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Indicators of community

The Cloudworks team had a Critical friends meeting this week which was really useful in focusing our minds on prioritising development for the rest of this year. Cloudstreams and email alerts are nearly there, and we hope to be adding a Bookmarklet function to the site to make it easier to set up clouds spontaneously. Next month we will be focusing on the home page and improving new user experience.

I have started the task of evaluating the effectiveness of Cloudworks as a conference tool  and have been mapping the evolution of the conference Cloudscapes and the types of interactions added using CompendiumLD. I have identified 4 broad catagories of interaction: Informational, Discursive, Practical (not sure about this label, what I mean is a sharing of practice and experience) and Social, and hope to identify behaviour patterns which indicate the development of a 'sense of community'.

Of course, this means that we need to come to an agreement about a definition of 'a sense of community' and some reliable indicators of community behaviour. This has been attempted many times both for real and virtual communities so we're not in any way starting from a blank page! Erickson (1997) suggested the 6 criteria: membership, relationships, commitment and generalised reciprocity, collective goods and duration. Although argues that actually it isn't useful to refer to online discourse as an on-line community anyway - he prefers to focus on the nature of discourse rather than the nature of relationships but I find it hard to disengage the two.  I find myself more attracted to Mark Smith (of Infed)'s  list of tolerance (from Walzer, 1997), reciprocity (from Putnam,2000),  and trust (from Putnam, 1993 and Coleman, 1990). Reciprocity is clearly essential for the success of Cloudworks as a sustainable environment for discussion and sharing, and can be fairly easily evidenced through the increase in Discursive and Practical interactions but tolerance and trust will be harder to identify through observation of behaviours. Surprisingly, I haven't found much on this topic (indicators of 'community') written since the late 90s despite the emergence of Web 2.0.

Even though I have just started the process of mapping the interactions there are some suggestions of patterns, especially around the use of Social interactions to promote Discursive comments. For example, currently it is primarily the Cloudworks team who contribute Social comments (welcome, thanks, affirmations, word play and jokes etc) and maybe an indicator of trust or tolerance will be that users begin to take over this role themselves, or even that Social comments become a less significant factor in the evolution of the Cloud.

Another issue is one about what might indicate a successful conference Cloud - I'm finding it easy to slip into the trap of thinking quantity of comments is all important, but more valid indicators are more likely to be focused around the range of contributors, number of links to wider conversations and sites, evidence of increased professional knowledge, exchanges of learning and teaching ideas etc. I need to define some criteria so will be giving this more thought over the next few weeks.


  Posted by Rebecca Galley on 13 August 2009

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