Jun 07 2010

Cantilever out from the known

Several people from the Fall 2009 Foundations of Communities of Practice workshop have continued meeting every few months to catch up with each other, find out what people are working on, and swap stories. In a way it’s a CPsquare dream that people should connect so much during a workshop so that they would want to keep in touch like that afterward. Dreaming and wanting it is not enough, so we always try to plant the seeds, so when it does happen it feels great! And in fact it’s a valuable conversation, as this report tries to show.

During the Foundations workshop we try to establish the practice of using a teleconference to think together in a very open, self-organizing and relaxed way, allowing the conversation to turn in whatever direction seems to make sense. And we support that practice with MP3 recordings and a chat that captures the main point of our meanderings. It turns out that the logic of the conversation may not be clear at all in advance, but in retrospect you can always see how it makes a lot of sense. I personally have learned a lot about myself, how I facilitate or participate and how I interact with different people by listening to the recordings we make (primarily for the benefit of people who didn’t make it to a meeting). The chat transcripts are very handy for looking up ideas, getting URLs, or making a summary of the conversation. All of that collective context and experience is the base from which we could cantilever out.

At one recent meeting of this group someone was talking about using video for community meetings. We decided to hold a more focused meeting this last time where we experimented with one tool.

Last week we experimented with TokBox.com, a video meeting tool. It’s a free tool that sets up a “Hollywood Squares” kind of format where everyone can see everyone else who has a video cam. In a way *the way that we explored it* is was as interesting as the tool itself. Two people met on TokBox beforehand and found that they had some audio feedback problems, so we decided to use the CPsquare phone bridge for the session’s audio channel. Someone sent out an email invitation to all the workshop participants, (whether they’d participated in these interim check-ins or not). It named the phone bridge as the initial meeting point and the first thing each person had to do when they arrived at the TokBox meeting page was find the mute button so that anything they said (or heard through the TokBox audio feed) wouldn’t disrupt the conversation. One of the people who had explored the tool beforehand sent out session invitations during the call by email as people showed up on the phone bridge.

It’s obvious that to explore a social tool like TokBox you can’t do it alone. You need partners. But to find out how it supports a conversation, you need to have a conversation. So you need other people who share your language, are willing to explore the tool, and can connect (and re-connect when you fall off the call). In particular it’s helpful to have a back-channel, whether email or a Skype chat. Several back-channels are helpful, actually. Our phone bridge was a back-channel and the backbone of our conversation. We cantilevered out from there. And the standard against which we measured the tool was known to all: our previous conversations on the phone bridge.

In addition to the phone bridge connection, during the session several of us were also connected via a Skype group chat. Most but not all of us were on the TokBox site. Several people didn’t have a video connection (or maybe they were having a bad hair day?) and one just listened in on the phone (e.g., a mobile phone while driving). At different points we experimented with TokBox’s auxiliary tools like its chat tool, its etherpad, and some others. All of that makes for a very complicated group structure. All of us could hear, but what each person could see was not the same.

The conversation was very much about observing out loud what we were seeing, considering how it worked for us, and thinking about how it would work for the several groups that each of us work with professionally. Was there value in seeing other people’s faces via the group video? (Answer: for some, but not all.) How would the tool work for a lecture or for a more horizontal conversation? What were the set-up issues in terms of inviting other people to join on the fly? Was there a difference between using the TokBox email invitation tool and sending the URL by some other means? (Answer: not much.) Although some web conferencing software completely lock down the structure and shape of the interface, TokBox lets you float video windows around, open and close apps like etherpad, and much more. What are the benefits of that kind of malleability? Does it also cause problems? (One of us kept getting dumped from the video connection whenever we entered an etherpad window. We never figured out why.) We compared TokBox to others that we’ve been exploring, including:

(there are more tools mentioned on the CPsquare wiki)

From this example, I’m left thinking of three different overlapping questions:

  • How does a community explore existing variance in the use of a tool?  What are the benefits of or problems with uniform competence in using a tool once a group has settled on it?  In this example, some people didn’t want to use video at all or found that it didn’t add much to their experience of closeness beyond what our phone bridge provides.  For others it added quite a bit of context and sense of closeness that was useful.
  • Is it always clear what tool we cantilever from?  Does that matter?  Different groups might use different technologies and will have different amounts of trust or determination to explore.  In this example, we used email to get everyone on a phone bridge from which we all got into TokBox.  Stragglers got caught up via Skype chat.  This is related with the “one more tool” question that Patricia Arnold, Beverly Trayner and I asked in the paper we gave at the Networked Learning Conference 210 a few weeks ago.
  • A final question is about what this process of exploration does to the group itself.  Can it be outsourced?  Can we leverage the experience of others?  What are the implications of having others do the exploration for us, be they experts in your company’s IT department or technology stewards or whomever?  In this example we were very much doing it for ourselves and that certainly colors our experience.  How important is first hand experience of exploration?

TokBox came out looking really good! And it was great to see our learning companions!

Photo by Pete Lewis.

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