habitat – a place for communities to build

I’ve always been very fond the the ‘habitat for humanity’ concept… at least what follows from the title itself. The idea that humanity thrives given the right kind of habitat… and that the bequest of habitat is a charitable… indeed a community even that should be participated in in order to support ‘humanity’ inside of every community.

In casting around last spring… looking for a way to talk about online communities and particularly looking at trying to encourage the growth of community in the variety of ways in which I participate in that quixotic venture, I came back to the idea of ‘habitat’. I settled and decided I’d found the right concept after talking to a new friend of mine who is working on tracking the density of ocean floor dwellers based on the given habitat that surrounds them. It seems that random bits of the way a place is structured has a great deal of effect on who is going to come and hang out in that particular area.

** what dave’s been doing professional while not blogging — skip if not interested **’
I’ve been working on the Virtual Research Environment at UPEI, trying to do a little training on community support. We got our heritage canada grant for working with students… detailed in last grant. Working with a variety of people to convert some nice open source tools into nicer tools for kids. Working with the folks at edtechtalk to make the umbrella organization pay for itself. Am building an ‘enterprise’ server at work. I have three articles i need to write. I’m looking very hard at a few Phd programs. for personal stuff see bon’s blog
** end of catching up with dave **

This, then, in simple terms in what I’ve been trying to do with communities. I’m trying to figure out how one goes about creating a ‘habitat’ that will make it more likely for community to form and more likely that that community will do the kinds of things that were intended… that prompted the creation of that habitat. I realize that it is not exactly a mind numbing concept. But at this point I’ve been a part of the attempted creation of… oh… probably 50 communities online and have seen a few successes and by far a larger number of communities that failed to thrive over the long haul. There are several personal factors that lead to the successes of those communities… One particularly charismatic or talented or famous individual is enough to hold a community together for a while… but, I’m coming to believe… the ‘way’ that the habitat is structured has a far greater effect on the success of that community.

We’ll take a little trip here… to try and identify the things that I’m talking about. When i first started exploring MUVEs I’d been astonished at the desire to replicate the real world in the construction of buildings. If, in Second Life (curse them) for instance, you are trying to attract people to drop by your building… why would you put glass in your windows? Glass servers a great practical purpose in my house… keeps out the cold while allowing me to see out. In second life, however, it could be seen to server a ‘security’ purpose… to allow you to see out without allowing people to come in… but if you are actually trying to let someone in, I can’t imagine why you’d do it. So, putting the glass in the window frustrates me… it will not, probably, frustrate someone else who’s thinking is more in line with the creators of that building. They might very obediently drop to the ground (assuming they were flying in the first place) open the door and walk into that building to look at how much it resembles the real world. They might feel comforted by this. They might return to this feeling of comfort and find that the types of people who end up in this building have similar outlooks to them.

This is habitat in action. It’s the same way that the ‘look’ of a coffee shop, or bar or store attracts likes… or at least attracts people to what they think they should like… which is an entirely other conversation. 😛 But as we take this little nugget of information and turn it back to a specific study of community what have we learned. They way a ‘home’ for a particular community is structured could be important to the types of people that turn up there. Again… we’re not exactly breaking the Senator Stevens barrier here.

If we were then, to list the types of things that are going to effect the amount of traffic, the recurrence of traffic, the ‘qualities’ of that traffic, the number of times people break the boundary between casual membership and membership, the direction in which the work done at a particular community follow the intentions of the drivers of that community, we’re going to find that a great deal is going to depend on how that particular habitat was structured.

So… as many of us agree that communities can create very nice results… and most of those who agree with that also agree that communities are extraordinarily difficult to ‘create’ (if it even makes sense to say ‘create a commmunity’) I’m arguing that a careful attention to the construction of habitat can increase the chances of a community forming. This post is starting to stretch out… but lets try following an example for a short while and see how that would work.

I want a community to study Aberlard with. (just the book I happen to be reading)

1. Find an existing one. This is much much easier than starting your own.
2. Join some other communities (if you’re not part of one now) get a sense of what ‘membership‘ means.
3. Decide who you’d like to have in your community… describe that person or those people
a. Like my friends X… she’s studious, but doesn’t take herself too seriously. She likes to ‘build’ knowledge as a partnership with other people and doesn’t feel the need to ‘own’ ideas. Ask her how much time in a week she might devote to such a community. Ask her what kinds of communities (if any) she’s currently part of.
4. Ask yourself how those people need to be supported. Some people need a clear description of things like posting policies… others find this restrictive and overly authoritarian
5. How much to show and not to show. Some people are intimidated and irritated by a cluttered work space. Others find simplicity overly trying. (in that… why can’t they just put the @#$%ing links on the front page where i can find them. The difference between a tumblog and a wordpress blog is a good example of the difference.

tired now…. there are a bunch of other issues, but this should be enough to illustrate what i mean. The thing is… community building through careful attention to habitat is a very simple idea. It’s just that it never occured to me that that was what I was doing. And now that I’m starting to pay attention to it… I’m noticing that my builds are going better. Thought I’d pass it on 🙂

Future of Education II – 10 years later.


