Profile of a Learning Community: The Daring Bakers

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Note: I wrote this article in October 2007 and originally published it elsewhere. That site now redirects to this blog and I feel this post really belongs here because of my connection with The Daring Bakers (now the Daring Kitchen). Though it’s not what I typically write about on this blog, I hope you enjoy my study of The Daring Bakers as a virtual learning community and enjoy seeing how the group grew and flourished.

~Andrea

This virtual learning community is not connected to any formal learning organization, such as a college or university, and many of the members are rank amateurs, yet their achievements are often as impressive as those of professionals or students undergoing formal training. The members are scattered across the globe, disconnected geographically, yet brought together by common interests and using technology to connect with each other.

The common interests: baking and blogging. They call themselves The Daring Bakers.

Founded by Ivonne of Cream Puffs in Venice and Lisa of La Mia Cucina, the members help each other to broaden their baking skills through monthly challenges. This is not a contest and there are no prizes for best of anything, just dedicated bakers testing their mettle, learning new techniques, and sharing what they’ve learned through their personal blogs. The model seems to be working because the group is growing by leaps and bounds. For the September challenge, there were over 100 participants, and 80 new members have joined for October.

As a relatively new member of The Daring Bakers, I have enjoyed the virtual camaraderie of the group and the opportunity to learn from the other members. I joined the group in July 2007 and was immediately struck by the level of support that the members provide for each other, and I wanted to learn more about how the Daring Bakers got started and how the founders decided to manage this informal virtual learning community. Ivonne and Lisa were more than happy to answer my questions, and the members shared their thoughts as well.

This is the text of the interview with Ivonne and Lisa, followed by supporting questions for and comments from the members.

INTERVIEW WITH THE FOUNDERS

Q: How did The Daring Bakers get started? Please explain how the group works.
A: [Lisa] I don’t remember exactly how Ivonne and I got on the subject of soft pretzels, but neither of us had never made them before. So we decided to find a recipe and both bake them so we could give each other our opinion on what we thought. And that’s still the premise of this group. One recipe is chosen each month by a monthly designated hostess or host. Then each and every member bakes that same recipe, with no changes (other than 4 specified – allergy/health; cost prohibitive; hard to find; and if the hostess allows creativity changes) and we all post on a pre-determined date about our results – good or bad.

Q: How did the group grow? Did you invite others to join you or was it more organic?
A: [Lisa] We did a cross post, not thinking much of it, other than how fun it was to have completed the pretzels together. Next thing we knew Peabody and Brilynn were saying that if they had known, they would have joined in. E-mails flew back and forth between the four of us until we all decided to make biscotti together. I thought it was such a great idea that when chatting with Helene, I decided to ask if she’d like to join…and the rest is history. The group has built up to the 95 members (as of 8/3/07) – each month we get a flurry of emails from wonderful people showing their support and wanting to join in on the fun.

Q: What are the rules for membership and who is allowed to join?
A: [Lisa] Anyone is a allowed to join, provided they have their own blog. All you have to do is ask. There are some rules and responsibilities to being a Daring Baker. You have to participate in at least 8 out of 12 challenges for every calendar year that you’re a member. Your calendar year starts the month you join. You cannot miss more than 2 challenges in a row (unless you have a good reason). We bake one recipe a month and we all bake the same exact recipe and most importantly, you have to keep challenges a secret until post day.

Q: What is the baking experience level of the members? Mostly amateurs or more professional? Does it matter?
A: [Lisa] The levels of bakers ranges from one extreme to the other – we’ve got gals and guys who only dabble in baking with not much experience at all, to those intermediate members who are more experienced home bakers – to professional bakers, our resident pastry chefs. I don’t think baking experience makes any difference at all – especially after reading challenge posts at the end of August – even our most experienced pastry chefs had not made a mirror cake before so it was all new to them. And with the rule of not being able to change the recipe, I think that levels out the playing field – it forces each and everyone of us to bake as per instructions and not how we were taught or in ways that we are more comfortable with. So from novice to professional I truly believe we all learn something new each month.

Q: How did the group communicate in the beginning? How effective was that?
A: [Lisa] Before the blog, we all communicated through e-mail. It was very effective. And a lot of us still go that route as well as using the blog to communicate. The most fun I’ve had are those months where some of us get together and bake the same day, communicating through the whole thing through e-mails. It’s hysterical.

Q: When did you decide to start the group blog?
A: [Ivonne] We started the group blog in February 2007. In fact the very first post was on February 7, 2007! The group blog was the brainchild of our blog administrator, the lovely Mary of Alpineberry.

