Creating Community Interaction - Listservs and Discussion Groups

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Lacey Jennings, Network Coordinator, NEA / National Center for Innovation
Lisa Kimball, Senior Partner, MetaSystems Design Group

May 16, 1996
Reported by Gary Obermeyer, Learning Options

45 participants attended.

The central idea of this presentation/workshop - the real value of this technology has to do with relationships and dialogue. It's not about data and/or information but about interaction.

The faciliators asked how many participants had experience with or have been coordinators of email lists, conferencing, MOOs, and MUDs. From the show of hands, it appears that all have experiences with on-line discussion, mostly with listservs. Smaller numbers have experience with conferencing, MOOs, etc.

The facilitators asked participants to change the room to facilitate interaction, i.e. to pick up their chairs and organize in little circles. The participants organized in 8 groups.

Groups were given the assignment to come up with three important things that need to be present to promote on-line discussion. The compiled list:

The Faciliators asked the large group to look at the whole list and draw conclusions about collective factors. The first two words from the group were having a common purpose and a facilitator (there was some disagreement about the latter point).

The Facilitators asked the groups to think about their own experience and reflect on whether the groups in their experience had these characteristics. It was clear from the show of hands that not all on-line discussions apply what we know about networking.

The question: Given that we know about networking, why are discussion groups not done better, more often. e.g. why are the purposes not clear? why are small groups not better facilitated?

The Facilitators introduced the question of different tools for different purposes.

Lacey talked about the different tools that are being used for the NCI Network. NCI involves school districts involved in systemic change. They use the annual symposium as a metaphor, i.e. listservs work as general sessions, conferencing is used for small workgroups & breakout sessions, and highlights/products are dissemiated via networked data bases.

The Facilitators asked if there were others in the room who had developed similar muiltiple tool strategies. Two examples were given: Los Alamos National Labs do conferences with a combination of listservs and MOOs. The Institute for Law and Justice has designed a conference in which they start with defining the topics. They begin with general topics on email. Using facilitators, they generate specific topics and put them up for comment as web pages. Chat rooms are only used to finalizing points.

Small groups were asked to talk about problems and issues that get in the way of effective on-line groups and what can be done about them.

Conclusion: Any group work needs conscious decision making about design, e.g. software, size of group, facilitators. People get turned off by poorly designed on-line meetings. Groups are more productive/successful when someone thinks through what's supposed to happen. As a culture we do not have all the norms and cues internalized. Discussions like this (both f-t-f and on-line) will help change the culture.