I've been editing the curriculum for and shadowing an online collaboration course presented by Nancy White for an international organization. I wanted to see how online communication works in groups through means other than chat and without telephony.
If You Build It and They Come, Will They Talk?
In my experience, it's hard enough facilitating conversation off-line -- even in seminars with very bright, motivated people. If you can't see anyone's face or hear voices in the group, it's exponentially more difficult to create interaction.
Rule One: Take Advantage of the Medium
One problem that often occurs in online group conversations without telephony is that the facilitator tries to reproduce the conventions of offline interactions. Nancy, however, is tremendously creative and leverages the value of the tools she's using. Because everyone's proclivities for interaction are different and unpredictable, the facilitator's challenge is to remain in the moment, give specific feedback, and think on her feet.
New challenges arise with each conversation, but unlike solutions in the offline world, those that work online remain largely unexplored.
The First Week
Nancy chose Moodle as the course's tool. It's flexible, relatively easy to use, and she had wanted to see how it works.
During the first week, there were reading assignments about the basics of facilitation and writing assignments to get people comfortable and introduce themselves. Forums were introduced -- a Learner's Log for daily or more frequent reflections, project areas, the week's activities, tools, virtual tour area -- and Nancy set questions to be answered as exercises to get people started. Some of these included the differences between online interaction and offline and expectations for the course. As the course went on and the questions were reiterated, the answers grew in depth, color, and complexity.
There was a sense both of disconnection and of coming together, sometimes in different ways at the same moment. Class members drifted from the reading to participation, from one topic to another, and from answering others to contributing their own ideas. The discussion was imbued with more of an expectation of a traditional class (eg information flows downward from the teacher) than of community.
During the week, however, Nancy had added a podcast, and by Friday there was a live chat with brainstorming about how chat can compliment a tool like Moodle for an NGO. The effect of hearing Nancy's voice and the synchronous communication seemed to galvanize the group in a way different from their asynchronous replies and participation throughout the previous period.
The Second Active Week
Nancy organizes her courses so that there is one active week followed by an inactive one. The organization allows those who have other responsibilities to catch up and for the class to complete assignments.
By the second active week, the course's tone had changed considerably. However, it is not just the chat and synchronous communication that caused it.
Looking for Cues: A Desire to Connect
The dynamic was fascinating. In person, an instructor has and access to individuals' facial cues and body language. She can also use her own body language and literal presence in different ways to compel conversation with a kind of energy only possible when everyone shares the same (offline) space.
It works differently online. First, the first week's asynchronous communication created a palpable sense of the unknown, unfamiliar, and hit-or-miss sort of discussion among people who had never met -- some who were not entirely comfortable in English.
At the beginning, people felt uncomfortable with the unfamiliar challenges. Little by little, though, the darkness was almost imperceptibly penetrated by a sense of coming together. Classmates searched for patterns and clues about each other, about their relationship with Nancy, and about their own place within the group. It felt as though people were searching for clues in unfamiliar territory and found them. These connections -- both around topics and between personalities -- were confirmed and developed in the synchronous chat at the week's end.
The course's design connected people in a way entirely unfamiliar offline -- particularly because of the way in which they are forced to search for connective tissue among asynchronous posts, replies, and reading material.
By the end of the second active week the group's members seemed to feel connected to each other's ideas, had developed project plans, and were familiar enough both with the course and Moodle to welcome and orient late-comers.
How Far Does This Go?
Can it be possible to go so far as to create an Open Space meeting online? The question was discussed in our course and other data can be found on the Open Space website where software is available as well.
More conclusions and discussion after the course has finished. . . .