The key to effectively and efficiently supporting, instigating and maintaining a critical mass of participation in online communities has long been illusively beyond my grasp. (see my Catching Tumbleweeds posting). Thus, I was very pleased to run onto Micahel Zarb’s Masters thesis, Modelling Participation in Virtual Communities of Practice

This 99 page document overviews a Delphi study in which Zarb engaged 12 virtual communities ‘experts’ to get a collaborative sense of their sense of the factors that promote and constrain participation in virtual communities of practice (VCOP).

The literature review is succinct and aptly covers the definitions, and theories related to both COP and their migration onto the Net. There is a short piece on motivation and situation but the review could have been a little more informative by reviewing some of the empirical studies on early online communities why some succeed while many lack critical mass.

The Delphi study was designed to verify the author’s initial synthesis of major factors effecting participations from the literature. These noted that participation was effected by:

  1. self development
  2. rewards
  3. reputation development
  4. sense of belonging
  5. acknowledgment

These were refined by the study participants and the author to yield a self development factor with sub factors that included knowledge requirement of participants, availability of alternative sources, value of the knowledge, number of participants and the specificity of the community. Interesting was the emergence of a factor related to the VCOP’s technical capacity to ‘splice’ into sub groups – thereby allowing the community to easily split into sub topics. These subgroups allow conversation to develop and continue without overwhelming the mildly interested when (for example) email groups become periodically grow to tsumni like proportions over particularly hot (to some) topic.

A second refined category was “sense of belonging‘ which was, as well, associated with the size of the community, degree of alienation felt by the participant in their ‘real life’ the specificity of the community and the moral consequence or weight of the practice from which the community emerges. This last is interesting as it implies that people whose work involves high degree of moral uncertainly and decision making, will be more likely to have a need for and develop a sense of belonging. I wonder where teaching or training sites on the continuum of moral consuequence
The third and final major factor that evolved from the study was Reputation Development and Acknowledgment with sub factors related to the ‘novelty of the practice”. This novelty factor may help explain the cohesiveness of the band of edubloggers and their practice of constantly referencing each other as the struggle to inform and educate their colleagues and each other. A second sub factor was the degree of virtuality of practice- assuming that those with high use virtual tools will be most likely to participate in VCOPs. Finally two other factors – the intrinsic importance (or not) of reputation in their practice and the strength of reputation mechanisms (think of SlashDot and other systems that at least recognize and usually reward thoughtful participation through formal recognition of key contributors.

Another feature of this study is an assumption that people participate in VCOP because of the return and potential growth of knowledge and value to the individual. This avoids the trap of many sites that are designed to add value and knowledge to the organization as a whole – with less emphasis on individual return. This ‘beyond the company or institution” approach aligns itself more with capacity to extend results to communities that are larger or transcend particular organizations- these would include most formal as well as informal learning VCOPs.

When I apply these 3 meta motivations for participation to one of my current projects , the Canadian Institute for Distance Education Research portal. I find that there are opportunities for “self development” but we may have confused the two groups of targeted users – researchers and distance education practitioners and may need to insure that we quickly effectively branch to areas of particular interest for both target audiences.
The sense of belonging to CIDER may be lacking- we have ways to complete and search portals and opportunities ofr discussion, but many do not use these tools. The community (at 650 members) may be too large to really develop that sense and so perhaps we need opportunity to slice to smaller groups, but attempts at developing smaller Special interest groups have not been that successful.

Ways to acknowledge and develop reputation are available- mostly just in the posting areas, but perhaps we could celebrate active contributors more effectively than we do at present.

The study provided significant food for thought, was short (for a masters thesis) and got me thinking about my own work- all characteristics of quality academic work. I kept thinking though that the affordances of the tools themselves may have a stronger effect on participation than captured in this study. For example what effect on reputation does real time activity, voice or video interaction or immersive experiences (Secondlife-like) have on reputation, belonging and potential for self-development.