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Why Online Community Good For Learning
I first became interested in the idea of a Digital Virtual Community (DVC) more than 10 years ago when looking at how digital technology was transforming education. A DVC was a thriving online community with live video streams and group video chats, all organized by shared values. It would draw a broad spectrum of users (academics, corporate executives, film producers, and community members of all sorts). And it offered the possibility of teaching and learning in several different domains. (Full disclosure: I have written several articles about the benefits of a DVC.)
Those now-familiar online communities that boast professional communities like LinkedIn and Reddit have clear advantages for residents who belong to them, including influence, knowledge, skills and networking opportunities, as well as the opportunity to interact with people whose work or expertise is different than your own.
At that time, a DVC was still an experimental concept. It still is. In fact, many of the same virtual communities that are once again having a bit of a moment these days, some are rather rusty. When pressed to prove how their communities were successful, I heard over and over again, “Let’s just call it a community.”
There’s nothing wrong with calling a group of people you know an online community. That’s pretty much what a community is when it’s actually organized properly. But because it hasn’t met the standard required to be designated an online community, the term is no longer used.
It’s true that creating a successful online community still requires careful vetting and careful design. And then, after you’ve assembled the members and leveled them up, you keep them busy. You enable them to hone their skills and to use their expertise to make the online community as effective as possible. But for users who want to feel as though they’re making a real difference with real world impact, a group of strangers can’t do the trick.
It’s also true that the idea of a Digital Virtual Community hasn’t yet received the adequate recognition that it deserves, both online and offline. The second half of 2018 is about to see an influx of what the University of Windsor is calling, “the Rise of Communities.”
University of Windsor computer science professor Dr. Timothy Weber has said that a critical problem in building communities has been that the sites themselves often fail to be well designed, or are designed so poorly as to prevent members from enjoying them. He points to sites like FriendedUp, which encourages users to “friend” each other to join, as an example of sites where design fails.
Weber was one of the first to suggest that the rationale behind creating a virtual community was to teach people how to network. It wasn’t necessarily to extend that same methodology in real world, face-to-face situations. He’s right; networks are essential.
For those of us on the technology side of community building, creating online community sites that can both make and be made, as Weber so eloquently suggests, has become a challenge.
What’s the technology to solve it? The short answer: The Internet.
There’s a new wave of Internet technology being constructed, and here it’s worth pointing out that even the best of community sites rely on the Internet for their high penetration rates. If a community’s members need physical access to the site, then it will be a difficult task to realize the community’s purposes and original intent.
But it is an exciting time to discover new, newer technology designed specifically for creating and managing communities.
We have seen an explosion of VR technology that allows users to join “social spaces” where they can interact with each other. Previously, communities were only available in some Facebook-like “personal spaces.” Now, new VR technologies are enabling people to find their own worlds of digital friendships. The immersion in a new virtual, friendly environment is promising and gives us hope that the next wave of technology will strengthen existing online communities by allowing users to connect with their peers in more convenient, less grueling way.
In my recent video article about a virtual community that includes universities, I praised aspects of the approach, but pointed out that the technology had a critical weakness: It didn’t provide any kind of objective measure of outcomes.
The Internet also provides us with new opportunities to put data to use, but that data, too, has a critical flaw: We simply can’t measure our effect on other people. So, we can’t do what Weber called his “swarmier” concept of finding great people and then channeling them with technology to create rich online environments.
I’ve seen some fascinating examples of how actual city-level digital communities are organizing and promoting collaborative action, and that is heartening and promising.