Tag Archives: FO09

Yesterday’s webinar – learning the hardway

Stressed out bride to be, tearing her hair out

It wasn’t exactly hidden in the fineprint. The guidelines for running a mini-conference session clearly included something called a back-up plan. Most of my other classmates on the Facilitating Online Communities (FO09) course referred to some sort of alternative should things go astray during their session.

Based on intermittent access to Elluminate, the online learning environment, during the course and numerous technology hiccups with software on a weekly basis, I should have realised the importance of a back-up plan.

Yesterday, during the session I facilitated on using online tools for conservation planning I didn’t have a plan. So when things went wrong I was out on a perilous limb.

At 1.55pm I saw new people trying to enter the meeting room, but not gaining access I got a sense something was not quite right. Several emails alerted me to a message people trying to sign-in were receiving: the web meeting room is full.

Quickly searching the web I quickly realised I’d exceeded the limit of the trial account. How could I have not looked into that!! In hindsight, I know more indepth reading of the terms would have uncovered this basic condition.

Without a back-up plan I wasn’t really able to juggle the dozen things that needed to happen simultaneously. With some swift action by our tutor Sarah I did manage to find an alternative meeting space using Elluminate. My guest presenter Caroline Lees (co-covenor of the Conservation Breeding Specialist Group) not only was able to login in, but she very quickly adapted to unfamiliar software.

The supportive words from my classmates and Caroline’s insightful presentation meant I feel we salvaged something. A recording will be available soon.

However, without a list of email addresses I wasn’t able to contact people who hadn’t been able to join in. Unfortunately, I lost many participants along the way.

Somewhat humbled by the experience, wistfully wondering if perhaps I was somewhat overconfident, it’s a true understatement to say I’ve learned a few things. I’m going to note a few reflections here.

  1. Have a back-up plan. Not just some notional one, but a properly tested one. In this case having quick access to the list of email addresses so I could notify people would have helped.
  2. Try to have a second facilitator or support person. When things went wrong, I just didn’t have a enough time to send emails, communicate in the first software programme, set up Elluminate, coach Caroline on the new software, etc. This is a good idea even if when things go well. It’s quite a handful keeping an eye on the chat thread for questions, noting down URLs, contributing follow-up questions with a guest, and technical problem solving.
  3. Practice. Practice. Practice. Learning in this space takes more than reading or listening to good advice. Take every opportunity to learn.
  4. Have guidance on likely technical hiccups on hand, eg how participant’s can connect their microphone. An instruction document or screenshots would be a big help. If it’s really important to have all participants join in, coach people through this before the meeting proper through one-to-one sessions. This is something Caroline said was relevant to the mala online workshop process.

I’ve been really been fortunate to make a stumble running my first webinar within the supportive environment of the FO09 class. The encouraging comments and joint problem solving means a lot. A thread running through our discussions, made very visible last night during a session hosted by Catherine, is that making mistakes is a learning strategy.

Despite this rather stressful formative experience I still believe online learning has a lot to offer community and voluntary groups. I’m going to quietly look into running a series of webinars in 2010 about using technology powerfully for good causes.

Photo credit: Brittney Bush.

First steps in Second Life

Visiting the Friends of the Urban Forest & Permaculture Project island in Second Life.

Visiting the Friends of the Urban Forest & Permaculture Project island in Second Life.

For some reason I’ve been dreading the next couple of weeks on the FO09 course. After the safeground of looking for community in forums, wikis and blogs we’re moving into the virtual world. It’s off to Second Life we go.

The fact that I know I’ll be in good company as demonstrated by the presence of the Nonprofit Commons, Second Life Education New Zealand (SLENZ) project and many other reputable outfits (including hundreds of universities), doesn’t dissolve my wariness. This is particularly accentuated as I don’t have a lot of time to devote to coming to a deep appreciation of what is offered. So, I’m likely to be both tentative and superficial. What a combination!

Anyway, I’ll set aside my reservations, without losing my skepticism and I’ll trudge off to the front gates of Second Life. I’m writing up my experience, using a diary format, after Earl at Groupings said he’d be interested to hear how things go.

Wednesday 14 October
4.12pm: I open the Second Life application I downloaded a couple of weeks ago. It’s pretty obvious what to do – create an account.

