While at the “Redesigning Instruction for the Future” conference in Boise, I had the privilege of facilitating a session for building an online community, which is based largely on our “User Group Starter Kit”. When we got to the point in the discussion about the roles needed to sustain a community, one participant had a particularly interesting comment.  He said, in a nutshell, that for him, community means being able to go into his neighbor’s garage and borrowing a ladder when he needs it. Given that I’m a sucker for a good metaphor, this really stuck with me, and prompted me to ask: “What’s the difference between a bunch of people living on the same street and a community?”

We know, from Robert Frost, that good fences make good neighbors, but what makes “good neighbors” a “good community”?  Is a good community a bunch of open garages? Does it require that someone organize and throw an annual potluck picnic? Is it the spontaneous conversation at the fence about whether tall fescue is better than Kentucky Bluegrass in warm climates? Without getting carried away with the metaphors, I wonder, as our neighborhoods of e-learners start to come together in communities of practice, what do these communities look like?

I know there are different levels of participation for communities of practice, and this was clearly evident in my trip to Idaho. During my session, I saw all levels of participants from core leaders/organizers like Chris Mangrum (from Boise State University) and Crystal Nielsen (from Northwest Nazarene University) at one end of the spectrum to peripheral/transactional folks who just want to be able to go in and “get a ladder” when needed.  The question is, though, how can we help to ensure that there are enough people in the core who are driving these communities forward. 

In order to share tools (shared learning objects instead of ladders, for instance), someone has to put them in the garage in the first place. Who’s willing to share?  Does each community need to have a face-to-face regional conference?  In a potluck, so to speak, that is the regional conference, it certainly helps to see how others have faced the same challenges or exploited the same opportunities as their colleagues (e.g. integrating emerging technologies such as podcasting into good course design).  How can we facilitate the spontaneous conversations that occur that help us to keep our own houses/yards/departments in order? More importantly, how do we get the most out of the fact that the neighborhood just got a whole lot bigger with the merging of Blackboard and WebCT?

I’m not sure I have the answers to these questions. I know we’re working hard to provide the framework for these kinds of interactions through things like Bb Connections and our Greenhouse Awards program.  I welcome your thoughts.  And if you’re on a street full of houses and are looking for a community, drop me a line, I’d love to introduce you to the neighbors.

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