Jun 20 2008

Web-based Conferencing

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An Online Workshop as a Community of Practice: Web-based Conferencing

In its simplest form, our online workshop is an online conference designed with a certain view of online collaboration. (In case an online workshop is an unfamiliar concept, it collects text written asynchronously by a group of people who connect through the Internet on a special kind of website. Participants log onto the website, read and add text via a browser. The technology platform harks back to systems such as The Well.)

Since this collaboration happens in a password-protected environment, the text is made up of discrete “postings,” each identified with the author’s name and the date and time it was entered. Many separate topics are usually set up and participants read and respond to the topics that interest them, appending to the bottom of a topic. Gradually the accumulation of text becomes a traversable fabric that is quite orderly (compared to a cloud of emails, for example). Thinking about how the text is organized, how social cues might shape different sections of the text, and how people interact as they make their comments all turn out to be very important to the design and facilitation of an online workshop.

Although the workshop has always emphasized conversations among participants, some of the other dimensions that Etienne Wenger describes in his recent paper on community-oriented technologies (Wenger, 2001) are also present. We’ve always had a simple cybrary for shared reading material, for example. Guest speakers and the presence of Etienne himself represent the “access to expertise” dimension; that is balanced against our efforts to create a sense of community with an evolved social structure.Figure 1 shows how text might be arranged on a page of an online conference (actually it’s a screen print of a static CD produced as a record of a workshop, so it’s not exactly what the user sees in a “live” conference).Originally the workshop took place entirely in a web-based conferencing environment.  Over time we’ve experimented with other media and now routinely use email distribution lists, telephone conferences, and instant messaging. image001Figure 1: An online discussion about whether online communities of practice could exist.

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