I was struck by how difficult it is to choose the wording for questions like the one that George Siemens tossed out to get people thinking about education and the future.

What do you think learning will look like in ten years?

There are a bunch of qualifications I would like to add to that sentence, and so many eventualities that could come in the way of a move in any different direction. But I don’t think there’s a better way to ask it… The history of the public education system is replete with examples of people’s agendas, fears, ignorant well-meaningness, hopes and dreams controlling what might have otherwise been a more positive vehicle for making a ‘better’ society. That’s not to say that it is currently ‘bad’, just that it tends to move with the prevailing winds.

We all have different ideas of what learning is, and what it’s for. Some of us think of it as primarily normative… a way to sculpt a society in our image (and this is not necessarily bad… we do need a consistent vehicle to pass on the mores that we hold dear). The funny thing here is that this is one of the few places where the arch-conservative and the hippie-liberal come together… they would both like to (and have before… indeed… this was the original purpose of the public education system) use the school system to train for ‘moral rightness’ or ‘social justice’. On the other end there are those that believe that life is a gigantic DACUM chart… that learning is a process of checking off competencies that can be assessed and measured through national testing. Neither of these positions really gets at the true complexity of the violently ad hoc ‘learning’ concepts we carry around with us today. There is something decidedly repugnant in the Orwellian idea of a sculpted society and the only convincing argument I’ve heard in favour of standardized testing is “what else are we going to do?”


In the face of all of this indecision and uncertainty, I’m going to take a different path from my normal one. I’m going to be optimistic. I’m going to imagine what I might like learning to look like in the future. I’m going to be focusing on a couple of things… one is the community of practice model of learning (See posts here for emergent training communities) and the other is the ‘focus’ of the learning. I certainly don’t mean to claim that no one is doing this now… indeed, I think of edtechtalk as my main learning community. And as for focus, there are many people who are starting to focus on concepts and letting plain literacies follow along when they are needed.

Community Education – why edtechtalk works for me

Imagine a group of very busy folks trying to keep up to date on a field that is constantly changing. We have six groups of folks who get together once a week and present the best that they’ve been able to put together that week. We have a much larger community of people who are involved in finding stuff, submitting it to the group pile and participating as guests/members on the live shows. i am personally responsible to the show I do… and free to participate (as is anyone) in the rest of the work done in the community. Now, we use bunches of newish tech to get this done, but I don’t think of that as particularly important… it’s fun, but not essential. I get to stay current by hanging out with my friends online. It’s a pretty good deal… and its sustainable. It has that feeling of a conversation at a conference (minus the airfare and other expenses) but I get to have it at least once a week.

Where is the focus?

When a learning community has a strong idea of what its there for… and all the people who are there have self-selected themselves for that particular kind of learning, staying focused is not particularly difficult. People come to the community with something in mind. In the case of edtechtalk, the focus is on learning and technology… The skill set that is needed to participate effectively in that community is gradually acquired through the act of participating.

Presentation at FOE on June 4th – 1:30 pm CST (Check Local Time)
Snowclones, Clichés and Memes

The learning community that I’m trying to model tomorrow is one where we have self-selected ourselves to learn about how to be better community ‘joiners’. The different focus on this came from a conversation with Stephen Downes on a panel at the POM conference last week. I had asked Stephen how someone was supposed to learn a complex task without formal education. He responded by saying that they could go out and find people on the internet who knew how to do it and learn from them. My response to this line of argument is always the same “easy for you to say, you do this all the time, but how does someone unfamiliar with learning communities get comfortable with joining them?”

You could, I suppose, simply keep trying to join communities until you got better at it. I decided that it might be more interesting to look at what a community could do to work through the idea of ‘proper community joining and forming’. It requires people to be open about how they feel about the ways that people are talking to them. It requires people to choose the kind of education they want and then be responsible for brining good work to the table. It would mean that learning is something we commit to, when we need it, and, indeed, when we find it. It’s decentralized, and the personal assessment model looks like “this works for me.” The group assessment model kind gets turned on its head. The rest of the group needs to tell the leader for that day how well they’ve picked up what they were trying to get across.

