BUILDING ONLINE COMMUNITIES:USING PARTICIPATORY METHODS AND WEB 2.0 TOOLS TO STRENGTHEN THE NETWORKS OF COMMUNITY SERVICE LEARNING PRACTITIONERS AT UBC Blond, Danielle
As an approach to experiential education, community service learning (CSL) is gaining popularity at the University of British Columbia (UBC). CSL allows students the unique opportunity to learn about academic concepts through a hands-on approach in the community. UBC is dedicated to creating exceptional learning environments and according to UBC’s newly crafted vision, Place and Promise, CSL is recognized as one of the key ways to help students become deeply engaged in their communities and develop a commitment to global citizenship. One of the ways CSL is being advanced at UBC is through the UBC-Community Learning Initiative (UBC-CLI). Since its inception in 2006, the UBC-CLI has acted as the “bridge” between the many actors involved, specifically between the university and the community. However, this present structure is no longer seen as being the most effective as it limits the direct relationship building and communication links between and among the actors themselves. Therefore, the director of the UBC-CLI has called for a shift in the role of centralized units like the UBC-CLI from engaging directly in planning and implementing CSL, to strengthening the networks of students, instructors, project leaders, and community organizations involved. To achieve this shift, the UBC-CLI proposed the creation of learning communities, more formally known as “Communities of Practice.” Specifically they wanted to explore using online learning communities that would allow members who are geographically dispersed to connect, communicate, share experiences and resources, reflect on practice, learn from each other, and develop new knowledge. Through a partnership with the UBC-CLI, online communities were assessed to understand how they could be built and used to strengthen networks and promote learning communities. From a review of the literature, the method used to create online communities was deemed important and that involving the future users in the creation of online communities was crucial for their success. Therefore, partnering with UBC’s Office of Learning Technology (OLT), a pilot project was conceptualized that would engage one of the groups of CSL actors (Project Leaders) to collaboratively build their online learning community. This report describes and reflects upon the processes used and the outcomes of the pilot project. It describes eleven principles (drawing from community development, participatory design, and principles of good facilitation) that guided the design and implementation of the engagement process. It offers insight into both the power of participation and the complexities of facilitating a participatory process surrounding technology design. Recommendations are offered based upon lessons learned and participant evaluations. These are directed towards two separate audiences: The UBC-CLI in order to assist them in accomplishing their vision of strengthening networks, and to other potential facilitators wanting to undergo this type of process. Four recommendations targeted to the UBC-CLI are: 1. Create a strategic plan for the continuation of this collaborative engagement with the other groups of CSL actors. This plan should include: vision, principles, targets, process steps and evaluation guidelines. 2. Create a long-term plan for growing and supporting the online communities that have been developed. This plan should include ideas for encouraging growth and guidelines for the moderation and the continual evaluation of the site. 3. Create a staff position to help create the above documents and to continue to develop the Project Leader online community, nurture it throughout its development and help to evaluate it at the end of the academic year. 4. Continue to develop and nurture the relationship with OLT and seek to build new partnership opportunities. Seven recommendations for future facilitators include: 1. Draw from principles of community development, participatory design and good facilitation when designing the process. 2. Be clear with participants about what their participation with lead to and the decision making power they hold. 3. Encourage participant ownership. This can be done through focusing on the ‘soft’ outcomes of the process, being clear about the role of the facilitator, involving the participants in the creation of session agendas, involving participants in the creation of evaluation criteria, and evaluating after every session. 4. Be dedicated to the participants first and the technology second. 5. Be cognizant of the timing of the process. 6. Include an array of participation options, focusing on offering both broad and deep levels of participation. 7. Pay attention to small details during the process that allow participants to feel valued. There is great potential for this new Project Leader online community to impact the future of community service learning at UBC. Its power is in its ability to strengthen, support and aid project leaders in communicating with each other. This reflects a positive step towards UBCCLI’s vision of strengthening actors in CSL instead of being the centralized unit or “central lynchpin” that holds everything together (Fryer, 2009 p. 12). It will be through the continual development of these learning communities that CSL will grow to become a more organic system, containing many rich networks of people working and learning together. This is just the beginning of an exciting movement in CSL at UBC, and potentially throughout Canada, as other universities look to draw on UBC’s innovation and expertise.
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