Integrating online and face-to-face participation in a community of practice

Here at BEtreat in California – this is one of the key purposes of this five day course for leaders of communities of practice, where Etienne Wenger and Beverley Trayner are ‘shaking the mix’ as they like to express it – of our understanding of what is possible.

There are 15 face-to-face participants here in Grass Valley and four online participants (from Canada, Mexico, the UK and Germany). We work from 7.00 am to 4.00 pm – the early start is deliberate to ensure that our German and UK online colleagues can get some sleep. 4.00 pm here is 12.00 and 1.00 am for them. Our online colleagues are with us all the time. For whole group activities and presentations we are connected through Adobe Connect where we see them on video (projected on to a large screen), and can use the chat room and their sound comes to us through Skype. When we break out to small groups we connect via one of our lap tops through Skype and Skype video. Every effort has been made to ensure that they are fully included in all activities – so when we are on the move they are carried around  (i.e. on the laptops with video on) so that they can see where we are physically – and we turn the laptop round to ensure that they know who they are speaking to. In this sense the online and face-to-face participation is integrated and it has been noted that it has taken us all less than four days to get used to this way of working.

But what is the reality?

The technical challenges have been considerable. Bandwidth has been an issue so that the original idea that we would all be able to be connected via Adobe Connect all the time in small and whole group sessions didn’t work. The sound system has been enormously complex to set up and needs a knowledgeable and experienced sound engineer. When the technology fails – as it has done from time to time – then time is wasted as we wait for it to be fixed, and sometimes the online participants have been left out in the cold not knowing what is going on behind the failed system. It took us a while to realise that we could overcome this by maintaining contact by email.  But despite the difficulties, this week has shown that in these locations at least the technical challenges can be overcome. It might be a while before we can integrate online and face-to-face participation with colleagues in Africa, for example, where bandwidth and download times make synchronous online interaction very difficult.

With time the technology will become easier – but a much more interesting question for me is what effect does this way of working have on the learning of both the face-to-face participants and the online participants? Is it possible to integrate the learning?

My feeling is that to some extent the learning of both groups is compromised. The online group have to work hard to make their voice heard – they have to be pro-active in saying what they want, assertive and even forceful. My sense is that in doing this their voice is not the same voice they would have in the face-to-face group. Sometimes their voice is too dominant as we the face-to-face participants try to ensure inclusivity and bend over backwards to accommodate them, often by deferring to them and allowing them more voice than they might have in a face-to-face situation. At other times they have to shout to be heard – particularly when there is a lot of background noise from the f2f group. And at yet other times they have no voice at all – for example in the lunch break or when we meet socially – and much learning occurs at these times. They may need to take breaks themselves at these times or sleep!

The f2f group have also had to adjust/find their voice in this attempt to fully integrate online and f2f learning. We have had to be careful to speak one at a time and only into a microphone. We have had to learn to try and treat our online colleagues as if they are in the room – making sure we look at them when speaking, and include them in our questions and discussions. This has slowed up the natural flow of discussion across the f2f group and again it has been the more assertive (and possibly less sensitive to the complexities of balancing voices) who have ensured that their voice has been heard.

Finally – my perspective is that the concentration on the technology and including the online group has for me meant that I have not heard as much as I would have liked from the one voice that I have come all this way to listen to, i.e. Etienne’s. Ironic really!

More to come. This has been an absolutely fascinating learning experience.

5 thoughts on “Integrating online and face-to-face participation in a community of practice

  1. jennymackness July 12, 2011 / 7:27 am

    Hi Matthias. Thanks for your comment and for the link. I can see why you were reminded of it. Jenny

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