Nothing lasts forever, not even good conversations. I’ve been working this week on some ideas around the lifecycle of social learning communities, specifically the changing role of the moderator throughout the lifecycle. I’m working around a three stage approach, with different activities and skills required at each stage. It’s not definitive, but what i’m trying to encourage is for organisations to recognise that there is a skill in moderation, that it’s not a job you just give to an administrator, and that we need to actively curate and retire spaces as they complete their useful lives.
We can recognise three distinct phases: forming, guiding and narrating. Forming is about engagement with the community, it’s the time when people are making introductions and establishing roles. We tend to see varied behaviours at this point: experienced learners, people with high social capital, tend to be visible and active. Others tend to be absent or quiet. But they may not be quiet because they lack social capital or can’t access the technology: the number one reason why people stated they weren’t engaging was because the subject wasn’t relevant. The role of the moderator at the forming stage is to reach out to these people and explore this.
‘Social capital‘ can be described as our ability to survive and thrive in social learning spaces: it’s partly experience and comfort with technology, but partly about strategies and experience in forming relationships in this space, staying safe, participating in conversations and understanding how virtual conversations differ from ‘real‘ world ones. Social capital is something that’s built over time, through practice, but is not something we can count on and is not something that is spread evenly through a community. The moderator needs high social capital, but also is a facilitator, an enabler, for others to develop their own. The moderator needs to have strategies for encouraging and developing this.
Once the community is engaged, the role may turn more towards guiding. Now, it’s true that social learning is only semi formal, that there is no rigid structure, but it’s equally true that it’s not totally unstructured: there is purpose and we are seeking defined learning outcomes. How we get there is open, but it is community with a purpose beyond the purely social. That purpose may be support, for challenge or to build skills, but it has direction.
We may create scaffolded social learning spaces, ones where there is a syllabus, a pre-defined structure, or we may simply allow the spaces to run around a topic, but whichever approach we take, the role of the moderator may be to guide, or perhaps to prune.
It’s great for conversations to diverge, but it’s valuable for them eventually to circle back to the core topic. The divergence, creativity within the bubble we have created, is where the innovation and spontaneity are formed: the pruning or guiding is knowing when and how to draw these threads together. It may be a case of simply asking questions of the group to draw conversation back to the subject, or it may be a case of recognising that the community has taken the conversation in a new but equally valid direction, and accommodating that within the syllabus.
Why do empires fall? Because they become decadent, they lose energy, the bureaucracy swamps them. All sorts of reasons. Why do social learning spaces get tired? Because the in jokes can outweigh the humour, because it can simply become too daunting for new people to join existing cohorts, because the volume of material can be overwhelming. Not all communities, some will operate successfully for years, but certainly there is value in thinking about time limited communities.
Whether long or short term, we should consider the third role of the moderator to be to narrate the learning, or to help the community narrate it. This is about building legacy, it’s about co-creating our learning story and sharing it. Narration may literally take the form of an article, a few pages written that tracks the discussion, the learning and makes clear the conclusions that the group has drawn, the meaning that was created and where the differences remain (we don’t need consensus, but there is value in understanding where difference arrises).
The narratives may be taken forward by individuals (shared with managers, through blogs etc) or may be used as foundation documents for successive cohorts on the same course. They can also be used in a business context to demonstrate a return on investment, to show a legacy from the learning.
So, three stages in the lifecycle of a community: forming, guiding and narration. Not for all social learning spaces, but maybe some of the principles are common, whether the space is permanent or short term, large or small. We need to help people to engage, provide support in keeping to a lose structure and help narrate the learning.