Research on Online Community Points to Convergence, Maturity
Jenny Preece’s book, “Online Communities: Designing Usability, Supporting Sociability” (Wiley & Sons, 2000) eloquently details how research on online communities informs practice in building social presence and usability of electronic tools for this purpose. However, to me the factor of establishing and maintaining social presence in the electronic environment is paramount to nurturing a successful, growing community.
It affirms what I’ve been experiencing in building an online CoP:
1) You don’t (and most likely won’t) stick to just one tool to building an online CoP, as people will seek to find tools which are comfy for them to use. Some like e-mail, others like the blog, and others like the board. So, you need to advertise (constantly) that these tools are available to all to encourage more participation and discussion.
Having the availability of multiple tools for communication in the community speaks too, of high availabilty. That is, availability of the member’s to listen to other participant’s needs and concerns, which leads to trust-building, encourages them to reciprocate in contributing to discussion.
At the recently concluded PeLs 4th National Conference on E-learning, a participant asked why the PeLs website didn’t have the complete program details prior to the conference. And when I told him that the conference program was circulated via the group e-mail days before the conference, and that questions and discussions could also be found on the PeLs discussion board, as well as the PeLs yahoogroups. I saw his face light up when he saw there were other communication avenues. Apparently, we need to raise awareness levels on this.
This availability of multiple tools for online communications reminds me of a practice we’ve had as hardware vendors. Have a back-up system ready in case the primary system fails (I used to sell Uninterruptible Power Supplies, so back-up supply was really critical as we were protecting millions of pesos worth of data). Others call it redundancy; I call it prudence.
2) That many theories emerging on online CoP research show that this field is maturing. So the theory on weak ties building good opportunities for online information exchange and trust-building; or that you can sustain online CoPs only when an offline CoP exists are lost in the myriad of studies done on CoP–these are two of so many experiences that have been explored in the research field. The theories diverge even more when you talk about using CoP building for formal education, such as that of Garrison and Anderson. Or CoP building for professional groups and corporates, such as the one of Etienne Wenger, which I find highly practical for the informal learning and lifelong learning set-up.
This all just means that more people are increasing using the Net and CMC to sustain social relationships. And the two worlds of our Communities are increasingly becoming one.
What do you have to say about your own CoP participation?