Can You Operate as a Virtual Being?

To Helen Keller, the whole world was a virtual organization. She could not see the world nor could she hear it. Her first awareness of the existence of a world outside of herself was tactile. She started to build her epistemological framework based on an epiphany at a young age: understanding the concept behind the word "water" from feeling water running over her fingers. In a way, academics are coming into Web 2.0 both deaf and blind because we, too, have to learn how to make the unreal into reality.

Those who teach totally online are familiar with this conundrum. How do you connect with something you can't see or hear? How do you read body language online? How do you get a sense that something needs clarifying? How do you know students sufficiently well to address their individual needs? How careful do you have to be with your communications? And do those communications differ in style depending on what mediating tool you are using, writing differently in, say, chat, than in e-mail or in a blog post? Mostly, how do you stay current on the best sites to use for specific purposes?

And these online teachers can understand the same conundrum facing project leaders today whose virtual organizations include people they may never meet, or may meet only after a year or two into the project.

In a current project I'm involved with, we have included people from around the digitized world. As is typical of virtual organizations in academia today, we are developing many Web 2.0 "camp sites" that together form the organizational tribal land. We have a Ning site (http://www.ning.com), a Google Groups site (http://groups.google.com), a pbwiki wiki (http://pbwiki.com/), a Kadoo repository (http://www.kadoo.com/), a WordPress blog (http://wordpress.org/), and a Web site. That makes six sites with six more to be added, and this is not counting the embedded links within these six sites to yet other sites that have their own links.

In addition to the people we work with virtually, then, we have the Web 2.0 sites to weave together through using other mediums including e-mail, Skype (http://www.skype.com/), and actual real-world meetings at project conferences.

An additional element that is perhaps crucial to our success is the daily reminders of project members' activities that a site like Facebook (http://www.facebook.com) provides. Many of our project members are on Facebook. It helps me greatly, if I'm waiting for a response via e-mail but then see on Facebook that this person is on route to China. I know I'll get a response in a week or so and won't then misinterpret silence.

Each Web 2.0 site has a purpose to accomplish and therefore must be constructed differently--different language, different frequency, more or less leader control. The array of sites allows our project members to be formal and considered at the sites that seem to demand that tone, and to be informal and social at other sites. The array of sites should help all participants to be as much fully themselves as is possible online.

For our project, Ning is the community page, a kind of project social center; the Google Groups site is our place for vital core project documents; the pbwiki site is a place for certain conversational threads around projects within our initiative; Kadoo serves as a project repository for related articles; the WordPress blog is our project news site; and the project Web site is the project starting point, its launching pad.

We like using Web 2.0 sites to roll out our initiative because sweat equity rather than venture capital or a grant can accomplish so much at the beginning of the project. Web 2.0 tools give us all an entrepreneurial opening that was not there before.

Still, the project concept and communications must originate in the heads of our leaders, and not only that but must be converted into action. And communications are never done. Each day, some new thoughtful posting or an announcement update must appear. No matter the RSS feeds you may employ, the flash animations that are spinning and flashing on your site, or the counter showing the number of visitors to your site, an academic project must reflect constant intelligent attention toward developing the project. (Note to Web developers: The spinning, dancing, and flashing make me want to leave your page as quickly as possible!)

Our project could not succeed if many of us didn't already know each other, if we didn't have shared stories about getting lost trying to find a restaurant, or about early morning walks at conferences, or about previous projects we had done together. But, with this base of personal connections among a large core group, others who are not part of this core group can join and feel they are part of a viable and trusted social group.

Our project is mostly virtual since real-world meetings will occur only occasionally. But, what we do in our virtual project is indicative of the skills academics are developing for all kinds of academic work. Many of us are learning to extend ourselves virtually.

We are learning that an additional virtual component can enhance the outcomes of a project or course of study in which people meet regularly: The greater the "social thickness" of a project team or of the group of students in an academic course, the greater the engagement in the project or in the goals of the course.

The virtual epiphany for many of us is suddenly seeing new personality aspects of a student or colleague that we never knew were there. The more virtual, the more real.

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