50% obligation since we did get a generous grant from SCALE and I felt that we needed to give back our money's worth in effort.

I recall Larry and I giving some seminar about our courses to other SCALE grantees and then sometime during the summer a discussion area in FirstClass was developed where we talked about teaching issues. It was funny because several of the SCALE projects had hired techies to do the heavy lifting work and those folks were in on the discussion right along with the instructors. That space was very vibrant through the summer and the fall. It then started to fade. One reason for that was the techies getting more comfortable writing in their own language and that, unfortunately, made it less compelling for us instructors to read. Perhaps another reason, this one I'm less sure about, is that other instructors had matured in their thinking about ALN and didn't need the community as much to advance their own learning. (There were other reasons --- not everyone doing ALN was using FirstClass so not everyone participated in these discussions. And some of the participants had other affinity groups that served similar needs.)

This was my first experience with community specifically about instruction. At the time I know I felt it paralleled much of the communal experience I had at Cornell as an undergrad in the particular living situation I fell into, which mixed undergrads and grads from a quite diverse set of academic interests. The diversity was an asset because it allowed a certain openness and a willingness to accept what others were saying without challenging them in an agressive way. Setting the appropriate tone was crucial and the gentleness contributed to the openess though it was clear to me that our little group behaved that way only with each other, not when any individual was interacting in outside the group activities.

Since that experience I've been engaged in a variety of virtual communities, mostly relying on listserv as the communication tool. The ones that seemingly are more effective from my view are where there is a symmetry in role for everyone on the lists. Support providers talking with other support providers works well and the tone is usually very constructive. Support providers talking with the faculty they support works less well, at least in my experience, because there is a tendency for the discussion to turn into a help session and also when there are problems for at least some fo the faculty to vent their frustration at the support people.

This raises an issue for me because I think a faculty only list devoted to instruction, at least here at Illinois, likely would not sustain because of lack of interest. The other distinction I'd make apart from faculty versus staff relates to commonality of the topic under discussion. It turns out that supporting instruction with WebCT Vista at Illinois is quite similar to supporting instruction with Vista at Purdue or Minnesota, so the support people can readily relate to each other and learn for each other's experience.

It is less clear that teaching the large psychology course is like teaching the large economics course. For the faculty to have such discussions across disciplines, they need to find that common ground and some of that must center around unresolved issues that make it an open research to bring to resolution.

A planned approach to building an online community for instructors needs to navigate through these various issues. I think it is possible, but clearly it is not easy.

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