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Individual reflection on group task

After a welter of individual online learning experiences, we joined in groups to outline a model for an e-learning community, documenting our design on a collaborative project site, a wiki.

This task puzzled me: we were to develop the concept, not the content, of our community, so how would the communities differ from each other? Wouldn’t each design simply exploit the features that had best supported our learning experiences, and wouldn’t these be common for each of us: a sense of ‘place’, ways to personalise our identity, security, scope for contributing resources, spaces for subgroups, events to align the community, a surrounding envelope of feeds for currency. (Group member Jenny_C summarised our key requirements perfectly.)

The differences between online communities, such as the codified / emergent / collaborative typing suggested to describe a community’s ‘footprint’ (The XYZ axis of community modelling‘ 26/03/2009), or the different weightings possible for Wenger’s four dimensions of design, seemed too detailed a level of description for this task, and too reliant on the use, rather than the design, of the community. (As quoted by Redmond and Lock (2006, p. 269), it is the partnerships and interactions among people that define community, not the technology.) After all, when you take out the furniture, the furnishings, the fire and the family, how does one empty living room differ, in conceptual terms, from any other?

Image uploaded under Noncommercial 2, Creative Commons. Photo by boskizzi.

When the community designs came to be presented, several did resemble that of our group, motivated by the same pedagogical guidelines, focussed on similar audiences, and selecting a technology which offered the most features in one package.

In another sense, however, each member of our group, while working together productively and cooperatively, was nevertheless working on a different design. According to their workplace perspective, each group member shaped the envisaged community to their current concerns. (This was a strength, not a weakness, for our group process, giving us the greater resources of varied experiences and the opportunity to follow individual goals within the group task; see Saunders 2008, points 2. and 6., p. 42.) One experienced teacher saw the community as a site overcoming sectoral divisions; another teacher in a leadership position saw it shaped by international trends; the private learning centre manager saw it as positioned over competing public and private brands; and the instructional designer wanted the design to be based on threes 🙂 – seriously, she sought to match the community design with learning design principles at a higher level of abstraction.

Our learning within the group was in part activated by our need to shift between these perspectives and between the communication and sense-making sides of the Wiki tool (the discussion threads, and the content pages), to recontextualise the community design as it developed. (Crossings between engagement spaces were found by Cranefield and Yoong (2008) to facilitate the embedding of knowledge for online professionals.) The challenges of the Wiki tool and the fragmentation of discussion across the Wiki provided additional discontinuities, triggering, according to Wenger (1999, p. 227) a continual renegotiation of meaning.

The perspectives identified above also shaped how we contributed to the wiki. After considerable pre-writing discussion, where we reached a communal understanding of the assignment task scope, each individual group member assigned themselves to writing particular components of the wiki, often related to these workplace role perspectives. This approach should yield a quality product: not only was our group, as a whole, exhibiting high task involvement, characteristic of an engager, not an avoider group (Yan & Kember 2004), but the Wiki text quality should benefit from a single expert writer given thorough review by a number of editors (Warschauer & Grimes 2007, p. 11). When measured against the group wiki assessment framework of Snelling and Karanikolas (2008), we seem as a group to have operated at a good level of autonomy:

  • identifying core components of the assessment topic
  • using several sources for information
  • evaluating the information obtained
  • organising the Wiki coherently, and
  • analysing new knowledge.

As the large discussion thread demonstrates, comments on others’ suggestions and on the writing of the wiki content were constructive and encouraging, demonstrating a shared model of humanistic feedback to enhance learning (Saunders 2008, p. 29). Once the text was written, the group typically made small corrections rather than radical changes to the page, and I think this is in part due to the unwieldy operation of a Wiki when used to present persuasive text. Otherwise, it may be suggested that our group was subject to ‘groupthink’ (Saunders 2008, p. 45), or perhaps, more likely, subject to the constraints of Time.

Time was the single most important factor affecting our group learning process, and powerfully informed my experience of this learning situation. It made me understand the most crucial dimension for future learning communities I may be experiencing and/or facilitating.

At the beginning of the process, the timeline was attentuated as we slowly gathered group members – a slow start, but not unpleasantly slow. The nucleus of the group formed around a shared area of interest (English teaching) and despite some tentative alternative suggestions, this became the focus of our proposed online community.

Because of conflicting work and personal schedules, the discussion on the discussion thread occurred in a disconcertingly jolting fashion, in clumps of late night comment, or with days between question and  response. This is not the way to enjoy a learning conversation. It was difficult to comment on postings more than four or five items remote, and the lapse of time may mean that the post has become irrelevant.

To combat these issues, we consulted our individual calendars and had real-time discussions – the pace a little leisurely for me, as we enunciated slowly against the echo generated by some more elderly telephone connections.

Then, as the semester progressed, the pressure to complete the assessment meant we needed to make key decisions on the design – perhaps we narrowed our options earlier than we might have, restricting creative possibilities.

The most crucial time constraint on our group learning experience was of course in the brevity of the task time: we have established great personal and working relations, but this span of time is not sufficient to see the learning community that is the group develop. With not enough time for a history, and with its view to the future curtailed, the Learn2 wiki/design community can only include some of learning elements of Schwier’s model, below (2002, p. 2) – but it was fun while it lasted.

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