Virtual and Physical Information Grounds in Seattle and Amsterdam
(Kathleen Walsh, MLIS Student, Information School, University of Washington)

How do students build community in a class? How does technology help or hinder community building? These questions were at the front of my mind when I embarked on my research project for the UW Honors Summer Program in Amsterdam. I, along with thirteen undergraduates and three other graduate students, were participating in the program Paradox and Progress: Exploring Urban Culture in Amsterdam through Interdisciplinary e-Research. I spent the spring quarter in Seattle developing my research and four weeks at the University of Amsterdam, in conjunction with the Virtual Knowledge Studio, collecting data, analyzing it and finally presenting it at the EASST Conference in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Using a community of inquiry model developed by Randy Garrison at the University of Calgary, I studied how the students participating in this program built community. With the goal of identifying how they injected their "social presence" or personality into a community, I studied both physical information grounds: the classroom, field research and social gatherings and virtual information grounds: blogs, wikis, instant messenger, email and cell phones. Each world was observed to identify three social presence indicators: affective (sharing of feelings or experiences), interactive (open communication) and cohesive (building of group cohesion).

Findings revealed community and specifically social presence in a community is built differently in the physical and virtual world. While the indicators of a strong community are fairly balanced in the virtual world, there are significantly more cohesive and interactive indicators and far fewer affective. Also, different technology mediums serve different social presence purposes for virtual information grounds. For instance, instant messenger builds community interactively while blogs build it affectively. When asked about their adoption of certain technologies to communicate with group members, students indicated that some technologies were more intimate than others and were not used unless or until there was a certain intimacy in the group relationship. Information grounds can be both virtual and physical and community is built in different ways within each. Technologies serve different purposes within the building of the community and can build one facet of the community while ignoring others.

For more information see Kathleen's Wiki and journal.

For more information about the program click here.