Jun 20 2008

Workshop structure

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An Online Workshop as a Community of Practice: Workshop Structure

In Caucus, the software platform that was originally used for the workshop, postings are gathered into “items”, which are collected into “conferences”. New items are opened as additional discussions are needed. Figure 2 shows the “Practice Lab” from the Fall ’99 workshop: a conference containing 11 items (including item number 3 which is shown in Figure 1). Each item then contains a variable number of postings.

From the beginning, the workshop has revolved around several broad topics or conferences, covering roughly:

  • Domain inquiry: discussions of readings, ideas, and models of communities of practice
  • Community circle: introductions, socializing, play, community news and discussions
  • Practice Lab: discussions of cases and problems (with an emphasis on participant leadership)
  • Connections: scheduled discussions with visiting (more senior) practitioners and virtual field trips
  • Leadership Lounge: discussions of the leadership dynamics in a learning community
  • Community notebook: individual learning journals (has evolved into individual spaces)
  • Cybrary: collection of readings and supporting materials
Fig 2: A conference on “mini-projects”

Each conference not only has a unique topic but also may have its own conversational style, conventions and social norms. For example, “Domain Inquiry” is more formal than “Connections.”  “Learning journals” are open in that we can all read each others’ journals, but writing in someone else’s journal is inappropriate without an invitation. As our appreciation for the importance of sociability and the role of “private” (“back-channel” or side-conversations) evolved, we provided each participant with their own Caucus conference. As host of their own conference, each participant could set up a journal and any other discussions they wanted. This idea was extended when the workshop was moved to a new platform.

We moved the workshop to a Web Crossing platform for the Winter 2001 workshop, partly because of its lower cost and partly because of its greater flexibility. I set about learning to configure Web Crossing and to write programs in its macro language and more recently using its server-side Java Script capabilities. Figure 3 on the next page shows the workshop’s entry point, with a conceptual map of the whole conference space on the right. Clicking on one of the icons in the circle leads to one of the main conference areas (now termed “folders”) that contain discussions as well as other sub-folders. The folder structure of Web Crossing permitted deeper nesting of topics and text than had been possible in Caucus.

This was both an opportunity for greater flexibility and at the same time risked creating a space that was so complex we would all get lost. Since we think of the structure of the workshop spaces as a kind of model of a community of practice, we attempted to balance its complexity with structures and practices that would make the space intuitive and useful. The rest of the paper describes four elements of the workshop, how the technology influenced the practice, how the practice influenced the design of the web space, and how the workshop currently works. The elements are the navigation bar, a community directory, the front porches, and a workshop index.

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