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George Roberts :: Blog :: A brief valediction to Emerge: where we all are and what we all have done

March 23, 2009

We are coming to the end of the Users and Innovation Programme. Stay tuned for messages concerning the continuation of site services. But before all that, I wanted to say to everyone who reads this, what I said at the NGTiP conference a couple of weeks back. This is my valediction to Emerge.

Learning technology R&D projects can appear to focus on outputs rather than outcomes: producing artefacts rather than building capacity; quantitative rather than qualitative measures; easy answers rather than the deep complexity of institutional change. Through the U&I Programme a real effort has been made to transform practice based on the needs of individual users working in institutions.

The Emerge project set out to support the creation of a sustainable community of practice around user engagement for the exploitation of new and emerging social media technologies.

A key component to our approach was to encourage the adoption of a user engagement process and enabling its use by developers of next generation web-based educational services.

Accepting that our research interventions were part of the transformation process we chose appreciative inquiry to promote evidence-led, asset based community developement.

As the programme developed, benefits realisations  activities sought to ensure the outputs and outcomes of the U&I projects reached the wider community.

The web presence of the support project was novel. We put a public stream of voices from the community up front using the Elgg social networking platform.

It has been possible to identify a range of benefits to deploying social media tools to scaffold community emergence.

Your stories provided evidence to suggest that the community did develop into an effective support system for projects. The benefits for individuals and projects included opportunities for professional development, collaboration with others, improved project planning and management, and awareness of the relevance of projects in a wider context.

But these benefits were unevenly distributed, and for some, against visibility, connectivity and discovery we could set obscurity, isolation and at times wandering lost.

The form and patterns of interaction, which develop across a community over time, cannot be predetermined. The use of participatory media is multi-modal. The articulation between people and software is not just a question of interface design (though that is crucial). The effective use of Web2.0 depends essentially on human networks.  This raises questions of inclusion, exclusion and identity.

The first question for institutions becomes: to what extent are they comfortable with ceding certain amounts of control to individuals? The second question for institutions is, then, to what extent are they, as established communities, willing to cede control to new communities? For individuals, the principal issue is to what extent do they subordinate their autonomy and self-direction to any community? And, then, how much do they subordinate and to which communities?

I can't say that these questions will be finally answered here. I hope that they are at least asked with greater rigour and sensitivity than when we started. Institutional change is not a simple task.

I would like to thank the JISC for enabling these questions to be asked at all and for supporting us in looking for answers. I want to thank the support team who spent two years treading down the nettles and looking for ever shifting trails, good naturedly acknowledging that the journey is as important as the destination. I want to thank the people who signed up for the community of practice, not knowing where it would lead. I know this programme appeared to be more demanding that your "usual JISC programme".

I hope that the demands were not simply in the quantitative burden of hours and days spent drawing concept maps and engaging in semi-structured activity. Our aim was to improve the qualitative measures by which success might be understood. That this was not always easy, I accept. We were all, at times, confronted with parts of ourselves we might have rather left in the traditional silos.

One of our sustainability strategies was to have fun. Seriously, we are all busy; there had to be affective advantage to affiliation. Of course there were also those who thought that if it wasn't hurting, it wasn't working.

But, was it worth it? Yes, if these questions continue to be asked. If the spirit of open, asset-based, positive enquiry and evidence-led development continue to be promoted, then yes. For me, it has been an honour - and a pleasure - to have been involved with this programme.

Posted by George Roberts

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