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H809: Week 7 - Learning Theories (Part 3)

April 2009

The second reading for Week 7 of H809 was Jones, A. and Preece, J. (2006) ‘Online communities for teachers and lifelong learners: a framework for comparing similarities and identifying differences in communities of practice and communities of interest’, International Journal of Learning Technology, vol. 2, no. 2–3, pp. 112–37.

A comment by my colleague Chris Douce on my last post made me postulate that there might be essentially two types of theories related to educational research:

  1. Frameworks. These are theories that could be considered tools to help researchers by giving them a language to use to discuss their research or lenses through which to look at educational activities and contexts to help them conceptualise or analyse them.
  2. Learning theories. These actually tell us something about the nature of learning or help us design contexts for learning.

The latter might inform the former, but probably not the other way round. A theoretical perspective for a researcher would be their choice of framework, whereas for a teacher, it would be their choice of learning theory.

All this is a precursor to the fact that the paper above describes a framework to help researchers by providing a set of angles from which to examine online communities (or blended communities with face-to-face as well as online interaction).  The authors explain the framework with two case studies: a bulletin board for knee injury patients and an EU-funded community of Dublin science teachers who meet regularly face-to-face.

The term online community is defined in the paper as 'a group of people who come together for a particular purpose or to satisfy particular needs; they are guided by formal and/or informal policies and supported by computing technology'. The distinction is also made between a community of interest and a community of practice, with a community of interest being based around a broad interest and generally being more inorganic, informal and open than a community of practice.

The proposed framework relates to Preece's 'sociability and usability framework' although I am not sure of the exact relation as I have still to unearth a copy of the book by Preece in which it is described, so it may be identical or an elaboration of that framework. The term sociability 'is concerned with the social interaction that community members have with each other via computing technology' and the focus of the paper was on the sociability rather than usability side as evidence from previous research had shown that unlike usability needs, sociability needs differ across communities.

There are three components and six factors in the framework, which the authors contend are useful for researchers to examine in relation to sociability.

The three components are:

and the six factors are:

The paper did not really make a case why these components and factors were chosen, although the authors do say that the list is not necessarily exhaustive. One can see that they are all things that might vary from community to community and the online thing that I can think instantly that might be missing is identity formation as a factor.

The illustrative application of the framework seems to be to that by showing how the two communities differ in terms of it, we can see that not all successful communities function in the same way. This made me wonder how one might characterise a successful online community as I think I could recognise one but I am not sure how. I think too that what really interests me is why some communities are more successful than others. Would this framework be useful in researching that? You might have to delve deeper into some elements than the paper does in the case study, but that it could be a good starting point.