Jun 20 2008

The Front Porch

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An Online Workshop as a Community of Practice:Our Front Porch

Aside from its important “content,” a major goal of the workshop is to explore and demonstrate in the workshop itself the notion that learning is social, complex and situated.  It’s wrapped up with identity and embedded in social processes and quite different from the acquisition of information on the Internet. Although a resource such as the cybrary we provide is important, it is only a stimulus for discussion, debate, application and revision of knowledge. A lot of that discussion takes place in a conference called “Domain Inquiry” but a lot of the social capital (e.g., Cohen and Prusak) in the workshop community develops through informal social contact that takes place on people’s front porches.

From the very beginning, each participant was invited to keep a personal journal. Bursts of discussion would occasionally get going in an individual’s journal, and when we gave each person their own Caucus conference, we asked each participant to set up a discussion labeled “Front Porch” where many more informal, side conversations developed. From what we observe in face-to-face communities of practice, where a lot of the learning happens outside of formal community meetings, this was something to be encouraged. We wanted something designated as “private” (but visible enough to be accessible at the same time).Here is a representation of how folders and discussions are arranged to make a “Front Porch”:

  • Joe and Jane’s Duplex (folder)
    • Joe and Jane’s Front Porch (discussion)
    • Joe’s Space (folder, containing whatever Joe adds)
    • Jane’s Space (folder, containing whatever Jane adds)
image009Fig 5: A “front porch” conversation

The move to Web Crossing opened up new technical possibilities, as well as allowing us to re-think some of the metaphors that labeled the different web spaces (such as folders and discussions). On a functional level, we decided to give each participant a folder in which they had host privileges and which they could truly make their own. In addition, we put two of these personal folders and a discussion (labeled “Joe and Jane’s Front Porch,” where the participants were joint hosts) in a folder designated as their “duplex.” Everyone could contribute to discussions anywhere in these areas unless the hosts explicitly re-set access controls (which most choose not to do). The navigation bar provided a direct link to a participant’s personal folder. Links to the Front Porch that two participants shared was provided both in a drop-down menu on the navigation bar and the community directory. The general idea was to provide separate but fully accessible spaces that were labeled as “more private.”

The front porches turned out to be very active and provided the space for a lot of good conversation. The way the front porches actually worked on a social and learning level had as much to do with the metaphor as it did with the mechanics of the web space. We named these spaces “Front Porch” deliberately to strike a balance that we observe in face-to-face communities. Each conversation around a community of practice falls on a continuum between:

  • Public and private
  • Planned and accidental
  • Uniformly available and individually customized
  • Large-scale and intimate

Our designation of online space as a “Front Porch” proposes to hit a “sweet spot” along each of those dimensions. By providing spaces that are identified as belonging to them, participants were tacitly being told that this part of the community was theirs to facilitate and lead. We saw the domestic connotations of a “front porch” as suggesting the role of “host” and “guest”. The image implicitly invites hosts to individualize their space and make it their own. Participants often created more spaces with increasing degrees of privacy that they labeled “kitchen table” or “study.” One concern is that a metaphor that appeals to domestic architecture may not have the same meaning in all countries: one participant pointed out that in a British context the social meaning it had for Americans was hard to understand.

In addition to the Front Porches, we use several other related elements in the workshop to promote a sense of sociability:

  • We use the registration process to develop a relationship with participants and establish a sense of who they are, where they belong, and what their learning agenda might be
  • A round of introductions and welcomes at the beginning and a round of reflections and conclusions at the end have always been part of the schedule.
  • Synchronous events, such as telephone conferences, were gradually incorporated into the media mix.
  • Several simple word and fantasy games give people the opportunity to practice their software skills, get acquainted with each other and (especially) get a feeling for each other’s sense of humor.

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