When DPL was on-ground, visualizing the community participating in the conference seemed simple — we knew who was in the room for a class session or who was in the auditorium for a plenary session. But DPL has always also been online, with Twitter hashtags and chats, Virtually Connecting video sessions, live-streamed keynotes, and other components blurring the demarcation of what constituted a “participant”. What defines community, especially when it takes so many concurrent forms? Perhaps more urgently, how do we create community, especially in digital, distributed, asynchronous spaces?

“The most important pedagogical maneuver is dialogue. Unless we are willing to sit down and talk to one another, even the most critical, generous pedagogues can seem to bluster and strut.” — Sean Michael Morris,  in “Conversations: Instructional Design, Trust, and Discovery

The nature of community interactions, too, has changed. When we meet with others in a physical room, we rely on nonverbal communication to indicate our level of engagement with that community and to see who else is in sync with the proceedings. Now that most interactions have shifted to be virtual, what methods do we have for indicating involvement/interest, of demonstrating membership, of creating cohesion?

Is cohesion enough?

“It is crucial that critical thinkers who want to change our teaching practices talk to one another, collaborate in a discussion that crosses boundaries and creates a space for intervention.” — bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress

When drafting our prompt for the introduction Discourse posts, we — Chris and Jakob — struggled with the challenge of how to bring people together across space, time, professions, and experience levels. We figured everyone attending DPL would have a foundation of care for students, but beyond that we couldn’t be sure. And even what constitutes a “student” varies within this group.

“And it will always be vital, necessary for us to know that we are all more than our differences, that it is not just what we organically share that can connect us but what we come to have in common because we have done the work of creating community, the unity within diversity, that requires solidarity within a structure of values, beliefs, yearnings that are always beyond the body, yearnings that have to do with universal spirit.” — bell hooks, Teaching Community

The nature of collaboration changes in response to its exigence. “Count off by fives to make your groups” assumes one thing (and perhaps only one thing) about the commonalities among group members, whereas “Partner with someone you trust” presumes a much different baseline…and outcome. In the first example, shared enrollment in the course might be the only connection; in the second, the likelihood of echo-chamber effects increases. What additional effect does digital interaction have on collaboration?

A related question Chris has going into the fall semester: What does small-group collaborative discussion look like when half the class attends via Zoom and the other half must remain six feet apart from each other and keep half their faces hidden by fabric? At what point does interaction within mediation and restrictions overshadow interaction with people?

“Nor yet can dialogue exist without hope…. Dialogue cannot be carried on in a climate of hopelessness. If the dialoguers expect nothing to come of their efforts, their encounters will be empty, sterile, bureaucratic and tedious.” – Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Our greatest challenge in distributed, virtual learning lies in finding ways to facilitate dialogue despite — not necessarily with — our technologies.

Which brings us to the work of today. Compared with Monday’s over-packed agenda, today might feel positively lethargic. (It shouldn’t have any of the document-access hiccups, either.)

Suggested Readings in Advance

Discussion Starters

Open, online classes allow us to incorporate any part of the Internet into our classes with a simple hyperlink. By logically integrating external materials into an online course, we might suggest a relationship between, or endorsement of, the source of those materials. (As an example, you may have used corporate or governmental websites that warn you when clicking links to external sites.) How do our decisions about the kinds of content to include in a course affect how that class’s community forms?

Quick Activities

Inventory of invited relationships

One theme of DPL is critical consideration of the affordances that are ‘baked in’ to various tools—digital and otherwise. One specific kind of affordance related to community is the kinds of interactions invited by the tasks you ask students to complete: peer-review invites students to critique each other, comments on blogs—if mandated—risks inviting students to approach engaging with each others’ work as a box to check. In your own document (where ever is most comfortable), take an inventory of your practices, with as many examples as seems useful. What kinds of interactions do you invite in your courses? What kinds of interactions do (digital) spaces and (digital) tools invite? Which are competitive? Cooperative? Which are individual endeavors? Take approximately ten minutes to reflect in writing on your list.

Mapping your network

Create a visual representation of your PLN or professional community. How do you keep ties with those in your network? What do those connections look like, and which ones are stronger/weaker than others? Create a visualization of what you see as your community and dive into what you can interpret from the image. Use whatever app/platform works best for you — consider this list for possible starting points; Martin Hawksey’s TAGS Explorer is a popular introduction.

If you choose to inventory your relationships and map your network, take note of how the concept of “community detection” (and the diagram right above that material) in creating a network map applies to or reflects the divisions you created when starting your inventory. Perhaps your map reveals grouping or divisions you hadn’t expected.

Daily Project

  • Practical — Imagine a community of marginalized learners or educators. They have a digital space where they gather for mutual support and edification. What protections would be necessary to prevent intrusion by unwelcome visitors, such as trolls, abusers, or some other triggering presence? Because online, “no one knows you’re a dog,” how can those protections be made reliable?
  • Philosophical — How can we balance the needs of community-building with the promises of edtech? With so many corporations poised to profit from the labor of educators, using learners (or their data) as resources to be sold and/or exploited, what protections must we build into our systems to enable both community and privacy? Craft an institutional or corporate policy statement that addresses this tension, finds a mutually beneficial balance, and (while you’re at it) ends world hunger. (Okay, that last bit might be too much.)
  • Technical — Using a platform of your choice, create a community space for a group you work closely with or are a member of. As you build, you’ll make multiple decisions along the way that materially affect the experience of those you intend to invite. Document those decisions and be able to share with colleagues.

Collaborative Activity

We’re going to use our community to build the community and talk about community. Join us (3–4p MDT) for our live Twitter chat using #DPLintro: A meta-discourse about online communities.

Chris (@chris_friend) and Jakob (@gowellja) will prompt discussion with some guiding questions, but we’re eager to let the conversation develop organically. We’ll likely use these thoughts as a jumping-off point:

“A collective is very different from an ordinary community. Where communities can be passive (though not all of them are by any means), collectives cannot. In communities, people learn in order to belong. In a collective, people belong in order to learn. Communities derive their strength from creating a sense of belonging, while collectives derive theirs from participation.” — Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, “Learning in the Collective