A Personal Experience with Electronic Community
By Cyd Strickland
In the Spring of 1994, I joined an eight-week pilot online seminar at my graduate school, the Fielding Institute in Santa Barbara, California, USA (a distance institution with no residential campus). The school, despite being a distance-education program, had experienced problems implementing an effective electronic communications network. There seemed to be a pervasive feeling within the graduate school culture that the email system was a necessary evil, one this seminar set out to disprove.
The seminar, fondly christened as a cyberspace sandbox, was founded by two students following an encounter with the darker side of email communication. The openness, diversity, and community found at the Fielding Institute had not transferred to the online medium.
The structure of the seminar was designed for a small group of students and faculty to explore human issues within an electronic community; hence the name ElComm. It was clear we were an experiential group in a computer-mediated learning medium, learning to communicate within a social technology. As a group, we had varying levels of comfort with, and interest in, this technology.
The facilitators offered guidelines of norms, roles and rules, which were quickly accepted by the participants. The discussion focused on the meaning of the guidelines; they examined how those "words" were associated with the medium and our interaction. I later adopted those same guidelines in my facilitated on-line groups, and realized they were instrumental in quickly building relationships, collaborations, and encouraged more intense interaction
The guidelines included:
Group development proceeded much more rapidly than the online literature would suggest (Sproull & Kiesler, 1993a, 1993b; McGrath & Hollingshead, 1994). A heated conflict around the issue of community quickly became an opportunity to work through resistance and trust issues (Mankin, 1996), and provided the basis for group bonding and cohesion by week four of the eight-week seminar. The conflict was not a negative experience. It appears it brought the group together much faster and opened up the group to more intimacy, emotional expression, and ability to resolve future conflict
This phenomenon is consistent with the research on group development. As early as 1956, research by Bennis & Shepherd, indicates group crisis typically occurs during the mid-point of a group. My colleagues and I at the Fielding Institute have observed this mid-point crisis in dozens of computer-mediated learning groups as well. In a later discussion with the researchers, we concluded the provision of guidelines, as well as the level of experience among the participants accelerated the group process to match that of face-to-face groups.
I met the other participants the following July in a large crowd of students during a national meeting of the Institute. We had deliberately chosen not to reveal our appearance; nor had we spoken on the phone, or offered any clues which might help identify who we were to the others (save our name badges).
My meeting and subsequent friendship with the two facilitators was immediate. As I was walking across a room, a strange female voice yelled "CYD!" I turned and knew these strangers were the two wonderful people I'd gotten to know in the group. The f2f meeting was wonderfully corporeal and joyous, with hugs, and excited voices all around. To a large degree, we felt the "missing" social cues of the online world were completed with our f2f meeting. It did not detract from the fact that we felt that we "knew" the other very well. As many have discovered, much of the socio-emotional groundwork for relationships can be conducted online (Sproull & Kiesler,1993a, 1993b; McGrath & Hollingshead, 1994).
In general, I found those few months personally transformative. The sharing, collaboration and learning experienced in the online group was astounding. We three agreed that despite extensive experiences (before and after) as students, faculty, and online junkies, this was clearly a singular experience. It is also clear that a combination of factors had led to a successful group, which included the facilitation, the guidelines, educational level, and the subject matter. Perhaps the most critical factor was that we were able to create a true self-directed learning community - learning as we created the experience.
Before returning to graduate school, my prior experience was in the high-tech field. I had nearly twenty years of working with computers and electronic communication. At the time, I was enrolled in graduate school full-time. Both the other facilitators worked. One of the facilitators had a M.A. in social work, worked in a non-profit and taught at a local university. She was a "newbie" to CMC. The other facilitator had retired from the Army, was also teaching locally, had worked in the technical field and was familiar with CMC. We were all in our early forties, married or partnered, and eager to explore the issues of community. In temperament, we were two extroverts (both women), and an introvert (male).
So, why did we hit it off so well? To this day I believe it was a meeting of kindred souls. We lived in geographically disperse regions of the country (California, Washington state, and Iowa), have very different backgrounds and personality types, but have found a common ground in our interest and work in online communication. I believe we found a rich intimacy and sharing online that we may not have had time for in a f2f context.
We also shared a difficult search for community in our personal and academic lives. Elcomm, as a form of distributed community (Brown, 1998), was the foundation of our relationship. Community can be defined as a "group of people who have something in common with each other, which distinguishes them in a significant way from other putative groups" (Cohen 1985, p. 12). In other words, community identification or affiliation is one of the ways in which people differentiate themselves. The ways in which we individually and collectively experience the world is different. Shelley Correll (1995) suggests that community allows individuals a "sense of common reality" (p. 297).
We have found a common reality in an easy, yet intense relationship - and love each other dearly.
Since this first meeting, we have remained close colleagues, first as students, and later, as faculty. The close association we developed in the ElComm group continues today. The opportunity to continue working online has enriched, and sustained, our relationship as colleagues and friends.
Our work is conducted primarily through email; telephone conversations follow with infrequent f2f meetings. As students, we collaborated on workshops and a grant application. At present, we are involved in designing an online certificate program called "Managing, Developing and Facilitating Electronic Group Facilitation."
Cyd Strickland, Ph.D. (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches online courses in Group Process, Knowledge Management, System Dynamics Modeling and Systems Thinking at the Fielding Institute and Antioch University, Seattle. Her research interests include CMC, learning organizations, and multicultural access to the Internet.
Copyright © 1998 by Cyd Strickland. All Rights Reserved.