In a recent post I described the Online Learning Community (OLC) as a Virtual Community of Practice (VCoP). I touched on the fact that Communities of Practice form naturally in the social world, and that learning is an integral part of practice. The explosion of information and communications technology in the past two decades has allowed for communities to form in virtual social worlds. But these technologies also present challenges in user adoption and access. Such challenges can be partially overcome when—from the user's perspective—the immediate practical outcome to their adoption is intelligible, plausible and fruitful.
Several researchers have identified both barriers and enablers to online community participation. I would summarize their collective findings as supporting the "intelligible, plausible and fruitful" frame and I would add the intrinsic motivators competence, autonomy and relatedness.
Competence (or Intelligibilty and Plausibility)
It may seem obvious, and many developers claim their technology is "easy to use", but usability is not always that easy to achieve. Part of the problem is that usability is contextual and, if you think about it, dependent upon the background and experience of the individual users. This is what we call technical literacy, or the concept that users build on prior experience to achieve efficacy and fluency in various technologies. In one of our recent projects at the College of Education, we were asked to develop an online professional development system for a population that had been described, perhaps uncharitably, as lacking even a basic understanding of desktop computer use. As a result of this insight, our design challenge was to minimize complexity in the User Interface, and maximize access to information as well as allow for collaboration and communication amongst participants. The idea was that users should not need to expend significant energy learning to use the system while they are trying to learn new subject matter.
While the technology itself can intimidate users and discourage participation in an Online Learning Community, participants can feel outmatched by others who have a more advanced grasp of the subject at hand. In one study of a large, corporate OLC that "in many cases, people are afraid that what they post may not be important (may not deserve to be posted), or may not be completely accurate, or may not be relevant to a specific discussion" (Ardichvilli et al 2003, p. 70). In other words, participants must feel competent at both a technological level as well as have an intelligible grasp of the discursive flow amongst co-participants. They must be able to engage with others as well as imagine that their participation will represent a significant contribution.
Autonomy (or Fruitful, Productive and Advantageous)
Other researchers support this notion with an emphasis on "perceived usefulness and ease of use" (Teo et al 2003). This approach asserts the need for a system that adapts to user and community needs. "Community adaptivity, such as the personalization of the community for one’s own needs and preferences, through creating and managing favourite topics and through system-tracking of user activities, could dramatically improve the perception of usefulness and ease of use, and through them, foster a greater sense of belonging" (Teo et al 2003, p. 693). Thus competence should be rewarded with an ability for users to improvise within the system and the ability to find new and creative ways to engage. Autonomy for users feeds the ability of the Community to grow it's practice.
Cox posits several qualities that contribute to a sense of community in a professional setting including relevance, challenge, enjoyment and empowerment. These qualities arguably provide the types of intrinsic motivations that speak to autonomy as they establish the possibility of a fruitful outcome for the individual. As Ardichvili states, "the challenge in enabling VCoPs is not so much that of creating them by administrative decree, but that of removing barriers for individuals’ participation, supporting and enriching the development of each individual’s uniqueness within the context of the community, and linking that uniqueness with the community purpose." (Ardichvilil 2008, p. 549)
Relatedness (or Trust, Belonging and Collaboration)
In order for an OLC to take hold, potential members must feel a sense of belonging. For those who may be reluctant, trust can be a primary concern. Cox lists several more factors including openness, respect, responsiveness, and esprit de corps (Cox 2004, pp. 18-19). Gannon-Leary and Fontainha add shared understandings, a common sense of purpose, and the use of netiquette (Gannon-Leary and Fontainha 2007). These researchers make clear that community cannot be engineered and must arise form the members' affinity for one another. While trust and a sense of belonging can form within a group that has formed online, "when a virtual CoP is based on a prior network, participants know what to expect from the CoP members" (Ardichvilli et al. 2003, pp. 72-73).
Thus, community formation cannot be taken for granted. Designers of online environments intended for collaboration and knowledge sharing will have to confront several obstacles to success. These include an intelligible and usable platform, a system that has a fruitful outcome for users who feel competent within its framework, and most importantly a sense that potential collaborators are people who have a desire to engage one another.