4.35pm: The name of the avatar I choose could stick for a long time, so I really should deeply mull this over. I don’t. Instead I enter a first name that pops into my head, then have a choice of 50 odd surnames. Nothing really appeals. I run a search on a few of those offered: Halaan is a of type clam. Exotic food, sounds fitting so it’s now a part of my Second Life persona.

4.37pm: I try logging in with my new name but it doesn’t work. Rechecking my email I find made a typo when searching – oh dear, my assumed identify refers to a character in Golgotha. Should I stick with it, or start again. I can’t bear to kill off my new identity so the name stays.

8.38pm: I don’t always read the fineprint of terms of service before accepting them (ahem). This time is different. My suspicions about Second Life are so deeply entrenched I’m actually going to read what conditions I’m entering into.

9.48pm: Being brutally honest, I’m not actually that much clearer about the conditions having spent the last 10 minutes reading them. Be careful is probably the sum of it. Regardless of intellectual property rights you may have in content you create or otherwise own, Linden Labs (which runs Second Life) owns all the accounts. I guess this means they can shut you down your business and lock you out. I’m reassured by both the Privacy and Harassment policies about the protections available.

9.05pm: My search for “Second Life scams” on Google reveals lots of examples of shysters and rogues plus some deluded folk making awful mistakes, but I didn’t see much about the architecture or what Linden Labs does that is worrisome. Time to take the plunge – click “Accept”. Will my life ever be the same.

10.25pm: Not so scary. But I’m stuck on the god damn help island where I first land. Read the start guide again. Look on the knowledgebase wiki. Finally, back to searching on Google: “basic start Second Life”. Where did I miss reading the bit about double clicking to ‘touch’ objects and then have the option of ‘teleporting’.

11.02pm: So far I’ve got a free Linux t-shirt, visited a memorial to John Lennon, strayed across a desert island. Barely seen a another ‘soul’. On Friday I know there’s a presentation on digital storytelling offered by TechSoup. Maybe there’ll be some likeminded avatars to chat to. Anyway, I’ve put the avatar to sleep… when I reawake I’ll be wandering into a class room.

Thursday 15 October
9.15pm: Not quite the first thing that I do, but before I dive into work I decide to see if my avatar wakes up with a crowd of people around it. 30 seconds to load and I’m looking at my avatar in Friends of the Urban Forest & Permaculture Project island. It’s deserted. How pleasant waking to a gentle back bird song soundtrack wafts over me. I resist the temptation to get a Pohutakawa, on sale to raise funds for the permaculturists.

9.27am: Bump into another bald avatar – we try to work out how to regain our hair. Another 10 minutes wasted but I triumph. I’m able to control where virtually every follicle grows. I’m manipulating buttons and sliders on the screen using my real body by hitting keys and moving my mouse to change things on screen to represent a likeness of myself – this is weird, other worldly. A kind of dissonance sets in. Eyes are glazing over.

9.40am: With a glimmer of my younger self on screen it’s time to sign-off and do some productive work. One of my fears has been somewhat allayed – you don’t necessarily wake in the morning with people screaming in your avatar’s face. Indeed, I’ve found out if there is any trouble there are lots of options: mute incoming chat, sit, teleport elsewhere (I don’t think avatars can be followed), quit, shut down.

1.54pm: I receive a request by email: Would you be my friend in Second Life? I don’t have to do anything immediately as I can respond to the request when I login to the virtual world. I’m pleased to a see visible instructions on how I can stop receiving similar emails. It’s really the last thing I want cluttering up my inbox.

8.00pm Five students turn-up for the introductory tour of second life… after some scene setting, we all login into Second Life. I accept the request to ‘teleport’ to where our tutor is standing on Koru island (here’s the SLURL for it).  It’s owned by the Nelson Marborough Institute of Technology where a Masters student is creating a wonderful learning environment: part funfair, part campus of the future.

Somewhere along the way two others have gone astray – without any easy way of contacting people outside of the Second Life we proceed without any idea of what has happened to them. Later we find out a software problem prevented them from logging on.

It was great to try out all the communication tools (chat and voice, plus one-to-one instant messaging) and befriend people. When I go ‘in-world’ I can see who of my friends is also there. Coming to grips with our inventory of map coordinates, facial features and spare underwear is essential, as you never know when your avatar will need this sort of stuff.

