Home > COFA Online Related > So just how do you create and sustain an online community?

So just how do you create and sustain an online community?

I’ll start off by saying this blog post is NOT a ‘how to’ for community building. I have a good deal of experience with building community amongst a captive audience of students in online courses, but creating an engaging, voluntary online community is another kettle of fish, and I find myself seeking the council of those more experienced in this than I!

As part of the work I am doing for our ALTC funded ‘Learning to Teach Online‘ (LTTO) project at COFA Online, I want to establish a global online community for teachers, where they can get advice about teaching online, share their experiences, ask questions to solve their problems, and get some real help with the real nitty gritty issues that are part of the reality of teaching online. The community would also be there to supplement (read – add more depth to) the ‘how to’ videos and documentation the project will be producing.

This is both a very exciting prospect, and one riddled with anxiety and the potential whiff of disaster…

Now in my mind this community would be a great place to drop in, where primary, secondary and tertiary teachers from any discipline, and any level of previous experience in online learning could meet each other and share the woes and success stories of teaching in any online format (fully online, blended, mobile etc). I have seen a few online communities out there that seem to gather momentum and gain a life of their own, and others that seem to wither and die with no real input from anyone. There are also other online communities out there for teachers, and some work well, whilst others, even though they have a vast amount of interesting pre-posted content, seem to fail. The difference with what I am envisioning here is that it would eventually be a large scale community, allowing the cross-over of ideas across disciplines, cultures and a myriad of teaching scenarios. It all sounds good in theory…

The LTTO project is all about sharing ideas and best practice in online learning and teaching different disciplines – trying to break past the ‘silo’ state that seems to exist in teaching practice to a large extent, by (for example) showing how the way someone teaches secondary level mathematics online can inspire the practice of a tertiary art teacher and so forth.

What I am hoping is that this concept can be taken much further with the help of the community – to increase the potential of this interaction amongst those passionate about online teaching to collectively evolve online teaching practice – to stop teachers working in isolation and provide mutual support – to provide a dissemination point of successful, proven strategies for the benefit of everyone else who is trying to achieve a similar goal…

What I am afraid of is that I’ll create another one of those communities where digital tumbleweeds will be rolling around amongst the deserted forums. I am asking for advice and tips from people out there who are involved in great lively online communities, or have established their own.

To me (and these are just my thoughts – not some kind of guaranteed list for success!) a good online community will thrive if:

  • There is a direct benefit for a member to belong and contribute (or even lurk) – ie you get valuable information that encourages you to participate
  • It is clear what the community is about and what its purpose is
  • Members are free to create their own content and take ownership of their online space
  • Members’ contributions are acknowledged and respected
  • Members can gain some kind of status and authority within the community through participation
  • Content cannot be too prescribed or over-moderated
  • There isn’t another community out there doing the same thing better!

Now to me the tricky part of establishing a community seems to be that people will eagerly come and take a look, but unless there is some very interesting content and discussions already going on, the tendency seems to be for people to leave. It’s kind of like not wanting to hang out at party with only a few guests. This seems to be what is happening with the community (to be) I have just set loose on the world. I guess I had hoped that people would start their own conversations but I have since realised that the tone for the community had not been properly set – to give people an idea about what can be talked about, what they can expect to get out of the community and how they can contribute.

On reflection my strategy to circumvent this issue should have been be to invite certain people into the community to begin with to start interesting discussions, before promoting it to strangers. I wish I had thought of this earlier actually as it makes complete sense – you’ve got to have the cool people at your party to create a vibe that is attractive to others.

I know there are many of you out there who are involved in online communities, so I would love to hear from you – all advice is welcomed, and of course you are also welcome to pop into the community I am talking about as it currently stands and say hello, or even add your thoughts as to what would be useful and relevant to you! (please remember this is in its VERY early days, so not much has happened in there yet!).

I’m all ears!

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  1. February 2, 2010 at 5:13 am

    I think online communities must also be very easily navigated and clean. It needs to be obvious what the purpose of the community is and conversations must be easily accessed and organized. I am a member of Classroom 2.0 but rarely interact there because there is overload and it isn’t visually easy to navigate. There is so much that I get overwhelmed and immediately leave. Maybe having a front page that is minimal and has links to the most current topics of conversation/ new material that has been uploaded/ etc. It is also essential that you get a conversation started immediately that people are interested in. You want them to come back for more.

  2. February 2, 2010 at 11:43 am

    I have been wrestling with exactly the same thing within the professional learning community that I belong to. While we meet face-to-face several times over the course of the year and for a weeklong retreat in the summer, I long for the expertise and feedback of the group in between. We have tried Google Groups for sharing, Google Docs for feedback, blog and Nings. All have been met with little success – much like the tumbleweeds you describe. I have decided to take a step back and focus just on the use of Ning and taking a page from the incredible success of Jim Burke at the English Companion Ning. I agree with Kelly on the Classroom 2.0 about the overload but there are some aspects of that I would like to incorporate as well. I am also experimenting with using monthly broadcast messages to highlight new content, spotlight members, etc. to encourage visits to the Ning and eventually, participation.
    I would love to hear more about how you are faring and what is working!

  3. February 2, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    As a homeschooler I am a member of two online communities, though my interaction has waned over the last 6 months I must admit.

    What I liked about the community was it gave me community where I didn’t have one before. In my neighborhood I am the only homeschooling parent. In our social network of friends I had very few people I could network with, question or draw from. Yes, there was a great homeschooling community locally, but I didn’t really know how to “break in” and so I attended events and sat by myself. The online community made me feel a part of it, was easier to break into and filled a need I had.

    I’ve noticed as my interests have changed or become more niche oriented (technology in teaching) I’ve become less active in my original communities as I’ve found other sources for networking.

    Personally I think online communities have to fill a need that is not getting met elsewhere. There has to be content, ease of navigation and an abundance of people to network with.

    I don’t know if you have “channels” or moderators in your community but I’ve noticed that makes a huge difference too.

  4. February 3, 2010 at 9:31 am

    Thanks so much for your thoughts everyone. There are some good ideas here, I like the idea about featuring users and their work (have to get a good profile filled out first!), and of course an immediately interesting conversation.

    I have some ideas and I’ll move forward with implementing them and see how we go! Once our Learning to Teach Online project gets rolling there will be more of a reason for people to visit but I’d love to get things rolling before then. I really appreciate you all taking the time to reply, and I hope you’ll all drop into the community and thrown a couple of questions or discussions into the mix while we are in the building stages.



  5. February 3, 2010 at 9:42 am

    I think you are onto something with communities that have “great pre-posted content”. If the content is pre-posted, all by one person, that’s not particularly engaging for community members. Perhaps the content needs to be posted over time, and with consideration to sparking discussion and contribution from community members.
    Some other onsiderations would be having some engaging moderation and introductory activities (e.g. getting ppl to set up their profile, dropping by to leave a message on it, featuring new members etc) to get things started, nothing as controlled as your captive audience would get, but something supportive and with a positive energy so that when people come in they feel that the community is very much alive, and that there’s a “real person” there to help them.
    Anyway, good luck with everything, I hope my two cents helps a little.

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