CatchingTumbleweeds

Many of the sites I’ve been involved with over they years have gracefully (and some not so gracefully) atrophied away – usually through lack of posting/input or contribution. Even my latest project – The Canadian Institute for Distance EDucation Research (CIDER site) seems to be barely sustining life and has yet to attain critical mass for robust knowledge construction.

At Alt-C conference last month I heard that this is far from a rare fate for many sites. Someone referred to the occaisional user as a “tumbelweed blowing through a ghost town”. I know from my youth on the Canadian prairies that barbed wire fences can (and do) catch tumbelweeds, but it seems a rather harsh restraint mechanism -even for teachers! Our challenge is to catch those tumbelweeds and use their energy to kindle or rekindle community.

Of course the easiest slutions are technical ones. I was very impressed by the new “leMill” learning object repository site. This Plone based application (released as Open Source under GNU GPL license) goes beyond earlier first generation learning object repositories by adding community features such as profiles (to find like minds), indiviudal blogs, groups for collaborative blogs and means to create and comment upon new “activities” created and supported using the leMill resources. LeMill seems to do for repositories what ELGG does for profiles.

Although it is very early times for leMill, I note that many of the groups lack even a single blog entry. Obviously, one can build it and but you cannot expect that they will come!

Technical ease in accessing, finding interesting stuff, sharing and commenting are necessary, but not sufficient, to insure use. Part of the answer is associated with critical mass. Millions of users didn’t desert Frienster for MySpace because of technical features alone. Rather a herd instinct kicks in and most of choose to be where the action is.

A numer of authors have written about the 1% meme – the idea that only 1% post or create new content on Web 2.0 stes, 10% comment and the other 89% are consumers. This is especially hard for formal online education teachers who are used to weelding the “% for participation” mark that coerces participation and creates a sheleted nieche within which formal edcuation survives, but life long learnign flounders.

I’d like to end this post by describing some sure-fire means to attain and maintain that criticial mass. But if I knew these for sure, I would be working some of my lonely sites and not posting here!

Teresa Burgess studied a longlasting listserv community of nurses and found 8 critical components; shared purpose, trust, guidelines, humor, flexibility, accessibility, expert facilitation, and storytelling. All of these seem important but there is little advice on how to jump start the process so these qualities emerge rather than be created through superhuman efforts of a dedicated founder/community owner. The 2005 Sustaining Community – Incentive Mechanisms in Online
Systems
report concluded that successful communities provided a range of incentives for participation. But they also note that different folks and different communites require different forms of incentive.

Maybe what we need in our educational research community is new incentives (beyond the holy grail of peer reviewed publication). Easy ones come to mind such as public talling of contributions to a range of web 2.0 communities, number of those linking to your blog, linkages to your scholarly work etc. The use of agents such as Google Scholar can be used to provide some of these metrics, but we need a dedicated professional contribution agent that scours the new, recognizing the 1% instigation and 10% participation contributions. Finally, we know that the 1% figure cloaks very major superstars who contribute far more than their normative share of knowledge to our community. Are these stars being adequately rewarded? Maybe each of us 10%ers or 89%ers should make a point of personally thanking those of our colleagues that make the efforts that make and sustain our communities.



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