My goals for the session – Assessing the ‘leader’

It is important, in this kind of assessment that people are honest. Giving positive feedback where it is not deserved can poison any community. Kind but direct criticism is the best way to ensure that everyone stays happy and productive in any community. Indeed… this is one of the primary responsibilities of every member. So, following are a list of my goals… I hope to hear back from you on how I did 🙂

Live meeting #6 – Snowclones, Clichés and Memes

The purpose of this meeting is to discuss how snowclones, clichés and memes affect community participation. My proposed goals are:

  1. grasp the terms by using them
  2. follow an example of snowclones, cliches and on to memes from start to finish
  3. participate in that example
  4. discuss how awareness of language affects the ability to participate in a community
  5. develop a list of strategies for discovering local language use in a community
  6. using that information to choose if a community is right for you
  7. participate in a new community

Future of Education – snowclones and ‘cliches’

I’m in ur nowlige, spukin’ ur mind.

This post is my first shot at developing the ideas that I want to talk about at the futures of education conference. I’ve spent bunches of my time recently writing and talking about communities and digital ecologies, and I thought I would do something a little different and talk about a specific case of how the new tools lead to new ideas of ‘knowing’ and how that could have a direct impact on education. I’m going to take a quick journey through the history of meaning making, and then talk a little about how specific tools can support things like cliches, memes and snowclones and what that means about learning and community belonging.

Why is belonging to a community important (or being in a network)?
I’m going to take it as given that most people who read this blog are going to believe that belonging to a community or network can be valuable. The most important learning i do is through the networks that I travel in. It is one thing to be able to find bits of ‘information’ on the internet(or have fun for that matter), but quite something different to be able to interact with people places and things all over the tubes. In order to do that, you need to understand what is going on in those communities… you need, in effect, to know how to adopt the given context. Many people have told us that in trying to become part of edtechtalk they need to ‘lurk’ for while to understand what is possible… what is allowed. They also take time to see how things ‘should’ be done. Knowing what to do in a community is essential for efficient membership. And, again, membership is key to learning deep things from a community or network.

How language plays a role
We have a running myth (or call it a shortcut) in the English language, that there are specific definitions for given words. When pushed on this issue, however, most of us will admit that, of course, those definitions change by context. I use the word ‘boat’ very differently at home among lobster folk than I use it around people who sail competitively. I also treat those boats very differently. The same could be said for the word house… or the word soup. Yes, most words that I’m using right now are quite standard, but if i used the word standardized, many educators out there might see a different implication. In his ‘Ancestor’s taleRichard Dawkins talks about the difference between two different kind of gulls. They are situated as ‘different species’ but when you observe them in the wild, it’s more of a continuum from one bird to another… in some places it is not possible to tell them apart.

Knowing how a bit of language is used in a given context or community is key to membership there. If I called someone a soup nazi, or when someone says ‘get off my lawn’, there is a literal meaning and a much more important contextual meaning. It was, at one time, that only people like novelists and politicians (and the newspapers and ads through which they were reported) had the capacity of creating this kind of thing. Expressions like ‘now you’re cooking with gas’ and ‘where’s the beef’ came from advertisements and spread into modern culture. The one that comes to mind most often for me is “the lights are going out all over Europe and shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” Thought provoking… and chilling… if you know the context.

Enter online communities – fark.com
I’ve been saying for months (maybe more) to anyone who will listen (mostly my cat) that I think that people like 40below are going to have as lasting an effect on the English language as any living novelist. This is going to be a little difficult to explain to someone who is not familiar with the website. Fark is a website where people from all over the world ‘submit’ weird news stories, with funny replacement headlines. 40below (who’s real name I don’t know) is responsible for 5155 ‘greens’ on fark.com. Those ‘greens’ or accepted headlines, occasionally become the basis for a cliche or a snowclone.

Once this happens, the comment (or picture) then becomes a matter of lore to that community… like the soup nazi is to Seinfeld fans. This understanding of a contextualized concept can be key to understanding and joining any community.

Snowclones and cliches evolving
Just today I heard a snowclone in my office… (actually i heard several today, my partner and I llove them) One of my office mates said “what happens in the office stays in the office.” A snowclone of the famous ‘what happens in Vegas, stay in Vegas.’ We have many of these in our culture, but most of them come as lines in famous movies or ad campaigns. What we have happening now, is that communities are evolving these expressions in a fraction of that time. The information is being spread through new media tools, and communities of meaning are developing. The same is happening for cliches… as least in web usage of the term.

