Monthly Archives: August 2009

Post number 200

I had no idea I’d get this far when I started. But here I am at the 200 blog post marker. I’m not sure if it’s a whoa! or a phew! moment. Either way, I’ll pause. Well for a moment.

In the beginning my goal was to write about my three month sojourn to Melbourne in 2004. I wrote posts about the work I was doing with Infoxchange and Vicnet, plus what I did in my weekends, which tended to involve a lot of cycling.

Since then I’ve some had lean patches (the longest gap was been about six months between posts) and some nice connections with the world. For the last two years I’ve been averaging a post a week.

At times I try to keep up to a rapid writing practice, but don’t always succeed. If I labour over a story it’s is no longer an informal, snappy post which tends to define the medium at it’s best.

At the same time, I use the process of writing as one of gaining insight into what I’m working on. Reflecting on a knotty problem or challenge, then trying to engage others in thinking creatively about how to respond is what I aspire to. Marketing whiz Seth Godin puts it this way:

It doesn’t matter if nobody reads it, what matters is the humility that comes from writing it. What matters is the meta-cognition: the thinking about what you’re going to say; how do you explain yourself to the few employees, or your cat, or whoever is going to look at it; how do you force yourself to describe in just three paragraphs why you did something; how do you respond out loud.
(from a YouTube clip Seth Godin and Tom Peters on blogging)

Allowing time to think about the stuff I write is integral to this blog. Some have gone so far as to grandiosely talk about ‘slow’ blogging, with a manifesto to wave around. I’m not so ardent, but I’m wanting to become more reflective in all aspects of my life including this writing medium. Easier said than done, as my friends will attest.

Whatever the pundits may say about Facebook, twitter and other mediums surplanting blogging (see “The long tail of blogging is dying”), I’m planning to stick around. I’ve got unfinished business – a dozen or more story stubs, people to talk to, DIY multi-media experiments to conduct.

Actually, thinking about it, I’ve only just begun.

Educational tensions? teacher, facilitator, moderator

With my copy of the “Art of Facilitation” by Dale Hunter buried in storage while we’re house-sitting, I’ve had to scramble around my books and other gray literature to find definitions for this week’s #FO09 blogging assignment. We’ve been asked to look at how different online roles potentially undermine each other.

As I attempt to describe the role of facilitator I’ll turn to my trusty version of a “Resource manual for a living revolution” by Coover, Deecon, et al (1985), something I threatened promised to do in my introduction to my classmates. Here’s the definition:

A facilitator fills a role similar to that of a ‘chairperson’, but never directs the group with its consent. S/he helps the members of a group decide what they want to accomplish in a meeting and helps them carry it out. S/ he takes responsibility for reminding the group of its tasks, tests for consensus, and in general makes sure that the task and maintenance roles discussed earlier.

One assumption underpinning this definition is that groups are formed to take action so must make decisions. This may not apply in a teaching setting, but many online groups or communities are set up to do stuff together. Another assumption is that a facilitator alone is not solely responsible for the proper functioning of the group. The maintenance roles mentioned in the quote suggest that each person must make contributions to the group. This can include things such as information seeking, opinion seeking, clarifying, summarizing or acting as philosopher critic. Roles are not fixed but members apply these types of skills as required (something akin to de Bono’s multicoloured hats).

When it comes down to a more practical perspective you could expect a facilitator to draw out people’s ideas, seek agreement on groundrules, negotiate with group members about goals and decision-making processes (including time limits) and making sure everyone participates. One of the best lists of the attributes of a faciliator can be found in Nancy White’s guide, “Facilitating and Hosting a Virtual Community” (2004).

It’s hard to preserve the distinctiveness of the moderator role, but if I was forced to summarise I’d say this role is about enforcing rules and intervening between community members when there is a dispute. Stephen Thorpe sums this up precisely in a book chapter from the “Art of Facilitation” (2007) entitled Facilitation Online. He talks about the procedural side to a moderators role and says their role is to:

ensure an online group system is functioning. This may include monitoring discussion boards to ensure all postings meet guidelines and standards of behaviour, and organising discussion material. Moderators are usually responsible for many of the technical tasks required in assisting the group to participate, such as adding new members and fixing bouncing addresses. Moderators may also review posts to ensure they are in alignment with the group purpose before they are approved for the group to see. Small changes are sometimes made, and some postings may be rejected if they do not meet the group’s guidelines.

Suggesting a stereotypical definition of a teacher in a class filled with teachers is fraught with danger. I will do it anyway. If I had to choose a single word I’d limit it to instruction. This implies both directing or exercising authority, and transmission of detailed information about how something should be done, or perhaps imparting received wisdom.

But this is far too reductionist a definition for teaching. For Gramsci, Paulo Freire and other social critics, transforming society to serve everyone’s interests (not just the elite’s) by eliminating exploitation is founded on education. The teacher’s role is pivotal in this. However, teachers are not all seeing and knowing. They can help students find a learning path that suits them most. To do this relies on reconceptualising the role of teacher. Gramsci put it simply this way: “every teacher is always a pupil, and every pupil a teacher”.

