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Creating and sustaining online communities among digital immigrants

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I’ve recently become a member of the COIL Nodal Network (thanks to a grant that I received to develop a course through COIL for next fall).  A few days ago, one of the organizers and founders of COIL, Jon Rubin, sent an email to all the members of the network that really looked familiar to me…essentially because over the past few years I have sent several emails in the same genre to members of social networks that I have created — messages that basically say “get off your duff and get get active on [whatever form(s) of social media that we are using to sustain our interactions] because the possibilities are exciting and possibly transformative.” And the response to such emails could be seen as somewhat generic, too:  well-intentioned participants (or in my case students) dutifully comply — they do try — but ultimately are not persuaded of your vision (“because it takes time to realize,” you opine) and the brief spike in participation quickly returns to the pre-email levels.  And  you are back where you started.

How to break the cycle?  As someone who is planning to begin a project that with “big” and, at the risk of jinxing myself, global aspirations, troubling this classic problem of engaging participants/students is one that well-worth contemplating.  So I am sharing my email in response to Jon here.  I also should not that I am asking Jon for permission to reprint his original messages and responses, since I’d like to capture the whole thread for future reference, if not for posterity (N.B. the COIL Nodal Network Ning is private, so I can’t just subscribe to it here).

So here is my post in response to Jon’s email (in which he asks us also to get some forms in, among other things):

Thanks for your email, Jon. The HR form is on my list, but your prompt is helpful for getting me off my duff!

Anyway, I do hope you will archive your email somehow or repost it in the blog (I have noticed that “Message Broadcast”s on Ning are not archived, so I say this in case what you sent was not an email). It is important data in one of the things that most interests me about COIL: how actually to create and sustain communities from the ground up — especially when some participants may be relatively new to Web 2.0 or at the very least not digital natives.

Which is not to say that all of us in this nodal network self-identify as digital immigrants. But I find the digital native/digital immigrant distinction useful in my own self-reflections upon this question. My working definition of these terms is based in the notion that Web 2.0 really begins with the popularization of Google and easy-to-use web apps ca. 2005; “digital native,” therefore, refers only to someone who has come into (early) literacy since then; “digital immigrant” describes the rest of us. I can only assume that none of us here are quite THAT much of a child prodigy.

Our experiences in getting this nodal network up and running are particularly interesting to me, then, since the model is ideally a scalable one that each of us is able to replicate. As you can see, my own project, which has parallel goals, stands to benefit greatly from such self-study.

Because I have great hopes for what we can accomplish together, I am as interested (if not more so) in the bumps we encounter along the road as the progress we make. Studying the “hiccups” will give us a better sense of how to develop our own networks. Mine focuses on bringing onboard inservice K-12 teachers — digital immigrants all, who have even less time for “extra stuff” than I do.

Which brings us back to the obstacles. I have a pretty solid sense from my own experience that one of the hindrances to my own engagement in some of the online communities in which I partake is the fact that I did not “grow up digital.” No matter how much we try to assimilate or how much time we spend online and engaged in online communities, digital immigrants have a relationship to social media that is by definition acquired, by choice, and “added on.” Tell me if you disagree.

The point being that this is less so the case for our students, and (since I teach preservice teachers) even less so for theirs. The lived experiences of younger generations are and always will be mediated in ways that ours simply have not been (not until the past 3-5 years at least, which, in my case, is only a small fraction of my lived experience in toto).

I read somewhere a few years back that in a decade everyone will have a “first” life and a “second” one. That’s definitely not me, no matter how much time I spend online. And I would go so far as to venture that online communities aren’t fully scalable until fewer digital immigrants or (to use a term a Chinese-American colleague of mine, Shufang Shi, calls them) “digital aliens” are “in charge.” Until the day when the work and social lives of most adults doesn’t happen mainly in our “first lives,” with our “second” ones added on, our online relationships and commitments to the online communities in which we participate will always be secondary. Many would say “and so they should be”; but that’s another conversation for another time.

I’m interested in what I can do, what we can do, as digital immigrants at this particular juncture in history. How can we, as Will Richardson and others have put it, “steward” this change? We see the future, we live in the past, and are trying to create and maintain conditions that will eventually allow those two parallel worlds in which people of the future will someday seamlessly move between (and all the possibilities for social justice therein) come to fruition.

How do we do this? What do we do?

Any thoughts?

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