If you build it will they come? A model for sustainable online community networks for practitioners

The presentation we gave last month at the ALT-C conference in Leeds is now online:

If you build it will they come? A model for sustainable online community networks for practitioners

Helen Whitehead, Liz Cable Reach Further Ltd., United Kingdom

Thursday 11th September 2008, University of Leeds

Community model powerpoint is attached:  online-community-model-alt

Abstract

How do you engage a Community of Practice whose members are skilled, experienced and have a lot to offer or share with one another – yet are ultimately time-poor – so that their expertise can benefit those at the other end of the digital divide? We propose a model for the creation and maintenance of sustainable online Communities (networks) of Practice which is scaleable, and can be implemented using a variety of Web 2.0 technologies as appropriate to the context, and present the first results of an action research pilot.

We have piloted the model in three Communities of Practice. The ELKS (E-Learning and Knowledge-Sharing) community of expertise for the United Nations Global Alliance for ICT (Information and Communications Technology) in Development aims to share good practice in e-learning in Further and Higher Education worldwide. This addresses the global/local dimension in which experience in the developing world can inform the developed world, and vice-versa. The model has also been applied to the creation of The Unit Portal for connecting new entrepreneurs with business mentors, and to the ELESIG (Experiences of E-Learning Special Interest Group) network for e-learning practitioners.

The model sets out a transferable structure for sustainable communities involving three levels of online engagement – the public (expert or institutional) level, the community level and the private level – potentially plus offline elements. Content moves between the levels as knowledge is constructed and collated by individuals and groups of community members. This structure is supported by processes for facilitating learning and sharing within the community as the basis for all activity, empowering the participants as learners and creators of learning. This addresses the dimension ‘for the learner or by the learner’. Activity within the communities is being analysed by quantitative and qualitative methods. While the model is independent of the technology used to construct the networks, developments in technology during the life of the project, particularly open-source and web-based applications, have been incorporated into the three communities as part of the action research process.

We will present our model with context drawn from the pilot communities. From first results, the challenges include restrictions due to the choice of technologies to implement the model (different in each case), issues with focus, and the importance of connecting the private and community levels to stimulate engagement. The key is to build flexibility into both the model and the facilitation processes that support it to adapt them for different purposes, such as a network of business people, often with minimal e-skills and little experience of online collaboration, or one of skilled but busy e-learning professionals.

Originally published at reachfurther.com