This accords with Freire’s view, as described in a Wikipedia article, which states:

Freire however insists that educator and student, though sharing democratic social relations of education, are not on an equal footing, but the educator must be humble enough to be disposed to relearn that which he/she already thinks she knows, through interaction with the learner.

Under this definition of teaching we could expect teachers to let the classroom run riot, or at least let the learners needs to dictate the learning process. In this setting teaching and facilitating are closely allied. But if we conceived of teaching in a more conservative sense, a teacher will be undermined by a facilitator allowing students to assert their preferred and individual processes for learning. This is something that may challenge the very roots of a teacher’s knowledge.

This highly charged philosophical debate leaves little room for the modest pretensions of the moderator. As I primarily conceive of this role as a umpire or referee, I’m struggling to see how their role could be disruptive or undermining.

As this is a blog post not a treatise I’ll stop at this point. Blogging is very much about sharing first thoughts rather than well formed and articulate ideas. This is like a raw, early draft, which will be refined/ expanded/ critiqued through comments below and in other posts. So, I’m going to click “Publish” before I revise these first thoughts. Refinement to come, maybe.

Mala species recovery planning – moving online

Conservation scientists are trying to ensure mala or the rufous hare-wallaby as it is known to it’s friends, does not become extinct (pictured right). The small mammal, whose habitat once included the desert of Australia’s dry centre, is the focus of a recovery effort by the Australasia Conservation Breeding Specialist Group (CBSG).

Focusing on the mala is the latest in a series of conservation planning efforts by the CBSG. Typically planning is completed in a concentrated spell. Week long workshops are run using a tried and tested formula. A key part of the conversation is bringing together experts at population modelling and the people who work in the field implementing conservation plans.

I’ve been supporting Caroline Lees from the CBSG to transfer the process from a face-to-face to an online environment. She told me that reducing the carbon footprint was a strong driver behind the idea of shifting online. There will also be cost savings, plus any lessons learnt will be shared with others within other scientists who facilitate these types of workshops.

This first online workshop is about testing the virtual environment so it’s being called a pilot. Key questions being asked include: what works, what doesn’t and can a virtual workshop really replace face-to-face workshops?

So far Caroline has set up a private Google site for the scientists to share background documents, upload graphs and other data, and record asyncrhonous discussion. This repository is being used alongside access to a CBSG member site on the International Species Information System portal.

Google sites are almost infinitely flexible and make it very easy to incoporate rich multi-media and link to other Google products, such as chat and Google docs. With customisation of both look and feel, and structure it can be readily shaped to meet new needs as they arise. Invitations to co-create the space area due out soon.

Creating an environment where people can talk with each other at the same time is also being planned. This won’t be quite as straightforward. The aim is to simultaneously share presentations and diagrams with input from everyone attending the workshop. With people in a range of institutions – each with their own IT systems and rules – and the likelihood broadband access will be constrained in some sites, there will be technical obstacles to overcome. And then there is the practice of meeting online: it’s a steep learning curve to move from starting out to being productive.

Fortunately, there is some very good guidance on running online meetings, and planning for smooth adoption. Just last month Andy Goodman, trainer and author of Why Bad Ads Happen to Good Causes, provided a one hour diagnosis of the problems with tele-conferencing, video-conferencing and webinars. Results from a survey of virtual conferencing participants emphasised the importance of both leadership and good planning. (See presentation notes and audio from a Network for Good session on “Dialing In, Logging On and Nodding Off: The True Costs of Teleconferences, Videoconferences and Webinars”

Talking about his experience of running online meetings in the NTEN Discussion Group, Kevin Martone from the Grinspoon Institute for Jewish Philanthropy says he non-techies defintely can run online meetings. Top lessons he mentions are:

  • It takes practice to get really good at running a smooth meeting/Webinar. Practice transitions between applications and transitions between presenters.
  • Taking questions and changing presenters during a session really keeps your participants engaged. We try as much as possible to break up the sessions to keep them from being a lecture.
  • If you take questions from the group, having a 2nd person to help organize this process is crucial. It is very difficult to present a topic and also coordinate the Q&A process. 

When deciding what online meeting tool to use you are faced with a big array of choices. There has been an explosion of screen-sharing and web-conferencing services on offer. I’ve compiled a list of options available (see my webmeeting bookmarks at and have started to narrow things down.

At this stage the big, established commercial providers like Webex, Adobe Connect and Cisco’s GoToMeeting have been ruled out. The cost of these products is prohibitive at this stage. Of the free or cheaper alternatives I’m looking into YuuGuu, DimDim, Vyew and Elluminate.

My starting point, as it often is when evaluating any software, is the Idealware website. Candid advice points to the need to think about audio quality and installation problems (see A Few Good Online Conferencing Tools, July 2008).

I’m going to write another post weighing up the different options for online tools. As well as reading reviews I’m road-testing the software.

