Community Dialogue: Informal Learning

We had another Science of Community Dialogue! This most recent one was themed around informal learning, talking about communities as informal learning spaces and the sorts of tools and habits communities can adopt to help learners, mentors, and newcomers. We had presentations from Ruijia (Regina) Cheng (University of Washington, CDSC) and Dr. Denae Ford Robinson (Microsoft, University of Washington).

Regina Cheng covered three related research projects and relevant findings:

  • Ruijia Cheng and Benjamin Mako Hill. 2022. “Many Destinations, Many Pathways: A Quantitative Analysis of Legitimate Peripheral Participation in Scratch.”
  • Ruijia Cheng, Sayamindu Dasgupta, and Benjamin Mako Hill. 2022. “How Interest-Driven Content Creation Shapes Opportunities for Informal Learning in Scratch: A Case Study on Novices’ Use of Data Structures.”
  • Ruijia Cheng and Jenna Frens. 2022. “Feedback Exchange and Online Affinity: A Case Study of Online Fanfiction Writers.”

Participants collaboratively put together three takeaways from Regina Cheng’s presentation.

We often talk about wanting to support “learning” in some general sense, but a critically important question to ask is “learning about what.” Let’s say we want people to learn three things A, B, and C. The kinds of actions or behaviors that support learning goal A often have no effect on B, and C. And sometimes they actively hurt it. We need to be more specific about what we want people to learn because there are tradeoffs.

Social support is wonderful in that users create examples and resources and answer questions. But it also has this narrowing effect. There’s a piling-on effect that makes it easier and easier (and more likely!) to learn the things that folks have learned before and less likely that people learn anything else.

Feedback is not about information transfer, it’s about relationships. To best promote learning, we should create rich, legitimate, inclusive social environment. These are perhaps good things to do anyway.

Dr. Denae Ford Robinson focused on free and open source software (FOSS) communities as a case study of learning communities. She covered theory, needs, and demonstrated tools designed to help with the mentorship and the learning process.

Community-driven settings like FOSS (and social-good oriented projects in particular) rely enormously on volunteers and/or people opting into participation in ways that create huge challenges related to promoting project sustainability: the most active participants are overloaded in a way that is a recipe for burnout.

The path to sustainability involves attracting, retaining, and then sustaining contributions and understanding these processes as both (a) part of the lifecycle of a user and (b) part of a set of dynamics and lifecycle within the community (e.g., dynamics of community growth).

Approach 1 involves providing new information to help maintainers understand how things are going in their communities. A lack of insight and easy access to data is a cause of inefficiency and burnout.

Approach 2 involves making specific, structured recommendations to maintainers based on the experience of others in the past to do things like add tags and to shape behavior.

Approach 3 involves automating aspects of identifying and recognizing work (and perhaps other tasks) as a way of promoting newcomer experiences and reducing the load on maintainers for doing that.

This event and some of the research presented in it were supported by multiple awards from the National Science Foundation (DGE-1842165; IIS-2045055; IIS-1908850; IIS-1910202), Northwestern University, the University of Washington, and Purdue University.

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