Jun 20 2008

Workshop Index

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An Online Workshop as a Community of Practice: The Workshop Index

Joining an existing community of practice can be exciting but also overwhelming: everyone seems to use a local jargon that at once seems indispensable but is partly obscure, it’s not clear why the lay of the land is so complicated (but it is), and there’s a lot of history behind who knows what, who is credible on which topics, and what the shared agenda really is. Although our communities of practice workshop over-simplifies in many respects, its complexity has always seemed daunting to participants, especially at the very beginning. On the one hand we think this experience resembles “real life”. On the other, the online environment has its own challenges and entering an online community may be even more difficult than a community that mostly meets face-to-face. We have sought to make the orientation and navigation task easier to handle through workshop practices and design.

When the workshop took place in the Caucus environment, we provided an index page that linked to each of the six main conferences and each of the items (or discussions) within those conferences. When we introduced individual conferences hosted by each participant, the items that participants opened were also included with the workshop index. We thought of this index as an auxiliary resource (since it was constructed by hand, it could be out of date, it did not tell you how many new or existing responses each item contained, and its links took you to the beginning of a conference, not the “next unread item” of a conversation, which is where you would typically want to go).

However, it turned out that in some instances people with slow modems book-marked the index and used it as their main entry point to the workshop. Unfortunately entering the workshop via the index caused people to miss the “workshop banner” which was another effort to make the online environment easy to visualize. As complexity increases, solutions must also become more sophisticated to keep from just adding further complexity.

The move to Web Crossing seemed to provide many opportunities and temptations to increase complexity. The Caucus platform established a sensible limitation in that the index only needed to be three levels deep. In Web Crossing the directory structure could be arbitrarily deep and we found that individual workspaces were nested seven levels down from the workshop entry page. On the one hand, workshop participants were now our accomplices in creating complexity; on the other hand, we had to provide some method of making navigation through the workshop space easier to do. siteIndex2Fig 6: Dynamically generated workshop index.

Figure 6 illustrates an automatically generated index page that I developed for the workshop. It displays the same banner (highlighting the day’s events) as is shown on the workshop’s main entry page. The directory structure is represented by the indention of entries on the page. An icon indicates whether the entry represents a folder, a discussion, a link, or a chat room (the most-used object types in Web Crossing). For discussions, the number of postings is shown to the right of the discussion title. If the discussion has postings that have not been displayed yet (i.e., are “new”) the number of new postings is shown and the whole line is shown in bold. Each line is a link that loads a second browser, so that the first one (which contains the workshop index) can remain constant, showing the structure of the whole while the second browser explores the space. This may seem to be extraordinarily mundane bit of software, but it turns out that it’s not a native feature of either Caucus or Web Crossing; it also turns out to be indispensable in working with a complex simulation of a community of practice.

Compared to the previous workshops presented on the Caucus platform, the Winter 2001 Workshop increased in complexity in interesting ways. Areas such as the “Community Circle,” “Domain Inquiry,” and “Leadership Lounge” did not really increase in complexity as measured by counting the number of different folders and discussions. However, the “Practice Lab” and the “Cybrary” took advantage of Web Crossing’s folder structure to produce a much more organized and segmented workspace. The individual work spaces and Front Porches were much more complex and much more active than they had ever been before. Almost half of the folders and almost half of the postings were in the “individual space” side of the workshop. This begins to suggest the kind of complexity in an online environment that face-to-face communities have always produced and accommodated in a face-to-face environment. This degree of complexity would have been impossible to deal with had we not had the dynamic index program that highlighted new postings.

In addition to the Index, we have adopted several practices that we believe help participants deal with the complexity of the workshop space:

  • We provide a fairly extensive introduction to each of the different spaces, their function and the distinctive kind of work that is supposed to happen in each of the main conference areas.
  • We open the workshop space three or four days before the workshop formally begins so that people can explore and play with the workshop space itself before the main discussions begin.
  • We used a daily workshop “banner” to announce events or discussions and call attention to important events or deliverables.
  • We provide a short “…about this space” article in every major area so that hints as to appropriate behaviors and expectations are close at hand.
  • A discussion about “how to get around” and “what to do” is always included in the teleconferences, and help is provided via a back-channel (i.e., “haven’t seen you in the workshop space for a few days, did you feel stumped by the problem you were having with X feature?”

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