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Our Students Rock

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Just a quick note, but Donna, a student in our CI597: Disruptive Technologies course just did a search about Wenger and Communities of Practice and our course Pligg site came up #2 in Google.  Pretty amazing that our students' stuff is getting out there like that.  Take a look.

Define that

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Sloppy language makes me crazy. I am sure I am guilty of it, but I still want people to be clear and clean to the extent that is possible.  The reason for my deep hatred of ambiguity is the the devil is in the details (to coin a phrase), and when you say something I get to interpret it the way I like, so if you are sloppy then we can agree without really agreeing (or more commonly disagree). 

This comes up because as a result of this problem of mine I am causing students in my class to (at best) leave class with head pain, or at worst leave my class believing me to be "crazy".  [Short aside: I am hoping this is why they are saying that, because if I am acting crazy in some other way, then I am more worried]

Here is the question that began all this craziness and head pain:  In the context of Web 2.0 tools, what constitutes a boundary object (In terms of Wenger's framework of communities of practice)?  The discussion centered around whether the thing that is reified (fancy name for written down or captured in some form) is the boundary object or whether the tool was the boundary object?  So is a twitter post an object or is twitter (as an application) an object.  The reason this matters is depending on the choice you make there you get different implications for how you define community and what role technology plays in that community.  The added layer to this is how does RSS (content is king) impact this question.  If you post it to twitter and then it goes to ten other places, what is the object now and which community is it a product of?  Is that a question worth asking? Is your head hurting yet?

Making cool digital artifacts is the charismatic megafauna of the digital toolkit. Everybody thinks it is cool and it does have a great wow factor, but it is not really where the power of the toolkit lies. This is why I feel such a sense of disappointment when I see teachers focusing students on creating powerpoint, webpages, even movies or other more thoughtful digital artifacts. Watching someone create, in minutes, a slick little video or podcast, for example, is impressive. Ultimately however, it distracts from what I believe the technology is all about. The real power of ubiqutous computing is the digital glue that can be created to hold the pieces together, both personally and across a community (or classroom). Search, share, critique, comment, and create a evolving reflective community archive. This is what gets me excited about digital tools and digital expression. Not the expression, but the interaction that the expression can (and should) lead to.

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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