Forced Family Fun: Online Communities

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One of the first things I did as a researcher (or maybe just graduate student) was build an online community for the support of teacher enacting inquiry science curricula developed by my research group. These teachers were spread out across the country trying to use curricula and technology tools designed to support students learning about weather. There were hundreds of teacher involved, so it seemed to make sense to set up a web presence where they could exchange ideas about how to best make these things work in their classrooms. The underlying idea was that professional development is expensive and not possible at a distance, so online tools will allow teacher to connect and help support each other. It seemed logical and was a total failure. The "if you build it they will come model" of online communities for teacher professional development just does not seem to work.

This got me thinking about why Web 2.0 seems to run against this trend. All evidence is that sites like flickr, YouTube, facebook, and myspace all make the model successful. So, then, I thought to myself, what is the difference. Well, the online community I built was based around my assumption that teacher needed help and would go to a site to regularly check if others could help or needed help. This is very altruistic, but is not the assumption that the Web 2.0 applications are built on. Web 2.0 is build on identity. People want to put their identity out there and connect to other people with similar interests and build affinity groups based on those interests. Web 2.0 is built on bottom up notions of how community forms. Platforms like facebook and myspace show that creating an identity management system allows people to define their identity in lots of different contexts and this leads to community. Part of their success is based on aggregation - you can have all of your identity(ies) in one place, and thus the foundation of all of your community interactions is you. The community arises out of the many interactions of the individuals. You really are the most important person in the whole wide world (apologies to Mr. Rodgers), and that is the underlying principle that makes facebook work and the online community to support inquiry science teaching not work.

What this means to me is a serious rethinking of how online professional development gets framed. It needs to not be forced family fun - get the teachers in an online space together and make them love it. Maybe it means building a facebook app that lets you share curricula or learning objects with a Digg like rating system. What I know it is not is all these silos of professional community run by a handful of researchers trying to support a particular curricula or research agenda. It is just not tenable. I would love to know what folks working in these communities think about it.

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