Should we apply Ostrom’s design principles to online learning communities?

Getting ready for a second session of Howard Rheingold’s course Toward a Literacy of Cooperation. Today we’ll study Elinor Ostrom, the American political economist who was awarded the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

As is explained on The Cooperation Commons, Ostrom found that groups that are able to organize and govern their behavior successfully are marked by the following design principles:

1. Group boundaries are clearly defined.
2. Rules governing the use of collective goods are well matched to local needs and conditions.
3. Most individuals affected by these rules can participate in modifying the rules.
4. The rights of community members to devise their own rules is respected by external authorities.
5. A system for monitoring member’s behavior exists; the community members themselves undertake this monitoring.
6. A graduated system of sanctions is used.
7. Community members have access to low-cost conflict resolution mechanisms.
8. For CPRs that are parts of larger systems: appropriation, provision, monitoring, enforcement, conflict resolution, and governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises.

What interests me is that those rules could be used for the management (or facilitation) of online learning communities. Most of the time rules for online learning communities have already been established by the organizers of the platform, but it would be interesting to let the community somehow devise rules and monitor them.

How would that work with large online learning communities? One of the problems would be the boundaries of the group and the monitoring of behavior: can we really identify members (not necessarily by ‘real names’ but by online reputation and persistent avatar identity?).

It seems being part of a group, working together durably so that issues of reputation become relevant, enhances reciprocity and cooperation. I guess that is also the way communities of practice work.

However, how close-knit a group has to be? Is antagonism with other groups desirable because it probably even increases this intra-group cooperation? Is it not a bit suffocating to belong to a community of practice which tries to uphold a certain tradition, a hierarchy of members? (E.g. a group of media professionals, ‘accepting’ student journalists in order to ‘teach’ them the proper principles of journalism – with the best intentions and probably good results… )

The question (and I don’t have the answers yet) I ask myself is whether we can go beyond communities of practice. In the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) #Change11 the learning&teaching experience is based on the connectivist philosophy/practice. This is what Wikipedia says about one particular aspect of connectivism:

One aspect of connectivism is the use of a network with nodes and connections as a central metaphor for learning. In this metaphor, a node is anything that can be connected to another node within a network such as an organisation: information, data, feelings, images. Connectivism sees learning as the process of creating connections and developing a network. Not all connections are of equal strength in this metaphor; in fact, many connections may be quite weak.

So connectivism is allowing for weak ties, which often turn out to be quite interesting, as those nodes may provide new insights from other perspectives, even though they are not high-level members of some formal or informal group hierarchy.

There is also a price to be paid for the connectivist approach: could there be a higher risk that the principles of cooperation and reciprocity are lost in a connectivist approach? That we’d all end up as lurkers, not contributing anything and just attending silently several meetings or courses, without really engaging ourselves? (In this sense, lurkers would be ‘free riders‘).

In fact, I think there’s not much of a problem. Lurkers do not contribute to the discussion, but they are not harmful as ‘consuming knowledge’ is non-rivalry: the knowledge available for all does not diminish because some people listen without intervening actively.

It appears that even in the absence of “the real possibility” of punishment for non-cooperation people act as if that possibility somehow functions – so lurkers should be given the benefit of the doubt: maybe that mysterious push to contribute will manifest itself once they start attending sessions on a regular basis.

But maybe the problem is not so much ‘free riders’, but participants who contribute negatively. In the case of trolls monitoring and gradually sanctioning can help. But often the problem is not so clear-cut: what if one wants an in-depth discussion, and too many participants add just noise – without really transgressing the boundaries of civil discourse?

Typically learning communities ask their members to do some required and/or recommended reading, so as to ensure at least a minimal common background. While this may be common practice for academically inspired communities, it’s much less self-evident for newspaper discussion groups for instance.

An interesting experiment for media could be to organize discussion groups for specific topics, with the aim to learn stuff or to formulate solutions for certain problems, enabling the members to define rules and expectations, to monitor and sanction the behavior of participants. Such groups would use synchronous (web conferencing, virtual meetings…) and asyncrhonous (forums) communication tools and/or a blogging platform. Gradually more challenging tools could be introduced such as collaborative mindmapping and wikis.

Journalists/bloggers would be facilitators of the interactions and would help introducing the tools. This is one of the major lessons I learn by participating in the Digital Awakening course (#nmfs_f11): how tools have to do with augmenting our humanity.

As became clear during this week’s discussion of Augmenting Human Intellect (Doug Engelbart), introducing a new tool such as a computer (or a portable, a smartphone or tablet) requires careful consideration of the many ways in which a new tool can change our practices. All too often people use new tools with the mindset of a previous phase: using a desktop as a typewriter, a portable as a desktop etc. The same applies for online social tools: social networks risk being used as just the continuation of the office or pub conversation, while they could also empower people to reach out and explore new possibilities. So maybe that’s yet another thing to take into account when designing online learning communities.