Aside from many laughs as we stumble around, the highlight of the visit to Koru was obtaining a free tuxedo from the Rapungakore learning space. This “The Skill Mastery Hyperdome” is part of the SLENZ project. Accordng to the blurb this is a space where “students can learn, develop and practise skills that will help them progress on their career pathways and achieve their life goals”. Heaps of outfits are hanging up for people to try as they simulate different interview situations.

9.40pm Quit. Re-immerse myself in reality reality – Dilmah black tea with milk thanks.

Friday 17 October
11.10am Arrive at Nonprofit Commons (NPC) meeting space with a friendly greeting from Brena Benoir. Unfortunately I missed the weekly meeting. To join in means sitting at my computer at 4.30am! Brena said they generally have a good turn-out (the meeting earlier had 34 people attend) and cover a wide range of topics (see meeting notes on the Nonprofit Commons wiki). Quite a few people turn up for dances on Tuesday and Thursday evenings,  plus there are other events I see from the NPC calendar.

Wednesday 21 October
8.45am Opening my email I’m reminded about Second Life – something that hasn’t been on the top of my mind in the few days. It’s advertising junkmail promoting a shallow consumerist culture:

“Looking your best is important in Second Life, which is why our Fashion Showcase offers limitless ways to show off your style. Plus, meet new friends who share your taste in clothes while you shop!”

I’m wondering if I can get some free wrinkles with a tan thrown in from the Male and Female Skins store. A chance to play I guess.

Much to my relief, in the last week I haven’t found I’ve got an unknown addiction for Second Life escapism. Nor have I come to any harm. There’s much to like about the imaginary, playful alternate reality – there is amazing creativity on show and a chance to talk with people from many walks of life. I can see some potential for education, as I glimpsed when visiting the employment training centre set up by SLENZ.

But there are real barriers, particularly if you don’t have a newish computer. Some of my classmates on the FO09 course have not managed to enter Second Life at all. And the learning curve is steep. When I was stuck for an hour trying to move from the first island I landed on, I was almost ready to delete the whole application and terminate my avatar. Buying stuff, finding a home, creating art works… to find out how this all works and if it’s worth it means more time in front of the computer.

For all my tribulations and doubts I’ll actually keep exploring, if very slowly. If you’re ever in SL, look out for my avatar, Tipene Haalan.

Does the tool really do the job?

I’m up to my eyeballs investigating options for running a live, online launch. It’s interesting that once you take the wrapping off the box of some of the web conference products you quickly find out just what the strengths and limitations are.

The marketing hype promises seamless use of video and application sharing. But during a recent trial of Webex Event Centre we spent an hour viewing barely a single moving image. Somehow the formats uploaded didn’t work (mainly because I was uploading from a Mac), then there was a problem from down the line when somebody didn’t have all the right browser plugins or Java updates.

It was frustrating and pre-figured some of the difficulties participants may face.

Our fears about the likely difficulties of running an online event in the way we envisage were realised. For all the convenience all-in-one web conference software might offer (ie integrated presentations, whiteboards, VOIP, chat, recording, registration, etc) it seems sharing pre-recorded video is not a strength.

The lesson in all this is not to take the claims of marketers at face value (who is surprised when I suggest this), and really drill down into the specifics of what is offered. I’m realistic to know some trade-offs are inevitable, but it’s best not to sacrifice the most important type of interaction or content to be shared. In this instance it’s all about wanting to share high quality video.

The matching of technology to audience, event goals, and processes is actually a complicated business. It’s something we’re all having to grapple with in the #FO09 course. In November students are jointly running an online mini-conference. Each is choosing the way to deliver each conference sessions, as well as the topic, with initial ideas being shared through the course wiki.

Facilitating learning in an online setting, raises some alarm bells for my classmate Willie Campbell. She says:

I am conscious of the constraints and affordances of any platform you use to work with others in an educational way. Doesn’t matter whether or not it is digital or manual. SO choose wisely- is this piece of digital technology able to be accessed, understood, interpreted by your group of learners? If not, then why are you choosing it?

With my recent experiences and Willie’s words ringing in my ear, I actually think it is very relevant to delve into methods and practices that help community leaders and teachers get the balance right between activities, processes and technology choices. In a few words this seems to be about stewarding technology for communities, as described by Wenger, White and Smith in Digital Habitats.

