On community, facilitating, moderating and teaching

I will try to bundle two weeks of questions, readings and reflections on what I have observed until now.

What is an online community?

This is the first question in the FOC08 course and Leigh introduces the topic with a warning and some advice.

Most people use the phrase “online community” very loosely …and it is important that we try and develop an understanding of what exactly we are looking for, and techniques for looking.

According to Wikipedia, in biological terms, a community is a group of interacting organisms sharing an environment. From this perspective, an online community at its very basic would be people who share and interact in an online environment.

However, there is much more to it than meets the eye and it is important to question concepts and definitions we have grown used to and long taken for granted in our particular contexts.  In a period of change, when navigating uncharted territories and meeting new cultures, such general concepts must be questioned.

History changes, but so does the meaning of words. Depending on the situation, words like freedom and tyranny and faith have different applications and consequences. When does faith constrict freedom? When does freedom become a cover-up for tyranny? Most important, who has the power to define these words? (Source: NY TIMES  CRITIC’S NOTEBOOK : FREEDOM TWISTED BY CORRUPT REGIMES by Margo Jefferson January 13, 2004)

In the same way, the word “online community” has been used in so many situations by different people that the word does not stick to what it stands for. It is a loaded word, which may be used to manipulate people’s emotional needs for different purposes.

So again just observing and noting down the different layers of meaning I have noticed.

Differently from a traditional course during which the teacher and/or prescribed readings are the source of knowledge and impart it to others at a certain time and place, the starting point here are the participants themselves at their own places. They voice their points of view and perspectives arising from their own experience and check their assumptions against the readings suggested and what others have written.

Even though the initial required reading list and course framework/progression were not decided upon by the participants themselves and the interaction seems to be limited to the particular context of the course and the people who have enrolled, the platform used is a wiki, an open collaboration tool which allows others to add to it. It is a flexible structure which could be eventually modified. Participants are encouraged to post their own reflections on their own blogs and link to others not only through their blogroll but also when referring or quoting others. As posts are online and open, they may be “eventually”  commented upon and challenged by others who are not part of this specific context (provided their comment area is open and allows for this kind of interaction).

By posing the question “what is an online community?”, offering a number of articles from different professional fields (knowledge management, technology business, philosophy, sociology, education, research, politics) and by letting people show what they know, i.e., illustrate perceptions of community from their own context,  Leigh facilitates the explicit expression of knowledge.  By trying to define “an online community”,  the different individual answers reveal to others in turn what the initial common ground may be, where the intersections appear and where the differences (opinion, language, skills, netiquette or plain stubborness) may obstruct/impede communication and  make people remain silent, over-react, enter disputes, take diverging roads or quit.

The moderator´s role would be to perceive these moments, calm or encourage such behaviours so as to maintain the community´s harmony.

Therefore, the starting point is what each one of us already knows, how we represent it for ourselves and others, how this concept is used /understood and expressed by the different personae in their different fields of practice and interest.  

A second step, an observation of language, an awareness of worlds/behaviours different from our own (not only geographical but social, cultural, linguistic) are  paramount to examine recurring patterns, how these are transposed in different situations – which community avoids them,  which reinforces them and why.

“Eurocentrism, like Renaissance perspectives in painting, envisions the world from a single privileged point. . . . Eurocentrism bifurcates the world into the “West and the Rest” and organizes everyday language into binaristic hiearchies implicitly flattering to Europe: our ‘nations,’ their ‘tribes’; our ‘religions,’ their ‘superstitions’; our ‘culture,’ their ‘folklore’; our ‘art,’ their ‘artifacts’; our ‘demonstrations,’ their ‘riots’; our ‘defense,’ their ‘terrorism.’ ” Shohat, Ella and Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism. Routledge. London and New York, 1994. p.2 “

Individuals, communities, groups, networks…language and critical literacy are paramount.

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