Posted by: Brynna Kaulback | June 22, 2012

Communities and Open Space

Communities and Open Space

Margo Okazawa-Rey, interim dean at Fielding Graduate University, spoke at our Fielding cluster meeting in New York City last week about cluster meetings as gatherings of the Fielding scholarly community. Fielding operates as a distributed learning university, and students meet regularly in geographic clusters around the globe, in addition to national meetings several times a year. At our meeting with Margo, one of the participants mentioned that she hoped that the agenda for the upcoming year would include certain components, as she would only come for those that were relevant to her doctoral work at the moment. Margo pointed out that clusters can be more than a place to come to take away learning and that people might come because they want to be part of the scholarly community, to contribute as well as to take. She offered that one might “get something” out of any meeting of the Fielding scholarly community, no matter what the topic, even if weren’t directly related to one’s immediate goal.

This sounds to me very much like an issue at the heart of my own dissertation – how communities shape our participation in online and blended learning or how our learning is shaped by this participation. Do we engage in learning as part of a community, building meaning through dialogue or in a personal network driven by personal learning goals? Does it suffice to step in and out of online groups, in the fashion of the learner in a MOOC (massive, online, open course), gathering for as long the group is contributing to the advancement of our own learning goals and moving on when it does not? This latter view is the one espoused in the Open Space principle that Harrison Owen calls “The Law of Two Feet.” In Open Space (which, in my view shares many of the characteristics of cyberspace), the idea is to join a group that is engaged in a topic related to one’s current interests and then, when it no longer serves one’s purposes or holds one’s interest, to move on. Owen compares this movement from group to group as the movement of bumble bees, cross-fertilizing groups. The perspective is that of the learner on a trajectory through space, moving in and out of communities as interest demands, a view described by Etienne Wenger at a Networked Learning Conference in 2010.

This morning a colleague sent me the link to an interview with Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach which illustrated the difference between networks and communities that is the focus of my research. Nussbaum-Beach was describing how, when she wanted to build an online community of practice, she brought in some people who she knew as great online networkers. They were not successful at building the CoP. She describes her realization this way:

And that’s when it really hit me that networks are different from communities. Networks are about me, they’re about my learning, my mentors, my passions, my ideas. So really, while our participants were certainly benefiting from the thinking and commentary of the networking experts we hired at the outset, the conversations really revolved around the leader himself or herself. The job of the community leader is to promote conversation about what other people are interested in.

Do we lose learning opportunities when we are solely focused on what we came for and we are not, in another of Owen’s Open Space terms,  “prepared to be surprised” by what we find?

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