Sustaining Communities

The subject of the research paper that I have recently submitted (with a colleague)  is the challenges facing ‘artificially’ created communities. By this we mean communities that are set up as  part of a funded project. We found that there are significant challenges, as you would expect,  to be faced when the funding ceases. The project may have attracted a lot of interest and if an online site has been set up in association with the project, then this interest may have come from across the world.  So what to do with all these people, now that the funding has been withdrawn and the management team is no longer being paid for their efforts? Does this management team have any responsibilities to the wider, larger community that it might unexpectedly have created and if so what are these responsibilities? Should they be obliged to move into voluntary community work when this is not what they originally signed up for? How does the community perceive its responsibilities? So at this stage, when funding ceases, the community faces a crisis of identity which includes determining who the community is for, who should lead it, and what will be the purpose of the community if it is to continue but no longer as a project.

I am writing about this because these thoughts around this research also resonate with experiences on the connectivism and connectivist knowledge course and on the Connectivism Technology Web 2.0 Education Learning and Research Ning site (community?) set up by Sui Fai John Mak.

On the connectivism course there was some discussion about the distinctions between a course, a network and a community. It was clearly a course, but for some it was also a network and for others it was also a learning community. The idea of ‘community’ brings with it a great deal sharing and collaborative negotiation of meaning, which in turn helps people to make relationships more than just simple connections. The relationships that were made on the connectivism course are still alive for some people ( I wonder how many?), but whilst individual one-to-one relationships can be relatively easily sustained, group relationships and a sense of community need a degree of organisation and leadership to be sustained. John has taken this on and people have joined the Ning site, but whilst organisation and leadership is certainly not lacking, as yet there has been little interaction which lies at the heart of an effective community. So I wonder what people were hoping for when joining the Ning site.

4 thoughts on “Sustaining Communities

  1. Carmen Tschofen February 9, 2009 / 3:42 pm

    Hi Jenny,

    You’ve raised some interesting questions here. I know the issues of sustainability after initial funding is also an issue for those involved in the development of open education resources.

    In terms of community, I wonder if we’re in an era of redefining, or multiplying, our understanding of “community.” (The word “friend” for example, is also clearly undergoing a recontextualization.) I tend to see “community” in some contexts, especially in environments such as Ning, as something that is emergent. In “joining” in this context, it seems more of an expression of mutual support and opportunity, rather than a commitment to a specific set of actions. It’s been my experience that latent interests or a convergence of activity can emerge even after a long period of seemingly little action – a “viral” moment or movement, in the current language. This does, of course, raise questions, as you have, about concepts related to momentum and focus. Maybe it’s like other learning— many things are cyclical, and there’s a lot happening underneath the surface even if the focus (or communication and exchange) appears to be somewhere else?

    Certainly this may be unsatisfactorily laissez-faire in some cases, and for me it clearly varies with the community and my relationship to it/role in it— learner, parent, etc. In this age of multi-membership, all of us are tasked with difficult decisions of where our efforts and priorities are best focused. Maybe some folks are choosing a narrow range of deeper interactions, and some may choose to be wider-spread “weak ties,” and some may be either or both depending on context. It seems to me that we often see only narrow slices of others’ identities, so it can be hard to understand others’ expectations and how they may differ.

    As a student/observer/action researcher of “community”, I’ve been interested in how individuals and groups develop expectations and definitions for community/group identity; this opens up a whole can of worms in terms of personal expectations and of worldviews. Often there is a tension in terms of expected time frames for developing ties, in understandings of communal action, and perhaps even in establishing (or not) criteria for entrance or participation. (Just talk to any Californian who moves to Minnesota!:-)) I’m getting the sense that this is becoming even more complex with the boundaryless-ness of the digital environment and the opportunities of participatory culture.

    I think you hit it right on— we’re right back to the discussions surrounding our understanding of communities and networks. 🙂 Thanks for a thought-inducing post!

  2. Keith Lyons February 9, 2009 / 7:49 pm


    I wonder if people are defined by their intrinsic motivation? I am fascinated by the issues you raise and am attracted to the ideas you contemplate.

    I wonder too if sustainable communities are defined by meaningfulness?

    I am using a wiki and a Ning site to develop communities of practice and at present I see it as my responsibility to drive these. I admire John and Nellie’s work in energising their communities and am trying to support their initiative.

    It is a wonderful feeling to know that they are there and that although my links with them vary in relation to my allocation of time I am linked to them.

    I seem to follow Carmen to your site. It is great having wayfinders and guides.

    Thank you for the post. I trust that the snow is receding. Here bush fires are raging.

    Best wishes


  3. suifaijohnmak February 10, 2009 / 1:08 am

    Hi Jenny,
    I have just composed a post on Community of Practice in response to your excellent post here.
    Thanks for your inspiration and support.
    Best wishes.

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