So what does this mean for education?
It’s an example of how ‘making meaning’ is changing. There was a time that study (and enough experience in modern culture) would give you access to most of the cliches used in modern discourse. What’s happening now, however, is that these new expressions and ways of speaking are developing everyday. What we need to do is teach strategies for discovering these expressions and learning how to adopt local community dialects online.

This is a single example of how teaching is going to be different. In this case, we need to teach the students the strategies needed to understand a new discourse, without knowing what that discourse is going to be. They are going to need to use their personal networks, need to use community driven sites like wikipedia… If they need to ‘break into’ a community to get a certain kind of information, they will need strategies… to learn how to be respectful, to suss out the rules in the new environment and MOST IMPORTANTLY, to then decide if this is the kind of place they should be getting information from.

ric romero

Or they’ll be just like this guy 🙂

Emergent Training Communites – Slaying the Gatekeepers.

There have been some really solid objections coming around to my idea of emergent training communities (see attached paper from NMC poster session). Some people have asked me how communities can ever get started. Others have suggested that a deus ex machina is pretty much necessary in order to get any work done. The third objection, and the one that I’m going to treat with in this little blog post is “how do people get started?”

It’s all fine and dandy for people familiar with wandering around the internet as a digital nomad to slide into a virtual space, set up shop with a random group of folks, and become an emergent training community. Happens all the time. Someone sends in a comment to Edtechtalk, I meet someone at a conference or talk to someone at my university and go “right, i need to learn how to do that too, here’re my delicious links.” We work near each other, figure out what needs to be done and go our separate ways.

Imagine, if you will, overhearing a conversation in a bar in some far flung town. You respond to a question sent out to the room, sit down next to them, introduce yourself… The conversation moves on to other topics. You find that you have many things in common… beers are consumed, and by the end of the evening, you have a plan to work on world hunger. You run into people by accident, keep your options open, and then very cool things can happen. It happened to me yesterday on skype, I sent a letter to a person I know (very quickly becoming a friend of mine I believe) on a lark… kind of a ‘this is what I’m working on.’ The idea he came back with just plain blew my mind. More on this soon.

When we break down those and other social situations where everyone is contributing you find that there are a multitude of literacies at play. Some people are good coordinators,  organizers, real world experience… all these things are just as or more important than any facility with technology. What is, I ask, a vblog without the artistry to conceive of good framing? A blog without a sense of literary style? An e-learning course without a grasp of how to empower…?

Point being… most (if not all) people have something valuable to contribute to a community – emergent or otherwise. The problem is the gatekeepers. They’re sneaky little miscreants. In many cases the biggest problem is not even slaying the little buggers it’s correctly identifying them. The biggest one for me is patience. I have a VERY hard time reading through the directions before i try something. It’s the thing that keeps me from installing complicated software like Jabber. I just wanna go out there and do it.

Another problem here is that I’m an early adopter by nature and by breeding. My Father, a refinery worker and fisherman, bought a Vic20 when they first came out, he bought a Video camera (twice at the early phase) the second one was still attached to half the VHS-VCR which you had to carry around with you in a bag. My mother was my baseball and hockey coach long before word of women’s lib (for lack of a better expression) came anywhere near my small town.

Yes, an early adopter. And my goal is attract the ‘second wave’ of folks to the conversation online. To get them feeling empowered enough to contribute to these conversations without being ‘forced’ or ‘prompted’ but of their own volition. As an early adopter, i have no business deciding what the gatekeepers look like for those second wavers. Or, at least, limiting them to what they are for me. It does, according to all the things I keep babbling about, need to be decided by those folks who are actually dealing with it.

So. I’ve hatched a plan. A plan that I’m challenging other people to take a shot at. I’ve asked all the tech support people at my university to find me a group of course designers. They are going to design a gatekeeper slaying course that I want to put on our moodle at the university. (Those of you saying “hey… didn’t you just choose the model and the place for your course?” sit down and be quiet. I have enough of that voice in my own head. 🙂 ) These designers I’m looking for need to be the following:

  1. Extraordinarily competent at the work they do
  2. Have a vested interest, a need to become familiar with technology
  3. a luddite (opposed to technological progress)

My hope is to help them design a course for themselves, a course that we can then send out to the rest of my university that addresses the problems that they had learning to use Moodle, to be put into moodle. The course, as I see it (subject to change of course), would be a short, maybe 3-5 topic course that anyone could take. Simply being willing to register, sign in, and complete the material would be enough to certify your willingness to try. The key criteria is that everyone needs to take the first course by themselves. On their own time.

