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…
THE UTOPIAN VISION
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.
A LITTLE HELP?
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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