De-centering newcomer learning in online communities

I am at the 2015 Conference on Communities and Technologies in Limerick Ireland where I will present “Being Present in Online Communities: Learning in Citizen Science” a paper I authored with my advisor and colleagues at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies. Set in the context of the citizen science project Planet Hunters, my colleagues and I explore three uniques ways that newcomers learn to contribute to the project.

The paper extends existing research on newcomer learning in online communities which emphasizes that learning for newcomers involves getting feedback from experienced participants, observing the work of others, and building relationships with experienced members.  In this paper, we suggest that these key themes are problematized in settings where such opportunities for learning are limited or are not possible.

Using data from interviews with newcomers and experts, participant observation, and trace ethnography, we draw on Sørensen’s sociomaterial theory of presence to examine how learning in online settings is not just a product of newcomers interfacing with experts, but also a product of newcomers interacting with various knowledge artifacts and technical features of the platform. We use Sørensen’s theory to extend the notion of learning by examining the characteristics of the relationships newcomers have with both human and non-human entities and how changes in the characteristics of these relationships reflect changes in the way newcomers learn.

One of the findings that I believe is most useful to research on newcomer learning is that learning is not bound to the online project in question. While this is a seemingly obvious finding, the move of de-centering the research site in question opens up opportunities to see how the platform is situated within the broader interests of the newcomer and how the newcomer moves back and forth between the platform and other resources as they attempt to make sense of their new setting. In our paper we present a composite vignette that describes how newcomers, in addition to using informational resources on Planet Hunters, draw on their personal experience as amateur astronomers to make sense of how to do the work. One respondent reflected on her experience of witnessing the transit of Venus in front of the Sun and how this helped her understand key concepts of the work on Planet Hunters. Another respondent indicated that their experience reading echocardiograms helped them understand how to identify statistical anomalies in visual graphs, a key aspect of doing work on Planet Hunters. In addition to personal experience, interviews also revealed that newcomers draw on open online courses, read Wikipedia articles, or conduct Google searches on aspects of the project that they want to know more about. What we conclude is that, among the other modes of learning that we find, the newcomer is engaged in bricolage, or a playful exploration of various resources and settings, including magazines, news media, web resources, articles, and local astronomy clubs. An outside authority does not guide this playful exploration, but rather, it is a newcomers own unique process of learning.

In short, we see the newcomer experience on Planet Hunters as situated within the broader phenomenon of amateur astronomy, with personal experience and hobbiest fascination converging to paint a picture of how a newcomer makes sense of contributing to Planet Hunters. As such, these finding have implications for both research and practice. For research, we need to better understand how newcomers situate an online project in question within their broader interests and how the project contributes to stimulating their desires and goals. Similarly for practice, understanding how newcomers integrate a particular project into their interests can help project managers think about how they can complement the newcomer experience by connecting them with outside resources that relate to project work.

Research on newcomer learning in online communities has benefited from bracketing the newcomer experience by examining the back and forth between the newcomer and their new setting. However as this paper suggests, the newcomer has a life that extends far beyond the setting in question that plays an important role in how they participate. If we extend our analytical lens and decenter the research site in question, we may uncover valuable aspects of the newcomer experience that help us understand sources of successful or difficult participation.

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