Reading Reflection: Digital Habitats

Currently reading: Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities by Etienne Wenger, Nancy White, and John D. Smith (2009)

Wenger is best known for the concept “communities of practice,” which I will get to in future posts as I work through Communities of Practice and Cultivating Communities of Practice. CoP maintain a focus on the practice of knowledge through learning, and the authors emphasize the social orientation of these practice groups. CoP can best be characterized as learning together.

Digital Habitats is an interesting text because it doesn’t cater to a traditional academic audience. I initially picked up the book because it seemed to combine a focus on community with more attention to how technology influences the community experience than CoP and CCoP do (makes sense as CoP was published in 2000). DH is intended for multiple audiences including academic researchers, business professionals, and community activists who are interested in more effectively leveraging technology for their specific community purposes. I really appreciate that the authors make a point to understand how technology and community interact with one another; they recognize that the community influences what technologies and how the technologies are used, and they also point out that technology also influences how the community comes together and engages in practices. This helps to mitigate the potential of falling into an instrumental or determinist view of technology and community.

A few aspects of DH I find particularly useful:

  • Technology stewardship– the focus on a technology steward as an individual who takes responsibility for a community’s technology resources (Chapter 3) Tech stewards are generally already part of the community and as such are able to assess the community’s tech needs and what technology can be used for these needs, and then they aid in the adoption/transition/integration of the technology into community practices.
  • Importance of habitats– communities require a habitat or a space to learn together (Chapter 4). This habitat doesn’t have to be physical or synchronous, and the authors propose that a habitat is constructed of tools, platforms, features, and configurations.
  • Typology of community orientations– communities learn in different ways, and this typology of orientations allows tech stewards (and researchers!) a way to assess how the community works (Chapter 6). Some of the orientations include: meetings, open-ended conversations, projects, content, access to expertise, relationships, individual participation, community cultivation, and serving a context. Basically, these orientations help stewards understand how the community is already learning together, and from there the steward can help select an appropriate technology to continue the community’s preferred practice method.

I’ve been thinking about CoP as I’m working with Erin Cahill on a collaborative project about the Digital Media and Composition Institute (DMAC). We’re interested in how DMAC functions as a professional development institute to teach individuals digital composing skills, but what I find most interesting is how these 30+ individuals form a learning community at DMAC in less than 2 weeks. I also am interested in how this learning community breaks up at the end of the institute, and then these individuals have to return home, and in many cases, the DMAC participants are expected to act as technological stewards to facilitate a CoP at their home institutions.

So from what I’ve read in DH, I think this issue of technological stewardship is a critical one. Cindy, Scott, and the other staff are the DMAC stewards, but what about the DMAC participants? They have to transition from being a participant learning from tech stewards to being tech stewards themselves in less than 2 weeks. Many of the interviewees told us that they needed to be preachers or evangelicals at their home institution in order to gain support for digital media and composing, and one person even used the “returning native” image. What are the differences among these understandings of their roles: the technology steward, the preacher/evangelical, and the returning native?

Erin is most interested in spaces, so I’ll leave that to her to think about, but I think that it’s an area that needs much more development (it’s only a paragraph in DH, and there’s not much attention paid to how the social fills a space or what practices are found in habitats).

As I work on this video piece for the DMAC showcase, I’ll be focusing on the social interactions and the community formation at DMAC. This concept of the tech steward will undoubtedly be a central concept that I explore in my section.