However, when it comes down to it, pre-testing will only mean so much. It’ll be up to the folk working on the CBSG mala pilot to learn there way through what-ever challenges arise. Using technology in novel ways, there are bound to be a few hiccups. But with good planning and leadership by Caroline and her team these can undoubtedly be overcome.

Plotting community gardens

View Community gardens in Aotearoa New Zealand in a larger map

See the map above, well I’d like your help to add to it. As part of some research I’m doing for an article on community gardening I want to know what is happening around Aotearoa New Zealand.

By the looks of things there is a lot. Already I’ve counted well over 30 community gardens, some of which are listed in my delicious community gardens bookmarks.

I need help to expand the list. And specifically, to find out exactly where the gardens are. Mapping the gardens using a Google map has more visual appeal than a bald list. Plus updating is something that can be shared with others. Anyone who joins in can have a few debates dilemmas involved in mapping.

To capture and record the giant list and any collective knowledge about NZ community gardens I’ve also set up the Plot Your Community Garden wiki. This will include the constantly updated map (I hope) and any other stuff people want to share. When I say “jump in and create your own page, or add a new resource”, I mean it.

I’m secretly hoping that by listing gardens people will get in touch with others for tips, lessons, share joys and lows. And perhaps create some pressure for John Key to follow in the footsteps of Michelle Obama and turn-over some turf at the prime ministerial digs to a garden.

If you want to help you can:

  1. Send me an email with a street address (or coordinates) and a photo of your community garden. I’ll add this to the map. Email: If you’re happy having contact details shared let me know. Or
  2. Contact me for details of how to edit the Google map pictured below and you can add information about a community garden yourself. Or
  3. Add details to the giant list of community gardens page.

Who will be the first to list?

PS Please spread the word about this to anyone who is interested. Later I’ll ask for help via Facebook, Social Invovation Camp, Transition Towns and Twitter.

Week 1: what is an online community?

The thing that has been troubling me as I grapple with a definition of online community is the bits that are missing (or not immediately obvious) compared with face-to-face community. I’ve been taking my existing definition of community (which I’m remixing on the hoof and without reference to any texts) and comparing it to what I see online.

Before I start I’ve got say that community is a loaded term. Often a discrete geographic area is labelled a community by someone in authority – but on the ground there isn’t actually a community. Few of the critical elements of community life are present (about which I’m about to list). There are also assumptions about there being a singular ‘community’ with ‘community leaders’, often self-appointed, rather than multiple communities with organic power distribution.

In my rough whiteboard notes, here’s what I see as the characteristics of community:

  1. social norms, shared beliefs and values (eg fairness, reciprocity, love, tolerance)
  2. systems for transmitting values (eg lore, law, education, myths, art)
  3. methods for monitoring adherence to values
  4. systems for investigating and applying sanctions for breaches of social norms (eg courts, tribunals, obudsman, complaints procedures), including opportunities for redress (eg right appeal)
  5. methods for distributing resources to enable participation.

Of these characteristics I can easily see the first four in online communities. Chromatic writes in his article “Building Online Communities” (21 Oct 2002) about the dynamics of setting rules, methods for resolving disputes after inevitable spats and frictions, and loss of face or reputation. Into this neat system dive able and willing members.

Mark Pesce is far more mysterious when it comes to framing community (see “This, That and the Other” 27 September 2008). He implies that in community people know each and are capable of productive joint action. Disillusioned with mere mobs or crowds, who wait for someone else to do things for them, Pesce clearly believes communities can achieve great things.

The oil that greases the wheel – resources to enable active participation – is seldom talked about. When barriers to participation emerge, in whatever shape these may arise, is help available to overcome them?

Online it isn’t easy to find evidence of people sharing resources to help someone else who wouldn’t otherwise be able to join in by paying the power bill and ISP charges for them to stay connected. Or help put food on the table. Scarce time may not be available to both work to earn a living, and allow time to meaningfully participate in an online community.

Would online community members be willing to take steps outside of the community to help someone out? Send a cheque? Make a sacrifice with some future expectation without immediate reciprocity?

The degree to which relations extend beyond the confines of a particular community space with people sharing resources in the real world is a sign of a healthy community.

This relies people connecting and staying in touch one-to-one, in addition to any interaction within an online community space. When bonds and friendship build then people will go to some lengths to help one another. This means members must feel comfortable asking for help and acknowledging problems. It’s also important for people to be able to ask who is missing from the conversation, and what will it take to get them on board.

I found an illusion to this sort of thing happening when I read Nancy White’s recent post about how she uses social media (4 August 2009). She talks about how “online relationships can be real, how they get real, and how they break and fail.”

If communities are merely well ordered places where people talk nicely with agreed rules, that seems to me to be a bit weak. What is often missing are both the means and motivation to contribute resources to move a community from offering just an opportunity to participate to actually providing practical help for people to join in.

[Find out about the Facilitating Online course I’m participating in, see my FO09 page.]