The mini-conference is open to the wider public so I’m keen to hear about the level of interest in a session exploring these sorts of issues. Two options present themselves: hearing from someone who has studied in this area, or inviting two or three local practitioners to share their insights and then have a conversation.

I’ve got a month to get organised, so let me know your views.

BTW: I’m not one to be put off, so we have begun exploring another avenue to host the live website launch. The goal is to remove any impediments to people joining in, particularly any software constraints that mean people walk away dis-satisfied and potentially bearing some sort of a grudge against the website being launched.

Searching for blogging networks

I’ve struggled with my study this week. After the fortnightly, online #Fo09 meeting I understand why. Blogging networks form spontaneously over time between loosely associated fellow travellers. They’re not necessarily the formal networks I’ve found so easily.

My research took me to formal networks where people are blogging on a single platform. Somebody comes up with a bright idea of attracting bloggers to share their thoughts in one place. Unless the formula is spot-on, there’s a tendency for these types of formal networks to rapidly go stale.

The network I looked at listed over 600 bloggers. Around 15% contributed five or more posts, with a couple of superstars in the hundreds. The vast majority just one. Many of these were old posts. And there was tonnes of competition for your attention, with the same group having a LinkedIn group, Facebook page, etc.

Putting two and two together I suspect there was a conference or promotional push or some sort, people signed up, then…. silence.

If I can I’ll report on a talk with one of the bloggers on a shared platform.

With a new insight gleaned from our meeting I’ve decided to pay more attention to local bloggers talking about the same sorts of topics as me. I’m not sure if I’m joining or forming a blogging network so I guess the best thing to do is get started.

The concept of networking weaving – which Beth Kanter talks about quite often (for starters see “Some Thoughts About Effective Networking Online”), as well as being raised by Sarah (see “Getting our heads around blogging”) – appeals much more than having my very own ‘personal’ network. I see this as much putting in touch, as asking and conversing.   

I have the same sort of worry that Debra Maddock’s raises: “once the connections are started, you just have to keep on the tracks and never get off, otherwise it will be too hard to reconnect”.

No rush…. I guess strong relationships, even virtual ones, take time to form.

Online community in NTEN-Discuss? Part 2

After talking to both Ian Runeckles and Gavin Clabaugh, members of the NTEN-Discuss online group, I really started thinking about the importance of ‘context’ to an online community.

Rather than concentrate on the current incarnation of the group, both Ian and Gavin talked about where it all started. The current group has it’s origins in meetings between IT advisors working with not-for-profit organisations which started being run in the 1990s. The circuit rider network included face-to-face meetings as well as a mailing list (which continues to this day, even if largely supplanted by NTEN-Discuss).

Face-to-face gatherings have grown in scale, with about 1,400 people attending the last annual NTC meet-up in April 2009. There are also dozens of small local chapters where people meeting in person regularly. Access to a member directory means any of NTEN’s 6,000 plus members can get in touch directly with others. Both the numbers involved and the many years events have been held over means during the life of both NTEN-Discuss and its antecedents many people have actually had contact with one another face-to-face.

Unless there is some form of annual refresh cycle, Gavin says he sees many groups die out over time so he firmly believes meeting face-to-face is necessary to “rekindle the essential human elements”.

As well as the offline meetings, people can interact with each other online in different ways, including attending regular webinars, contributing to multi-author blogs, and by adding material to shared resources in libraries, notepads, etc.

The discussion forum definitely doesn’t stand alone.

The official NTEN-Discuss moderators have light touch within the forum. Ian said he couldn’t see how additional facilitation services would benefit the group. By continually feeding discussion and setting the general atmosphere, the current facilitation approach kept things working.

Gavin was also sceptical about the need for more active facilitation. He says this was tried in the past with mixed success. And he points toward the nature of the group as not requiring more active input.

I am not sure the topics (remember that magic ingredient above — a clear focus and purpose and a shared set of goals and beliefs) would actually lend themselves to more active facilitation. The discussions are usually queries for information or referral. I often characterize NTEN Discuss as a giant random access knowledge management system: I can ask it a question and it coughs and sputters and (sometimes) shoots out an answer. The topics are relatively mundane and wouldn’t lend themselves to facilitation — at least I can’t think how.

