Friday, December 03, 2004

Critical Mass

In the reading Dave gave us this week, he says, "the success of an OSOSS is heavily dependent on a critical mass of participants". In other words, for a learning community to be effective, they must have a lot of people participating. This increases the level of expertise you have available to the group.

So how does a community achieve this critical mass? Dave mentioned that they provided four features in OLS, the online forums to support the MIT OpenCourseWare project:




Fire Alarm

I think all of these are needed, but I wonder if there isn't one feature that may be also be needed in order for an OSOSS to reach critical mass. In fact I think it may be the most important.

I've mentioned before that I participate in a great online community; the Grey Labyrinth. People at the Grey Labyrinth know each other. Every six month or so somebody hosts a 'gathering', and anybody close enough travels to meet other members in 'real life'. A few people have suffered tragedies, and shared those stories or feelings with other members of the group. Members of this group offered advice and encouragement on my book when I first started writing it. In fact, the title of the book was offered up in a thread I started for just that reason. Several have already 'placed orders'. We have had one official 'marriage' from this community.

I feel that this sense of community is vital to the success and growth of an OSOSS. We cannot learn until we feel comfortable with those we interact with. If we feel uncomfortable with others, there won't be a fear of looking stupid when asking a question. If we do not care for other people, there is no desire to help them. Even though this sense of community has nothing to do with the actual learning, I feel that it is the most important element. I am much more willing to help somebody I love, than I am to help a complete stranger.

So if this sense of community is so important, how is it achieved? There are probably many ways, but the simplest way is to provide an 'off topic' area. It is fun for me to go to the Grey Labyrinth and discuss the subject it was built for (the posing and solving of puzzles), but talking about other topics is when we build that sense of community. We rejoice with member A because he passed his exams. We mourn with Member B because she broke up with a longtime boyfriend. If you are only allowed to talk about Civil War history, you will never build a community. I have looked at the OLS a bit, but haven't seen anywhere this can take place. There are running discussions about each topic, but no general meeting place where you can get to know each other.

Often I go to a site for a particular purpose. I went to the greylabyrinth to solve problems. I went to chataholics to play trivia games. But that gets boring after a while. I need the human interaction. So unless there is a community, I am likely not to stay.

I am going to try to talk a 'cohort' of Grey Labyrinth friends to go through a course with me over at MIT. It will be interesting to see how people who are already part of a community interact in the OLS. I'll let you all know how it turns out.


David said...

I think you're exactly right that getting people together can be a great way to strengthen a group. But what do you do when it's literally impossible to gather folks together? In our case, where many of the people we want to reach out to are "poor off" and could never afford to get together, what do we do then?

Dorothy said...

What an excellent comprehensive description of the critical dynamics of *community* in social software! Marion, how do you do it? I think that the solution you give of providing an 'off topic' area in a structured learning community might be the very key to future education reform. Keep on blogging, and if you ever change blog sites I REALLY want to know where I can find you!