That’s my proposal, in short. My hope is, once they realize that they CAN go in and do it by themselves, then the rest of the community can benifit from the rest of the stuff that they know how to do. The digital can then feel the impact of the rest of their literacies.

And then, maybe, they’ll start being willing to be part of emergent training communities on their own.
Anyone up for the challenge?

Rhizomes, Deleuze and collaborative models (and online ‘textbooks’) part 1.

I’ve been thinking about how to design online textbooks that are intrinsically collaborative, can be ‘authoratative’ where necessary and don’t revolve around a central, linear narrative. It’s a concept, this lack of linear narrative, that is coming up more and more. People are talking about having websites, groups, communities… all kinds of things that are not tied by spokes to a central core but can move around in relation to each other. I want to talk a bit about this, clear an idea out of my head and throw in out there for you folks to help me work on.

rhizomatic Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari used the term “rhizome” to describe theory and research that allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation.

I’ve spent much of my ‘free time’ lately looking at models of collaboration. Stephen put up a very cool set of distinctions between linear models of collaboration from a whiteboard he’s drawn on when he was in Australia/New Zealand. I was also looking at a new posting from Nancy White detailing the 8 competencies of online interaction (in conjunction with some fantastic photos… she has such a nice feeling for the transcendent image). The word that popped into my head was ‘rhizomatic’. That’s what’s been bugging me about the profusion of dots and lines connecting with each other to describe collaborative communities. They all look rhizomatic. First a bit of an introducation to rhizomatic structures and what both the metaphor/real have to tell us about how we all can/do communicate, and then back to texts. warning – i am not an expert at this… just a lowly philosopher wannabe.
I was looking for a nice webpage to give a clear defintion of rhizomes the other day and came across this little beauty. It was (i hope) written a while ago, but it does a nice job of detailing the distinction between arbolic and rhizomatic structures. Deleuze and Guitarri’s A Thousand Plateaus is not a book for… casual reading… but the ‘translation’ of it given here is sufficient to detail its connection to the way we talk about collaboration.

Table A.

Deleuze and Guattari’s Rhizomatic Versus Arbolic

Rhizomatic Arbolic
Non-linear Linear
Anarchic Hierarchic
Nomadic Sedentary
Smooth Striated
Deterritorialized Territorialized
Multiplicitous Unitary and binary
Minor science Major science
Heterogeneity Homogeneity

(copied from thing.net)
A thousand plateaus is meant to be a rhizomatic book. This is part of the reason it is so difficult to read. Much like a first journey through the later Wittgenstein, the brain yearns for a clear description of what it is that the writer is trying to ‘prove’. What is the position being taken? How can I agree or disagree with what I being ‘told’? It is, indeed, the very thing that I teach my students is key to writing what is known as a ‘good academic paper.’ Tell ’em your gonna tell ’em, tell ’em, tell ’em you told ’em. The problem is, as wittgenstein implied through his later work, we can’t really talk about definitions ‘of the words we can’t talk about’ without pinning down things that can’t really have definitions. His classic example is meaning. Try, if you will, to give a philosophically sound definition of the word, and you will likely end up in a tautology. There is a common sense response? I agree. We do know what it means… oops. There it is again. 🙂
This is one of the ‘the polluted inheritances of the enlightenment.’ We are committed, partially due to the quest for Truth and partially because our technologies (sequential pages in books etc…), to thinking our way through building things in linear ways to answer specific problems. When things build up on their own however – see the way that a blogging community tends to do this (another fantastic set of slides from nancy) – we see a more rhizomatic structure poking through the rigid structures of linear, enlightenment style thought.So, now, how do we build a text this way. The term text, of course, is problematic. It too has a polluted inheritance that suggests something with a certain smell and structure (mmm… old book smell). This is, for those of you who don’t like neologisms, why it is so necessary to control and often change the language we use in order to get new ideas out of the garage. For the next few months I’m going to be experimenting with ways of building rhizomatic texts… I’m looking for folks to come on this journey with me, as its a little tough to create a rhizomatic community by myself. :)tech note: I had orginally hoped that wikis would be the answer to this, but am now not so sure. I’m very open to suggestion on the platform for this exploration. I’m currently leaning towards elggish drupalness… but am not permanently sold on that either.

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, the content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.