A large volume of active contributors can actually undermine a forum. There is a sense that there is a natural equilibrium or balance for people to sustain their attention. Gavin suggested 200 was the maximum number of active and semi-active participants as with any more things go bonkers and people can’t handle a discussion with more than this number. A specific number wasn’t mentioned by Ian, but he sees a ratio of active to inactive participants as constant across all forums regardless of the total number of members.

Understanding the wider world in which NTEN-Discuss inhabits helped me reach the conclusion that more active facilitation is probably unnecessary. I wonder how this insight informs other discussion forums?

Thanks to Ian and Gavin for taking the time to share some history and thoughts.

BTW: This post is the second of a two part assignment exploring whether the NTEN-Discuss forum might benefit from more active facilitation of some sort. See part 1 and more details about the Facilitating Online course.

Does community exist in the NTEN-Discuss forum? Part 1

Each NTEN forum has a map of where members are based.

Each NTEN forum has a map of where members are based.

I was heading to the library self issue machine with a couple of items under my arm – one book on parenting, the other a computer magazine – when I stumbled on “Managing Online Forums” by Patrick O’Keefe.

There’s a whole wad of advice in the tome. O’Keefe promises to “show site owners and administrators how to create a safe and entertaining community that users will return to again and again”. It’s based on O’Keefe’s practical experience moderating forums and running something called the iFroggy Network, plus other forums he owns.

The book is listed as an extra resource for the current blogging assignment in the #FO09 course I’ve joined in. We’re looking for online community in discussion forums. Does it exist?

If my practices are anything to go by, I really do wonder. I tend to randomly visit forums and mostly only when I need something, rather than visiting on a regular basis. Although many forums require me to join, it’s such a low threshold to overcome: giving away my email address and agreeing to terms and conditions isn’t onerous. I don’t really feel bound to the forum ‘community’ just by signing up. Without a prod or peer pressure, it’s easy to slip in but not necessarily join geared up to participate.

I notice there are very active discussion forums around. Just take a look at on TradeMe and ones run newspapers like “Your Views” the NZ Herald or “Comment is free” at the Guardian: they’re incredibly vibrant. Some niche forums also thrive, such as the Black Dog Message board – set up “for people living with depression and other mental illnesses”.

Of all the forums I dip into I’ll talk a little bit about the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) member only “NTEN-Discuss” affinity groups. It’s one of the most regularly used of the 120 affinity groups set up by members. When I wrote 1,325 people were signed up, out of a total of a 5,996 NTEN members. Each affinity group has a blog, news feed, wiki and library, as well as a discussion forum. You can read posts online or contribute via email.

The beauty of the system NTEN use – for the technically minded it’s a social media enterprise platform offered by GoLightly – is the amount of choice I’ve got as a member: I reveal my address or not, let people see my profile and even add my location to a map. The setting for the group are very easy to see, and you can contact the moderators from any page.

There’s a fair amount of activity in the forum. Nearly 4000 posts in the archive, since the new and improved NTEN-Discuss forum was launched in September 2006.

The things I notice about the forum include:

  • Friendly conversational language, but it’s by no means bland as people forcefully express their views at times
  • Members have a visible presence, mainly through their avatars with anyone new to the group highlighted on the main page
  • Any conflict (if there is any) seems to be handled by members themselves, with very little visible intervention by moderators
  • A simple count of the number of posts made by each member gives some idea of peoples online reputations
  • The terms of use are easy to find, though there are not groundrules for this particular forum
  • A clear, though very general common purpose for the group is adhered to by members.

This list includes most of the things I’d expect in an online community: common interests or aims, rules and guidelines of some sort, adjudication if people misbehave and a means to have a social presence, and most importantly active participation. It’s a very comfortable place to be, with all the characteristics of an online community I’d suggest.

Looking at “Managing online forums” to see if any light is shone onto the presence of community I don’t find a lot of help. O’Keefe does not seem too interested in helping readers identify whether community exists in their particular forum. Instead he’s offering a step-by-step guide to ‘managing’ community. Facilitation doesn’t seem to come into, merely enforcement of rules.

My next step is to talk to a member of the forum about their opinions whether the forum might benefit from more active facilitation of some sort. I’m also interested to see what they say about whether there is a pulse, a lifeblood. I’ll report back soon.