References and further reading:
Ardichvili, A. (2008). Learning and Knowledge Sharing in Virtual Communities of Practice: Motivators, Barriers, and Enablers. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 10(4), 541–554. doi:10.1177/1523422308319536
Ardichvili, Alexander, Page, V., & Wentling, T. (2003). Motivation and barriers to participation in virtual knowledge-sharing communities of practice. Journal of Knowledge Management, 7(1), 64–77. doi:10.1108/13673270310463626
Barton, M. A., & Richlin, L. (2004). Managing multiple faculty learning communities. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2004(97), 81–85. doi:10.1002/tl.135
Blaisdell, M. L., & Cox, M. D. (2004). Midcareer and senior faculty learning communities: Learning throughout faculty careers. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2004(97), 137–148. doi:10.1002/tl.140
Cox, M. D. (2004). Introduction to faculty learning communities. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2004(97), 5–23. doi:10.1002/tl.129
Fuller, A., Hodkinson, H., Hodkinson, P., & Unwin, L. (2005). Learning as peripheral participation in communities of practice: a reassessment of key concepts in workplace learning. British Educational Research Journal, 31(1), 49–68. doi:10.1080/0141192052000310029
Gannon-Leary, P. M., & Fontainha, E. (2007). Communities of Practice and virtual learning communities: benefits, barriers and success factors | eLearning. Retrieved October 1, 2012, from http://elearningpapers.eu/en/article/Communities-of-Practice-and-virtual-learning-communities%3A-benefits%2C-barriers-and-success-factors
Guldberg, K., & Mackness, J. (2009). Foundations of communities of practice: enablers and barriers to participation. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 25(6), 528–538. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2729.2009.00327.x
Hansen, S., Kalish, A., Hall, W. E., Gynn, C. M., Holly, M. L., & Madigan, D. (2004). Developing a statewide faculty learning community program. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2004(97), 71–80. doi:10.1002/tl.134
Hubball, H., Clarke, A., & Beach, A. L. (2004). Assessing faculty learning communities. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2004(97), 87–100. doi:10.1002/tl.136
Lee, J., Hong, N. L., & Ling, N. L. (2001). An analysis of students’ preparation for the virtual learning environment. The Internet and Higher Education, 4(3-4), 231–242. doi:10.1016/S1096-7516(01)00063-X
McElroy, M. W. (2000). Integrating complexity theory, knowledge management and organizational learning. Journal of Knowledge Management, 4(3), 195–203. doi:10.1108/13673270010377652
Petrone, M. C. (2004). Supporting diversity with faculty learning communities: Teaching and learning across boundaries. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2004(97), 111–125. doi:10.1002/tl.138
Petrone, M. C., & Ortquist-Ahrens, L. (2004). Facilitating faculty learning communities: A compact guide to creating change and inspiring community. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2004(97), 63–69. doi:10.1002/tl.133
Richlin, L., & Cox, M. D. (2004). Developing scholarly teaching and the scholarship of teaching and learning through faculty learning communities. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2004(97), 127–135. doi:10.1002/tl.139
Richlin, L., & Essington, A. (2004a). Faculty learning communities for preparing future faculty. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2004(97), 149–157. doi:10.1002/tl.141
Richlin, L., & Essington, A. (2004b). Overview of faculty learning communities. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2004(97), 25–39. doi:10.1002/tl.130
Sandell, K. L., Wigley, K., & Kovalchick, A. (2004). Developing facilitators for faculty learning communities. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2004(97), 51–62. doi:10.1002/tl.132
Shulman, G. M., Cox, M. D., & Richlin, L. (2004). Institutional considerations in developing a faculty learning community program. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2004(97), 41–49. doi:10.1002/tl.131
Teo, H.-H., Chan, H.-C., Wei, K.-K., & Zhang, Z. (2003). Evaluating information accessibility and community adaptivity features for sustaining virtual learning communities. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 59(5), 671–697. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S1071-5819(03)00087-9
Vaughan, N. (2004). Technology in support of faculty learning communities. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2004(97), 101–109. doi:10.1002/tl.137
Wilson, B. G., Ludwig-Hardman, S., Thornam, C. L., & Dunlap, J. C. (2004, November 1). Bounded Community: Designing and Facilitating Learning Communities in Formal Courses. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/204/286
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