Q: Why did you choose a blog versus another kind of format (bulletin board, etc)?
A: [Ivonne] To be very honest, there wasn’t a serious plan that led up to the blog. We were trying to figure out ways to communicate and we threw around a few ideas including a forum, but we kept coming back to the idea of a private blog. It just made the most sense. It seemed to be the easiest way for everyone to quickly access each other, especially since by this point it was becoming a bit tiresome to stay in touch via e-mail. The group had grown quite a bit and it was tough reading through all those e-mails!

Q: Has the blog changed the dynamic of the group, and if so, how? How important is the blog?
A: [Ivonne] I think the blog has helped us enormously in terms of organization and communication. For example, once a challenge is chosen, all Daring Bakers can find out about it in a matter of seconds. Also, any information relating to the Daring Bakers is right there for you in an organized, accessible way. The blog is a trustworthy way of talking to each other. Not only do we talk about our challenges and resolve any questions, but we also communicate about more casual things like members’ birthdays. Without the blog, it would be a nightmare to coordinate a group of this size.

Q: As founders, what have you learned while managing the group?
A: [Ivonne] Wow! Is this ever a loaded question! When our little baking group first started, managing it wasn’t really an issue because there were so few members and those of that were involved knew each other very well. We were all excited about our little endeavor and about where it would lead. As the group has grown, however, Lis and I have very quickly learned that “managing” is unavoidable. Daring Bakers are wonderful people but anytime that you bring together people from all over the world with different backgrounds, different goals, different personalities and different perspectives; you’re bound to run into some issues. Lis and I have had to introduce member guidelines, including some basic rules about being a Daring Baker. We’ve learned that this is key if you want to the group to function in an organized way. We’ve also learned that people are very emotionally tied to their kitchens and to the dishes they prepare; as a result, you have to be very respectful of everyone’s viewpoint.

Q: What is your vision for The Daring Bakers?
A: [Ivonne] Seeing as how Lis and I never even imagined that the Daring Bakers would become what it is now, this is a tough question to answer. For the present, I think we’d like to see the Daring Bakers continue to grow. We’d like our members to continue to challenge themselves and each other with recipes that we’d normally not try on our own. As for the future, I think we’d like the Daring Bakers to become a recognizable group known for its baking feats. We’d even like to see the Daring Bakers go commercial whether it be with items like t-shirts and aprons or other projects like recipe reviews. Maybe we have a cookbook in our future! Who knows?! For now, I think Lis and I are happy to just close our eyes and see where it all takes us!

QUESTIONS FOR THE MEMBERS

In August 2007, approximately 1/3 of the members responded to an online survey regarding their membership in The Daring Bakers. What follows is a summary of the survey results, including a few quotes from the members about their experiences with this virtual learning community.

The survey included 10 questions. Questions 1 and 2 asked for demographic information (name, blog name, location) and permission to quote in this article and thus have been skipped here. The remaining questions deal specifically with membership in the community and are presented starting with Question #3. Most of the questions were open-ended, thus allowing the members to express their thoughts and feelings, which I have tried to capture.

3. Choose the statement that best describes your baking abilities.

The Daring Bakers Table 1

4. How did you hear about The Daring Bakers?

All survey participants reported learning about The Daring Bakers by reading posts on member blogs.

“A couple of my favorite bloggers became members early on. Once I saw the croissant challenge, I wanted to join in the experience of baking the same recipe with a group of other bloggers.” ~Elle,Feeding My Enthusiasms, California, United States

5. Why did you join The Daring Bakers?

Self-challenge, learning new skills, and camaraderie are the most reported reasons for joining The Daring Bakers. Seventeen of the respondents mentioned wanting to challenge themselves, twelve wanted to learn new skills, with six respondents mentioning both reasons. Camaraderie was the most important reason by number of responses, with eighteen members reporting being part of a group as at least one of the reasons or the primary reason for joining.

“Basically I found the group inspirational. The items they would present were pretty awesome. It had me thinking “would I be able to do that!” Being a part of the group has really taught me many new and exciting things.” ~Meeta, What’s For Lunch Honey?, Germany

6. Did you lurk for a while before joining or did you join immediately?

Eighteen respondents said they they lurked for at least one challenge before joining. Some lurked because they weren’t sure of their baking skills, others simply didn’t know that they could join or how to join.

“I love reading about their challenge each month but it never crossed my mind to join them. I felt then they were out of my league since I’m not trained nor am I a professional. I wasn’t confident enough that I’d be able to do the challenge. It was only when Helene asked me to join the group did I considered it.” ~Anne, Simply Anne’s, Singapore

“I lurked for one or two challenges. At the time, I didn’t have a cooking blog so that was another decision to make. Did I cook enough to document it? Was my point of view different enough from others out there to warrant another food blog?” ~Erin, Erin Cooks, United States

7. Do you communicate with members of the group while making the monthly challenge item? If so, how? Email, blog, other?

Communicating through the group’s private blog is the most commonly used method of communication, although some members have struck up friendships through the community and sometimes perform challenges synchronously while communicating via email or IM. Only six respondents stated that they have not communicated with the other members during a challenge, though five out of the six reported that they do read the blog posts throughout the month to learn from other members.

