On Networked Communities

Community is a puzzling term: we can talk about communities of practice, communities of inquiry, learning communities, rural communities, research communities… We can talk about so many different communities that it’s, I think, impossible to explain it in one way. But I can try describing one community that I’m familiar with.

I’m doing research on open participants’ experiences in a connected open online course. At first, I thought I could examine their activities through the communities of practice framework. I would look at how open participants went about research writing, the inquiry process. I would examine interactions among participants, find out about common norms, language, the type of knowledge that they produce as a community through shared artifacts. It soon became apparent though, what I was observing didn’t resemble a typical community of practice where “members share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” I wasn’t observing shared practice-other than blogging about issues related to education, which I think is too general to be defined as shared practice. Open participation was so diverse and rich that I had to take a step back and re-think how I might capture open participants’ involvement in the course.

Then I read something Mimi Ito wrote almost a year ago, and everything clicked: Unlike becoming a contributor to Wikipedia or YouTube, Connected Courses is a veritable cornucopia of ways of participating with no central platform. And unlike a community of practice, there is an abundance of different forms of expertise and practices, and social norms that are colliding through a loosely orchestrated cross-network remix, immersive theater where participants are all experiencing a different narrative. Its not a funnel or even a community with coherent practices, but a hybrid network, more like a constellation that looks different based on where one stands and who one is.

This was (almost) exactly what I was observing: participants’ involvement with the course, their presence, was multifaceted and unique. Their involvement was authentic; they talked about things that mattered to them, they brought with them their existing and expanding networks, they organized the course in ways that made sense to them and that suited their busy adult lives.

This, I believe, is also exactly what Catherine Cronin, building on Kris Gutierrez’s earlier work, describes as third spaces–spaces where formal learning skills and the informal skills, networks, and identities intersect and create opportunities for authentic interaction and knowledge building. (This last part is taken from a talk that I’ll give at the Digital Pedagogies Conference 2015.)

So am I observing a community here in the first place? I think, yes, but I believe my context is unique because the course is built upon a strong foundation which encourages community building from within (for example, via faculty and staff blogs). There are multiple communities of practice operating on different levels (faculty, students, the VCU community in general). When open participants join the course and begin participating in the course activities and interact with the VCU community they become part of that community. But at the same time, they have one foot outside the community, creating unique ways of participation and diversity.

I’m struggling with the vocabulary here a little bit. I feel like there’s a lot more that I want to capture than I outlined here, but I just don’t have all frameworks in place yet. So I’ll be reading and writing about third spaces, learning communities and networks a lot this summer to be able to tell a story that is robust and rigorous– something that will make sense from where I stand. Below is an image that I find relevant to think about community in networked places: It is always changing, evolving, regenerating, but there is nonetheless a shared narrative (a series of connected events) that brings people together. Draw imaginary lines between individual leaves and add more shapes and colors to the scene: now the picture is more complete in our mind’s eye. giphy Animated gif taken from here.

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