Lately I’ve been reflecting on this ellusive creation of community and relating it to my own experience of using different online technologies.

In any type of online community, participants communicate through some type of technology interface. There are a variety of these, both synchronous and assynchronous. Will some of them be more effective than others in the creation of community?

In my experience communication through syncronous media (such as elluminate, instant messaging, etc) seem to lead to a feeling of relationship quicker, so I’m going to consider synchronous media first.

I think that a significant consideration has to be the complexity of the interface. My initial experience of using elluminate was that for perhaps the first 30 minutes of the meeting so much of my attention was taken up with trying to get to grips with how the interface worked, and how to control it that I did not engage significantly with the group. I was primarily engaging with the elluminate interface.  At roughly 30 minutes into the session I stopped being aware of the interface & plunged into communication with the group.

Now elluminate is a fairly simple interface really. Second life is commonly touted as a fantastic way to create community, and I can see that it could potentially have real benefits. Being able to communicate with an avatar instead of a faceless being has appeal. My experience of second life however has been quite frustrating. I’ve probably visited the virtual world three times, maybe about 3-4 hours total time, and I’m still not a competent navigator/controller. Most of my attention is still consumed by trying to figure out how to do things. I presume that this would disappear with experience, but how much experience I wonder? I consider myself to be fairly computer literate, and when I think about the computer literacy of a typical massage therapy student, it is fairly clear to me that this environment is not going to be the best way to build a sense of community in the class.

What about Gtalk/Skype? I haven’t used skype yet, and have heard that it’s better than Gtalk, but I’ve found Gtalk to be excellent. The interface is simplistic to the point of being invisible. In theory you could set up your class in your list of contacts, then everytime you turn on the computer you will be able to see who else is online. You can send instant messages to classmates, or phone them directly. I haven’t experienced this yet, it’s purely theoretical for me at the moment, but I think this would really help to create a sense of community.

So what about assyncronous communication?

Blogging is the main technological driver of community building that has been promoted in the course I’m participating in at present. It did take a while, but I am finding that as I follow other people’s thoughts & experiences, I’m developing a sense of relationship with the other bloggers in the group. For this to be effective in a group of students I believe that everyone would need to become familiar with both the process of making blog postings (fairly simple) and using RSS feeds (fairly simple, but this may take some time for students to really get it). Once this technology has been mastered, there’s probably some time before a real sense of community forms.  According to Debbie’ posting James Farmer said that it typically takes about 5 weeks for his classes to become comfortable with (blogging? / community?).  I wonder if that includes time taken to get familiar with the tech?

Email groups – I think they’re a useful communication medium, but I’m not sure they are particularly good at facilitating a sense of community/relationship.

Discussion boards – I don’t think I’ve ever had a good experience of using a discussion board.  At the start of this course I was open to the possibility that they could be used effectively for communication, but that hasn’t really been my experience yet again.  Functionally I think they’re not too much different to an email group, although perhaps a little more unwieldy.

We’re just embarking on a collaborative wiki-building exercise.  I think this again has potential, but I guess the proof will be in the pudding.