Friday, March 19, 2010

Digital Habitats (Part 3)

This is a cross-post from my blog on the military Social Media tool milBook.

This is the third post in a series based on the book Digital Habitats: stewarding technology for communities (CPsquare Publishing, © 2009) by Etienne Wenger, Nancy White, and John D. Smith. This post will cover Chapters 4 and 5 of the text.

This post will deal with the central concept of the book, the idea of the digital habitat. Communities of Practice need habitats to learn together.A digital habitat refers to the portion of a community's habitat that is enabled by a configuration of technologies. Just as a natural habitat reflects the learning of the species, a digital habitat is not just a configuration of technologies, but a dynamic, mutually-defining relationship that depends on the learning of the community. It reflects the practices that members have developed to take advantage of the technology available to create a sense of  "place" for the community. A digital habitat is first and foremost an experience of place enabled by technology. 

To help make sense of ways in which technology can be experienced as a habitat for the community, the authors propose four perspectives called the Constitution of the Habitat:

Tools that support specific activities. Tools are a discrete piece of technology that supports a specific activity or activities in the community. The tool perspective is important because it addresses the functional adequacy of the habitat is supporting all the relevant activities. Tools are the primary entry point for tech stewards, as they anchor the construction of the habitat in the specific demands of what a community is trying to do.
Platforms into which vendors and developers package tools. Platforms in this context are technology packages that integrate a number of tools available in the marketplace (for purchase or for free) that one can acquire, install, or rent. Even Skype, something normally considered just a tool,  is actually a platform as it supports voice calls, conference calls, presence, chat, directories, and other capabilities. Platform focused considerations include questions that reflect the feasibility of acquiring, deploying, and using one or more tools together. There are several factors when selecting a platform such as features, usability, scalability, and sustainability which need to be evaluated against the needs of the community. Platforms are a secondary but important entry point for tech stewards as it reflects the availability of the technology for constructing the habitat.

Features that help make tools and platforms useable and "liveable". A feature is a characteristic that makes a tool or platform usable for a specific purpose. Some features define a tool, others add to its functionality or to the enjoyment of the experience, such as the ability to preview posts, and flagging of new content. Some features are very concrete facilities that are almost "mini-tools". Other features serve as subtle and pervasive design characteristics, such as a consistent user interface across a platform, consistent navigation, or adherence to data exchange or platform interface standards. The features of a tool or platform determine its usability for a given community, and thus determine the "habitability" of the habitat. Tech stewards need to evaluate features in context, and balance features that enhance functionality, flexibility, or security, with the need for simplicity and ease of use.

Configuration of technologies that sustain the habitat (which is rarely confined to one platform). This means the overall set of technologies that serve as a substrate for a community's habitat at a given point in time-whether tools belong to a single platform, multiple platforms, or are free-standing. For communities with complex sets of activities, the full configuration often involves multiple platforms, or selected tools from different platforms combined with a main platform. The configuration perspective includes all relevant technologies in play, both those used "by everyone" and those brought in by individual community members, either temporarily or permanently. Tech stewards need to view the community's configuration broadly enough to include all relevant tools yet narrowly enough to make visualization of the whole practical.

As a substrate of the habitat, the notion of configuration suggest pieces that "fit together". However, nothing guarantees that the tools in a given configuration will be integrated is such a way that the community will experience them as a coherent habitat. There are both functionality and usability questions that determine the level of integration needed for the habitat. There are four perspectives that suggest different ways that integration can be achieved and sustained, ranging from mostly designed into technology to mostly dependent on the on the community:

Integration through platforms: This method of integration relies on the use of a single platform to achieve a uniform user experience. While this is a simple solution technologically, there may be tradeoffs in regards to feature or configuration for the community.

Integration through interoperability: Using this method of integration involves a combination of tools or platforms that come together using interoperable standards or technology to provide a more uniform and simpler user experience. This can be a technologically complex undertaking, but the ability to use disparate tools and/or (and maybe leverage existing technology) makes this an attractive option.

Integration through tools: This method takes advantage of a separate tool, like an RSS aggregator or a tool that can connect to multiple chat systems, to provide unified functionality for the user. While this could add another tool to the habitat, it is also a less technology-intensive solution.

Integration through practice: Using practices to piece together disparate technologies is not generally the best method to integrate tools, but sometimes it is the only way. The concept of  "sneakernetting" or moving data using physical media from one computer to another is an example of integration through practice. Using practices to integrate tools or platforms does not involve making changes to the technology, but it can detract from the user experience of the habitat.

The best way to understand how technology contributes to community life is to consider fundamental challenges communities face in trying to learn together. We can use these challenges to make sense of the broad landscape of tools that have been adopted by communities. Here are three key challenges that drive communities to adopt technology as pairs of concepts called polarities:

Rhythms: togetherness and separation. Time and space present a challenge for communities. Forming a community of practice requires many sustained conversations over a relatively long period of time. Tools can foster these conversations by either bringing the community together for a synchronous collaborative session or foster asynchronous collaboration that allows users to interact while separated by distance or time.

Interactions: participation and reification. The polarity of participation and reification is a process of meaning-making that is fundamental to the learning theory of communities of practice. On one hand, members engage directly in activities, conversations, reflections and other forms of personal participation in the learning of the community. On the other hand, members produce physical and conceptual artifacts- words, tools, concepts, methods and other forms of reification- that reflect their shared experience and around which they organize their participation. (Literally, reification means "making into an object".) Technology contributes to both of these polarities, and complimentary tools and platforms can be used to support either participation or reification as needed for community members to further their mutual learning.

Identities: individual and group. Learning together is a complex achievement that weaves communal and individual engagement, aspirations, and identities. While learning together is a key component of any community of practice, often members cannot always participate in this group learning experience. This is usually due to being in multiple communities, or online social networks that can consume an inordinate amount of an individual's time and energy. Technology contributes to the tension between individual and groups and also can increase the complexity of the polarity. While a tool may be designed for groups, it is largely used individually, often when one is alone. Technology can help manage this complexity, and also open the possibility of more meaningful multi-membership in many communities.  As this multi-membership becomes more common, tools to manage this group/ individual polarity are an increasingly central contribution of technology.

These polarities do not cover everything there is to say about the challenges of community formation and development. However they do capture something fundamental about communities- something that has to do with their physical, social, and political nature, not the technology. The authors used these polarities to compile a diagram (this version located here) that maps the relationship of general categories of tools to the various polarities:

Much of the balance of the text goes into more detail about selecting tools for communities based on analysis using many of the concepts shown above. Tool and platform selection is a key part of being a tech steward. A good working knowledge of the ideas of constitution, integration, and polarities is very important to providing quality technical stewardship to a community of practice.

I hope you found this post interesting and thought provoking. I encourage you to post comments and questions.

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