Covenanting and Online Collaboration

On Jay Cross’ Informal Learning Blog, Jay asked for “what makes for successful online collaboration“. This was a timely question, since I am in the process of preparing a workshop on covenanting.

Covenanting is a process that I have used both in face-to-face intentional communities and in online learning communties. It may be called different things, but the goal is the same: to set expectations (ground-rules) regarding behaviour.

From wikipedia, a definition: “A covenant, in its most general sense, is a solemn promise to do or not do something specified.”

Covenanting in a face-to-face environment
In a face-to-face environment, I first learning of covenant when doing youth ministry work. I was an adult adviser working with a group of youth that use an “intentional community” model. The youth use covenant as a way to create a safe community without the need for too many “rules”. It was more effective than creating “rules”, because the youth themselves defined the covenant. As a result, they owned the expectations and agreed to abide by them.

Here is one way to build a covenant in a face-to-face environment. This method works well in small groups (6-15 people):

  1. Ask each person to reflect upon the characteristics of particular group they participated in where they felt safe and enjoyed the experience (give them a minute or two to recall).
  2. Ask people to share the characteristics of that group (record them on flip-chart paper). For example:
    • Each person was allowed time to speak.
    • People’s ideas were respected.
    • When you didn’t understand someone, you could ask for clarification without judgment.
    • etc.
  3. Keep collecting items until no one has anything left to add. Ensure you check with each person.
  4. Ask the group if they can agree to behaviours listed. If there are any behaviours that don’t align or apply to this group, discuss them. If necessary, remove or modify them.
  5. Once all the items are agreed by the entire group, re-write the agreed list neatly, and ask each member to sign the “covenant” or “agreement”.
  6. Post the signed list somewhere visible for all group meetings.

Covenanting in an online environment
In an online environment, I did a covenant within the first class of my Master’s degree. The Master’s program used an online learning community as the main learning tool. It was a transformative experience. I worked with an incredibly diverse and talented group of people throughout the program and learned a lot from sharing experiences with my fellow learners.

One of the reasons our learning community was so strong was in the beginning we had discussions about expectations and trust in the online environment. One of our activities was to post answers to the following questions within a discussion group:

  • What trust builders do you personally consider to be the most important and why?
  • What can you contribute to your virtual team?
  • What do you need to receive in return?
  • Describe your sense of the ideal virtual team?

We were encouraged to discuss the items that each person listed and as a team propose a list that we could all agree upon.

Covenanting and context
Covenant items are different depending on the context of the interaction. A covenant for a group of students in a course will be different than a group of professionals working together or a church group discussing spirituality. Covenant items might include:

  • Be respectful of others.
  • Always assume good intentions.
  • Keep your commitments, don’t commit if you can’t follow through.
  • Participate (if you are going to be away, let the team know).
  • Everyone has the right to pass.
  • Step-up step-down (if you are an outgoing extrovert be mindful when you are dominating the conversation and step-down, if you are introvert or shy be mindful of when you are not participating and step-up).

The important points about the covenanting process are:

  • The items are determined by the group (use language that the group agrees upon).
  • Each member of the group has the right to challenge items on the covenant (discuss challenged items until all can agree on the language used).
  • The complete covenant must be agree upon by everyone (you might ask each person to sign the covenant to indicate their agreement).
  • Each member is responsible for their own behaviour and upholding the agreed upon covenant.

As I prepare my covenanting workshop, I’ll post some more articles in this area. If you have an suggestions or best practices, I’d love to hear them.

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