When you’re going to a party, it’s important to time your entry right. Get there too early and you’re stood in the kitchen talking to Charlie, the only other person to have got there early because he goes everywhere early so he can be sure of having someone to talk to. All night. Get there too late and everyone’s finished the cheese crackers and are drifting off to bed. It’s all in the timing.
The kitchen is a social space, much like the social spaces that are springing up around all sorts of learning experiences. A social space can provide unparalleled opportunities to play with the learning: to take concepts and ideas that have been taught and to play with them in the company of like minded individuals. Forum spaces can provide support and challenge in equal measure, they allow us to test and refine ideas and to develop our language around explaining them
In essence, an online learning space is simply a community space associated with a particular topic or group of learners. Community is built upon enlightened self interest, upon shared ideas and ideals, it’s built upon consensus and commonality. But it takes time to grow. And this is the paradox with learning communities: you need a certain momentum to get them going, but there is usually a long gestation period, during which they are relatively quiet. There is a tipping point, after which they have enough momentum to be self sustaining, but getting them there can be a struggle.
This is a challenge in learning design, where we may wish to create and use a learning space with relatively small groups, even individual cohorts on training programmes. How do we generate the right level of engagement in a short space of time?
I think there are three areas that are worth considering: relevance, timeliness and sociability.
It may sound obvious, but it’s important that any learning space has coherence, that is is set up to do one thing and that it avoids too much creep in this scope. For example, if we are looking at Leadership, it’s right that we post relevant articles for discussion, that we work on case studies or that we encourage introspective blogging, but not really useful to put up notices about course fees or links to interesting articles on sales technique. Keeping forums focussed is in the role of the moderator, but it’s easy to relax the rules because any activity is better than no activity, although in the long run, this may just lead to a dilution of purpose.
Timeliness is another key factor: the right information (see above!) at the right time. If we are running a session on ‘influencing’, then the right time to post relevant articles is now, to fertilise the debate and to retain momentum. Timeliness of posting is important, but of moderation and response is also essential. There is a spectrum of media that ranges from pure ‘broadcast’ on the left through to ‘conversation’ on the right. Television is pure broadcast, whilst a blog allows for comments and response, albeit in a somewhat considered way (it sits in the middle). Twitter or Facebook are on the right, conversational, disposable. The point is that if a space is considered to be conversational, then we need to engage in timely conversations. It’s no good taking 48 hours to moderate and review responses, the conversation will have died by then.
Sociability is maybe the trickiest area to consider, because, by necessity, the online spaces used for learning are focussed around a topic or group, they are not totally freeform, so our conversations are not totally sociable in the typical use of the word. I use the term ‘sociability’ to relate to the overarching sense of community and purpose that we are aiming for. As i said earlier, communities are built from a sense of commonality, of shared purpose and a feeling that collectively we can achieve more than we can individually. This dynamic is what will drive engagement, even in relatively small communities. Our focus should therefore be on topics and discussion that foster and nurture this shared purpose: any forum or social space that overtly champions advertising, promotion or one predefined viewpoint is doomed to failure.
So there we have it, a relatively brief exploration around how we can view and create engagement in social learning spaces. Relevance, timeliness and sociability.