Introduction to paper on “Talking Heads” – an online community for school leaders by K.Thompson et al. – Ultralab.

The role of Online Community

One dictionary definition of ‘Community’ is :

a group of people with a common background or with shared interests within society

(from MSN Encarta – World English Dictionary http://dictionary.msn.com/find/entry.asp?search=community)

Certainly this definition fits the group of Headteachers the Talking Heads project is aimed at.

Community has further been described thus:

"A community is a group of two or more people who have been able to accept and transcend their differences regardless of the diversity of their backgrounds (social, spiritual, educational, ethnic, economic, political, etc.). This enables them to communicate effectively and openly and to work together toward goals identified as being for their common good.

" From the website of the Foundation for Community Encouragement (FCE)

http://www.fce-community.org/about/index.shtml

The whole concept of ‘working for the common good’ is what embodies the Talking Heads ideology.. However this is taken further  by M. Scott Peck, founder of FCE

 "If we are going to use the word meaningfully [community] we must restrict it to a group of individuals who have learned how to communicate honestly with each other, whose relationships go deeper than their masks of composure, and who have developed some significant commitment to "rejoice together, mourn together," and to "delight in each other, make others' conditions our own."

(The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace by M. Scott Peck M.D.)(book copy only)

This means that more than the  ‘shared goal’ mentioned above, Heads must also have learned honesty and  trust with each other and within the system they are using.  This can be established relatively quickly with with face to face relationships but the advent of the internet has meant that many communities now exist involving people who never have and often never will, meet. Trust under these circumstances may be more difficult to achieve.

 So-called ‘Online community’ has been described as many things.  To some it involves relationships.

Cliff Figallo, , uses words like "feeling part of a larger social whole," "web of relationships," "an exchange...of commonly valued things," and "relationships...that last through time creating shared histories." Hosting Web Communities” (p.15) pubs Wiley 1998

There is now definitely scope for individuals to join more groups of like minded people than ever before:

computers and networks alter people's capacity to form groups, organizations, institutions, [and], all of these social formations can be thought of as some form of community."

(The UCLA Center for the Study of Online Community http://netscan.research.microsoft.com/csoc)

For a different perspective, Luciano Paccagnella of the University of Milan suggests, "Virtual communities has lately become a fashionable term which will be used here as a useful metaphor to indicate the articulated pattern of relationships, roles, norms, institutions, and languages developed on-line. This is not to say that we take the term virtual community as a positive value in itself, nor that we advocate an enthusiastic or optimistic view of computer networks. Even the very authenticity of communities developed on-line should not be taken for granted without an effort to come to a commonly accepted definition of what a community really is. The term virtual community is therefore still a problematic scientific concept”

 ( from[Jones, S. (1995b). Understanding community in the information age, in S. Jones (Ed.) Cybersociety: Computer-mediated communication and community (pp. 10-35). Thousand Oaks: Sage];

What must be borne in mind however  is the false assumption made by many, that ‘Technology equals community’

"the Net is fundamentally democratizing and leveling.

(From a contribution to the "irvc-l" list (irvc-l@byrd.mu.wvnet.edu), 19 October 1993)

 The fact that the connection is there, takes no cognisance of the fact that no relationship may exist. The relation is somehow thought to be given by the connecting technology itself.  This is borne out by another contributor to the same website

.

While I'm not forecasting Utopia, I think networks of the future will be the most incredibly egalitarian technology ever invented. It will transform our entire societies. Imagine that homeless people or single parent children can "interconnect" with anybody who is willing to talk to them in the world. The possibilities are rather dazzling. Sure, there might be even cyberspatial outcasts, but the point is that we will be doing at least as well as we are now, which is not something to "write home" about”.

(From a contribution to the "irvc-l" list (irvc-l@byrd.mu.wvnet.edu), 9 October 1993.)

Even though Talking Heads is empowering the Heads to form community relationships, this in itself is not sufficient.  They need incentive to form the relationships themselves, based on trust, which are a prerequisite of any successful community.

The definitions above offer a sense of successful community but do not highlight the unique and distinctive nature of our ONLINE community. The unique selling point of Talking Heads is the added value and efficiency of asynchronous interaction. A tool for knowledge management using ICT to search for, access, manipulate and distribute information efficiently and effectively; adds value which should attract headteachers who recognise that we are now firmly in the information age. The enlightened ones know their practices need to change if they are to cope with the volume of information generated.

Dame Patricia Collarbone, on of the Hotseat guests in Talking Heads sees it thus:


”Imagine a collection of individuals, working in close proximity, sharing a common purpose and passion - a desire to learn. Imagine this same collection of individuals, working closely together, sharing knowledge, aspiring to the same vision. Imagine that same collection of individuals, sharing each other’s hopes and fears, empathising emotionally, unleashing the power of their collective intelligences. This is a learning community.”

 (Collarbone, 2000 in introductory article for TH Hotseat in DfEE community)

For most Headteachers the concept of a group’ sharing concerns and work related worries is an everyday event. Why then should people join communities set in an online context? 

Nancy Whites view (www.fullcirc .com) is to:

Work together (business) - Distributed work groups within companies and between companies use online community to build their team, keep in touch and even work on projects together. A very detailed description of how online work groups work can be found at http://www.awaken.com and http://www.bigbangworkshops.com .

Work together (issues) - Virtual communities have been very important to people who share interests in issues and causes. Support groups for people dealing with certain diseases, causes such as politics or the environment, or people studying together, all can form a nucleus for an online community.

