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January 17, 2007

3 problems of community that technology might address

This afternoon I will be attending a workshop on “community” as part of the Warwick’s Future project. I am also currently planning the next E-learning Exhibition, which will address the topic of “supporting students at a distance”. The connection is obvious: creating and maintaining effective and appropriate communities is of great importance to a university and its members, both on campus and as it extends virtually across the world. My experience in supporting on-site learning (at Warwick) and distance learning (at Oxford) tells me that the problems that students have with community can be classified into three categories. Warwick, I believe, suffers from these three problems, but also has some technological solutions that may be effective if used correctly. My plan is to base some of the presentations at the forthcoming exhinition on these problems and solutions. This entry is a work in progress starting to understand the and classify the problems before looking at our solutions.
Firstly a simple definition of community. There is a mutual interdependence between individuals. So essential is this that even the notion of an individual may seem artificial. These interdependences can be thought of as networks. It is often the case, though not always so, that these networks are the kind of arrangement in which every individual is important, and so must be valued by the rest of the network. In every case, a network must also value and protect the means by which it’s individuals interact with each other and understand each other: it’s channels of communication and affordances of positive affective behaviours. Technology therefore matters to communities.

There are of course more than three problems, that being the story of human conflict and struggle. Sometimes communities cannot form effectively because of disruptions and lack of continuity. And other times individuals within a community may fail to value others or the channels that connect them. Technology can do little in the short term to ease or avoid these difficulties. In considering learning communities, there are however three recurring problems that have been succesfully addressed with technology.

1. Problems of size and complexity

In some cases the student is overwhelmed by the size and complexity of the institution. They need to break it down into smaller and more manageable segments, so as to be able to judge the value and usefulness of its features, and to form stable and repeatable connections. But all they see is a crowd. There is some truth in the claim that the best communities are in fact composed of small groups of people, perhaps as few as eight, with each group well connected to other groups. This supports adaption and diversity, whereas mass communications and transactions negate diversity and prevent adaption. It certainly is the case that people struggle with meaningful activity within big groups.

2. Beyond the clique

In other cases, the student has a strong, even dominant, small network of friends, peers and tutors. This network provides for some but not all of the individuals needs. Connections to other groups are mediated by the group, and thus may be severely restricted. They therefore need to go beyond the clique to find new connections, new resources. But how? It’s a big and scarey world out there. This problem can be particularly acute for distance learning or part time students, who have little time or opportunity to go out exploring on their own.

3. Loss and dispersal

Many students at Warwick are expected to undergo phase transitions that break them away from their established networks. They commonly experience a loss of community. This is common in the Arts Faculty, with many students spending their second year abroad.