Framework for observing and supporting community activity
Open University (OU) developed Cloudworks in 2008 as a social networking site for education professionals to share innovative learning designs. This article puts forth a framework one can use to observe and support the building of communities in Cloudworks. It should be noted that the article was published in 2014, but drafts were actually submitted between 2010 and 2012. It may be interesting to view the archives for conferences (cloudscapes ), workshops (clouds ), and deadlines (calls ) to get a feel for the type of activity on that site.
- Core pattern of activity
- Notions of community
- The Community Indicators Framework (CIF)
- Creative capability
Cloudworks was designed as a platform to support peer critique and the sharing of user-generated content, with the goal that learning professions could create better designs and also further develop a reflective practice. They ‘drew on ideas of mediation and activity theory for designing object oriented sociality’ (Galley et al., 2014, p. 376) and added features that would encourage boundary crossing and discussions between different stakeholders.
Data, discussions, and survey feedback
In a previous paper, Conole and Culver (2010) discuss how even through multiple design iterations, people didn’t embrace the tool for its intended use, instead preferring it primarily for conferences, and also for aggregating topic-specific research, presenting polls, posing research questions, and scheduling meetings and setting agendas.
To analyze its use, they looked at activity data for the site, watched activities unfold, and interviewed or surveyed end users. When observing activities, they noted that there were two types of social interactions:
- Discursive: Supportive exchanges, welcome notes, affirmations, humor
- Deliberative: Asking questions, posing debates, making thought-provoking statements
And they also noted two other types of interactions:
- Informational: Sharing links, resources, presentations, notes
- Practical: Sharing practice and experiences; and sharing in the creation of an artifact such as an agenda, definition, design, proposal
There is also a question of community. Community may be evident in Cloudworks, but not necessarily communities of practice because those have more cohesion and stronger ties. But, researchers have identified other types of communities that have looser bonds, such as networks of practice, network sociality, and communities of inquiry, and communities of interest. The researchers were mostly interested in supporting boundary crossing by people within different pre-existing communities of practice.
The Community Indicators Framework (CIF)
This framework can be used to understand the activity on Cloudworks. It represents the four interrelated aspects of community:
- Participation: The ways people participate in an activity
- Cohesion: The ties between people in the community
- Identity: How people identify the community and their place in it
- Creative capability: The ability of community members to create and share artifacts and knowledge
Community Indicators Framework (Galley et al., 2014, p. 379)
One measure of this is to tally up activity metrics:
- Activity frequency shows overall success of community
- Number of participants in each discussion shows how well the discussion meets the needs of the participants
- Number of messages from each participant shows how engaged each participant is
But, these metrics have to be tempered with a look at quality, because the numbers themselves do not reflect how collaborative the discussions are. Some participants may be encouraging engagement while others may be just making statements.
One key to success: ‘In the Cloudworks space… it seems to be particularly important for someone to adopt a “connector” or social facilitation role [early on]…. We have observed that the early appearance of one or more participants performing positive social behaviours will impact on the longer-term development of a supportive culture for the life of the community. This supportive activity might include offering guidance, prompting through questions, reassurance, thanks, congratulation, welcome and humour’ (Galley et al., 2014, p. 381). Similarly, the authors note that Nichani (2001) proposes that within online discussions there are trend-followers and trend-setters, and of the latter there are connectors (sociable people), mavens (share information), and sales people (reach out to others to convince them to join the community).
Cohesion is about the ties between members of a community. Successful clouds and cloudscapes have members who are interested in each other’s points of view and use an informal, curious, and polite tone in their discussions. Humor or playfulness play a part in setting tone. And, sharing ideas is important for developing ties between members.
Cloudworks was designed to support communities; communities have members. In some clouds, the text of members emphasize their individual nature (“I”, “me”, “you”). In the more successful clouds, textual analysis shows that members use language that reflects community membership (“we”, “us”, “them”). The text also shows that the members of successful clouds point to experiences held in common and try to create a shared vocabulary and set of norms. The authors find this similar to the four-dimensional model of community formulated by McMillan and Chavis (1986): ‘[C]ommunity members need to have a feeling for the boundaries or limits of the community, and… these boundaries will enable a sense of belonging and safety…. that encourages people to self-invest in the community, which has the consequence of giving the individual the sense of having earned their place in the community’ (Galley et al., 2014, p. 383).
‘Creative capability relates to how far the community is motivated and able to engage in collaborative and productive activity’ (Galley et al., 2014, p. 385). When designing Cloudworks, this was an important consideration because there needs to be ‘alignment between the usability/functionality of the site in relation to participants’ skills, personal qualities and experience, community and individual motivation to engage in the site, and the capacity of the emerging community to mediate between these aspects, and exploit the cultural, ethnic, social and personal differences between participants within the community’ (Galley et al., 2014, p. 385).
Creative capability involves a combination of scholarly skills (such as research an critical analysis), technical skills (to access the platform), and social skills (to support collaborative and networked learning). For knowledge construction, there also needs to be disagreement and negotiation of meaning. ‘[T]here is a risk in an open and transient community that participants do not feel sufficiently secure to enter into disagreement, or that if they do, there are no established social or cultural processes or rules developed over time within the group that enable a conflict to have a positive outcome’ (Galley et al., 2014, p. 386).
Motivation also is important, because people need it to find the time to participate in clouds and the community and also to learn the Cloudworks platform.
Using this framework
The framework was designed to understand activity on Cloudworks, but it can be used to do the same for other platforms. It also may help people as they develop communities and to that end the authors supplied the following table with tips for creating a supportive environment based on each of the four aspects identified in the framework:
Facilitative interventions for community development (Galley et al., 2014, p. 391)
Goffman, E. (1955). On Face-work: An analysis of the ritual elements in social interactions.
Networks of practice: Brown, J.S., & Duguid, P. (2001). Knowledge and organization: A social-practice perspective. Organization Science, 12(2), 198–213.
Network sociality: Wittel, A. (2001). Toward a network sociality. Theory, Culture & Society, 18(6), 51–76.
Communities of inquiry: Garrison, D.R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2–3), 87–105.
Communities of interest: Fischer, G. (2002). Communities of interest: Learning through the interaction of multiple knowledge systems. Retrieved from http://l3d.cs.colorado.edu/~gerhard/papers/iris24.pdf
Trend-setters in online discussions: Nichani, M. (2001). ‘Communities of practice at the core’ in Elearningpost. Retrieved from http://www.elearningpost.com/articles/archives/communities_of_practice_at_the_core/
Four-dimensional model of community: McMillan, D.W., & Chavis, D.M. (1986). Sense of community: A definition and theory. Journal of Community Psychology, 14, 6–23.