Have topical conversations - Online salons and discussion forums such as the Well (http://www.well.com), Salon's TableTalk (http://www.salon.com), Cafe Utne (http://www.utne.com) and others have formed communities of people who enjoy conversations about topics and shared interests”

White goes further and suggests the steps needed to build a successful community:

Identify your community purpose or goal

Identify your target audience

Think about which interaction tools would serve your purpose and audience and how to structure the space.

Think about how you want to host or facilitate your community

Build it

Draw in the members

Go and nurture it!”

Until recently there has been no attempt to link together all Headteachers in England as one community.  Although the benefits of this in terms of shared experience and practice are apparent  Talking Heads is an attempt to address this..

Facilitation

An essential part to a successful on-line community is facilitation. To facilitate something means

to make it easier for it to happen or be done

(Collins COBUILD English Language Dictionary – 1993)

Facilitation in practice in an online sense means much more than this. The International Association of Facilitators (IAF) describes some of the qualities of a facilitator to include: "negotiation, mediation, leadership, decision-making, conflict resolution, cross-cultural contexts, and education." (http://www.iaf-world.org/Journal/index.htm: IAF Group Facilitation: A Research and Applications Journal  Editor, Sandor P. Schuman )

Facilitation is also about keeping things going along the right lines, leading the group towards the direction of the shared goal.

On-line facilitation requires skills and strategies, which go beyond those already mentioned. In a mainly asynchronous environment, they need to be developed and refined.

"Good online facilitators are sensitive to the unique qualities of online workspaces, and how these can be applied to a group's particular collaboration needs."

 (IDRC: Resources: Books: Catalogue: From Workplace To Workspace  1998 http://idrc.ca/books/848/work.html)

Nancy White describes on-line facilitation thus:

 "Online communities and virtual workgroups do not always "happen" spontaneously. They require care and nurturing: facilitation. The core of facilitation and hosting is to serve the community and assist it in reaching its goals or purpose ...  Facilitators and hosts encourage member interaction and participation. But their most important skill is as a genuine, authentic communicator."

She goes on to define different kinds of facilitator - " The Social Host, The Referee, The Project Manager, the Cybrarian, The Help Desk, The Janitor, The Town Council" (Facilitating and Hosting a Virtual Community 2/10/01 http://www.fullcirc.com/community/communityfacilitation.htm)

Howard Rheingold  also mentions the various hats a facilitator needs to wear: " A host is like a host at a party. A host is also an authority. A host is also an exemplar. A host is also a cybrarian. A host can be a character in the show, but the show is collaborative improvisation, with the audience onstage." (The Art of Hosting Good Conversations Online

http://www.rheingold.com/texts/artonlinehost.html)

The Talking Heads facilitation team has to engage in all these roles, endeavouring to keep communities vibrant by informing Heads what is relevant, by starting new communities when required and by pruning out old items.

In Talking Heads it has been important to achieve not only the goals of the head teachers, but also those of the partners and collaborators who have financed the community. As Amy Jo Kim points out: "a cornerstone for building any successful Web community is to focus relentlessly on understanding and meeting the needs of the members, while also achieving the objectives (be they personal, financial or social) of the community owners and/or leaders." (eLearning Post: Exclusive interview with Amy Jo Kim 27 February 2001 http://www.elearningpost.com/elthemes/amyjo.asp)

To this end the Talking Heads pilot generated quality and in-depth conversation between Heads and policy makers such as Michael Barber and Dame Pat Collarbone, for which Heads seem grateful:

I enjoyed all the questions and answers with Ralph (Tabberer) but haven’t yet had time to write my own piece yet as I am teaching due to staff shortages and I have no Deputy”

(quote from Head in email to facilitator)

as they are in other areas of Talking Heads too:

“with all the problems around…Threshold,PM and teacher recruitment,the TH programme has given me a voice and contact with others in the same boat.  I’d have been in despair without it.”

(from facilitators’ report to DfEE 6/10/00 p.3)

The policy makers too, welcome the opportunity for dialogue:

“Recently, I have spent time in the “hot seat”. You may be forgiven for thinking that this is an occupational hazard. But my experience was pleasurable.
………..
The idea is to give heads the option to talk directly to the key people in policy design and implementation, with a number of debates or “hot seats” with Department for Education and Employment Officials and other national and international figures.”

And  predict it will become the norm:

“The online learning community is the thin edge of the wedge. I’m sure it will become a standard means for policy makers to learn from experienced practitioners and to gather and disseminate best practice. The National College for School Leadership will lead the way, but government as a whole will follow. As we move into an era of transformation, policy success will depend on the capacity to learn from the front line.”

(Michael Barber.Head of Standards and Effectiveness Unit - DfEE -article in Times Educational Supplement  14/04/2000.).

In a community such as Talking Heads, the distillation of learning is vital so that all head teachers can benefit. Gene Bellinger argues that the facilitator is the only person who is able to do this:

" neither the community members nor the external contributors have the capacity to manage the leveragable body of knowledge. Thus, facilitators are responsible for managing the interactions which create and maintain the leveragable body of knowledge and for maintaining the infrastructure interactions. "


(Gene Bellinger, Outsights, Inc. http://www.outsights.com/systems/klcip/klcip.htm)

Lastly, facilitators need to know how the tools work. In a way, the software and hardware should be invisible to the community member. At times when they become visible a skilled facilitator should be able to swiftly deal with the issues so that discussion becomes the focal point once more. It is, by no means the most important part of facilitation, but as John Rossheim says: "Familiarity with online community technologies is a big plus." (Chatting for Dollars - http://internet.monster.com/articles/management/)