Personal Honours Project - Communities, Constructionism and Curiosity (1)

Following my tutorial with Chris, I came back on the Monday with a clearer head and more of a direction to steer my research. Using the questions Chris had sent me last week as a guideline, I began to try and answer the questions. 

I stumbled across my first book when searching for research papers on digital communities of practise. Constructionism in Practise by Yasmin B. Kafai and Mitchel Resnick explore the ideas of designing, thinking and learning in a digital world. In their introduction they write: In recent years, there has been a surge of interest in the social nature of learning. In constructionist learning Kafai and Resnick also state that forming new relationships with knowledge is as important as forming new representations of knowledge. 

This resonated with me, as the more research I have began doing, the more I think I would like to shift the focus of my idea from solely digital communities of practise to instead creating a digital learning community that draws on the ideas of communities of practise.

I was also introduced to the idea of Social Constructionism which is a theoretical framework devised by Alan Shaw that examines tools and activities that support the development of individuals as well as the community itself. While Shaw studied this idea in a physical setting (his research looked at designing environments for Social Development and Urban Renewal), I was more interested in a paper by Amy Bruckman and Resnick who looked how this framework was applied in a digital setting. 

The MediaMOO project is a professional community that uses a text-based virtual reality environment to extend a daily activity. For example, the type of casual collaborations that occur at conferences. Visitors share their interests, place and activities while the text-based environment provides a shared place and a shared set of activities. MediaMOO also shows people's research interests as well as their names all to emphasise and encourage conversation between its users. They found that the best interactions between their users occur when people partake in shared activity and not just shared context. 

MediaMOO also touches on the idea of "third places" and that everyone should have a third place, the first two places being work and home - Ray Oldenburg writes:

"...(third places) exist on a neutral ground and serve to level their guests to a condition of social equality. Within these places, conversation is the primary activity..."

In third places, the population are self-selected and from this process, a group of people emerges that have common interests to some degree. MediaMOO encourages their users to share their interests and can be described as a "endless conference reception" with the conversation moving between personal and research issues the more the users interact with one another. 

There has been some debate, however, on the value of these interactions due to the community being entirely digital - in the paper, Bruckman and Resnick note that one user did not seem to think that the platform was productive for a professional environment. They disagree with this statement and argue that not only are the discussions on MediaMOO productive they also note that serious exchanges of ideas often take place because of, and not in spite of, more informal social interaction. 

Another paper of interest from the same book titled A Community of Designers - Learning Through Questions and Answers by Michele Evard explored how two classes participated in a design project creating an educational video game for younger children. One class acted as the designers while the class above (and who had already completed the project the year before) acted as the mentors on the project. Evard introduced the classes to a system called NewsMaker - a network-based news server which the students could wirte and edit articles to produce a printed newspaper.

Evard however adapted the system to act as a forum for the two classes and created a group called 'Game Design' where the two classes could discuss their projects. Evard found that children can learn both through asking and answering authentic questions - questions which are of personal importance. This got me thinking once again by my own project; if children can learn through this method, surely so can adults. It seemed that when a participate has a strong desire to communicate their knowledge and experience this can further their learning, while also giving them a way to apply their knowledge.

Evard found that as the project progressed, the online community she had created with the children became quite self-directed; the community responded to answers and this caused the community to grow and develop. Eventually a community sense developed amongst the groups and this highlighted what was appropriate to post (in this context, what questions where acceptable to ask) and what was not - FAQ for one became a problem for some of the users as they spent more time revisiting topics that had already been discussed and answers had been established. The communities also developed their own social standards as the project went on which Evard found interesting - they all formed around one common goal, the creation of the video game.

MediaMOO and Evard's experiment with NewsMaker show that it's possible to create successful digital learning communities and that the ideas and principles of communities of practise can definitely be married up with an idea that focuses on creating learning communities. Communities seem to be entirely self driven and react according to what questions are asked by the users and the answers they received. While most communities have a common goal, it would be interesting to see what would happen if there was no common goal and it was open to interpretation by the community what the common goal is. This made me consider a new possible concept:

What kind of community would be created if the users are left to explore their own interests? By creating a mobile application, I would create a platform that allows users to create their own communities about anything, and bring together different interests and experiences to create and work towards a common goal.