“I comment on some posts occasionally. But mostly I wait until the end of the month of the challenge. I print out everyone’s questions, suggestions and experiences doing the challenge, and then use that information to make my experience better.” ~Cheryl, Gruel Omelet, United States

“I think that doing the communication through the blog allows us to help each other, even when we are not aware of who we are helping. Comments from other bakers have helped me even when I didn’t ask a question about something I was unsure about, but someone else did ask.” ~Elle,Feeding My Enthusiasms, California, United States

8. Do you respond to posts on the blog, particularly those posts that request information or assistance?

The majority of respondents report that they try to respond to posts on the blog if they can be of assistance. Just five respondents said that they didn’t usually respond because they felt that they would not be able to provide an answer.

“Oh yes! I think this is why the group is so dynamic. Everyone posts and asks questions and sometimes just tosses out something to brighten a day for another DBer. I like the give and take that happens on the “HELP!” requests. I always learn something.” ~Breadchick, The Sour Dough, United States

9. What have you learned since joining The Daring Bakers?

The open-ended responses to this question could be grouped into four categories: new skills, confidence, organizational skills, and social. As with the question regarding reasons for joining, more than half of the respondents reported learning new skills, and eight reported that they felt a boost in confidence in their skills since joining. Thirteen stated that they had learned about working together and have formed friendships through the group. Three reported improving their organizational skills.

“My confidence in the kitchen and with baking has shot through the roof. Although August’s challenge was very tough for me to complete, I’ve enjoyed myself every month and always look forward to the next challenge.” ~Sara, I Like to Cook, Canada

“I’ve learned to make puff pastry, pate-choux , pastry cream, caramel and so much more. But the best thing I learned is no matter what the outcome of the recipe, you have friends who will always support you.” ~Veronica, Veronica’s Test Kitchen, United States

“I’ve learned that the most important thing is to TRY! Different people interpret recipes differently and that is part of the fun of this group. I’ve learnt that helping people is a whole lot of fun too and we can all learn from everyone else.” ~Dharm, Dad ~ Baker & Chef, Malaysia

“I’ve learned that people approach things in different ways (even when you are all following the same set of instructions,) and that bouncing ideas off others can help a lot.” ~Steph, A Whisk and a Spoon, Australia

10. If you have any additional comments, you may include them here.

Eleven respondents chose to answer the final optional question, and their comments reflect sincere devotion to the group.

“I love meeting fellow food bloggers on this kind of level. Generally, when we post in our blogs, we have a certain persona that we follow, and the DB blog breaks down a lot of those ‘image’ barriers so you’re really meeting the people behind the blog.” ~Leslie, Definitely Not Martha, Canada

“The group is an awesome bunch of ladies and gents. There is so much positive energy in that group I can always feel it for real when I log into the DB blog. Each one motivates each other taking any fears one might have. Questions are answered promptly clearing up any misunderstandings. Even if there would have been nothing new for me to learn in this group I would still stay on just because I love being part of such a wonderful group.” ~Meeta, What’s For Lunch Honey?, Germany

“Truly – I cannot wait until the posting date each month. This is not only because I can’t wait to post, but the DBs skill, creativeness, and will is so admirable and inspirational. I would have never thought, when starting Mele Cotte, that I would develop such a vested interest in blogging, the events, and most of all, the food!” ~Chris, Mele Cotte, United States

“In a virtual world there are wonderful and very real people. A number of them are in this group.”~Tanna, My Kitchen in Half Cups, United States

CLOSING

The Daring Bakers started out in November 2006 with just two blogging friends and now boasts close to 200 members from around the world. As the group has grown, so has the challenges of managing a group so diverse and geographically wide-spread. With exponential growth has come a certain amount of anonymity that was not present until recently. In the early stages, members could count on each other to visit all or most of the personal blogs on posting day, but that goal has become unmanageable. Those members who still try to visit each and every member blog to read the challenge posts report that it takes a week or two to get to them all.

“The Daring Bakers have gone from a loose group of friends to a larger group of blogging bakers to a very large group of bakers from all over the world. It has flexibility that allows for the ups and downs of people’s lives, but we still bake the same recipe each month and have a blast doing it. It will be interesting to see how the community changes as the group grows.” ~Elle, Feeding My Enthusiasms, California, United States

PRESS

The Daring Bakers have been mentioned elsewhere in the press:

BlogHer – Would You Dare to Be a Daring Baker?, October 4, 2007

Epicurious – Daring Bakers, September 11, 2007

[An original post from Andrea Meyers: making life delicious. All images and text copyrighted, All Rights Reserved.]

[Disclosure: This blog earns a few cents on items purchased through the Amazon.com links in posts.]

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