Members of successful online communities typically share a common identity. For example, they may share the common identity of being English teachers, regional technology directors, or practitioners committed to Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Through their common identity, members share common interests and concerns related to their practice (Wenger, White, & Smith, 2009). Their unique perspectives and experiences richly inform the common interests and concerns they share in the community. Active promotion of the community and targeted recruitment of members can help to establish the community’s collective identity. It is important to recognize, however, that simply bringing together practitioners with a common identity and similar interests is not enough to establish an online community of practice. The community must have a reason for its existence; it must have a clear purpose. Members need to know why they are there, how they can contribute, and what they can expect from the community. Online communities may actively address issues or problems of practice that are relevant to the daily work of educators. Their purpose may center on collaboration and content development, providing mentoring or support to new teachers, focusing on professional conversation of broader issues in education, or some combination of those purposes. Online communities can serve multiple purposes, but successful communities explicitly state and reiterate their purpose(s) to members through various channels.

Planning and Implementation Guidelines

  • Determine the target audience for the community.
  • Identify the common interests, needs, and concerns related to practice that members share.
  • Determine the purpose of the community as it relates to the common interests, needs, and problems of practice that members share. What value does the community add?
  • Articulate the ways in which the resources, activities, services, and collaborative spaces of the community will serve the overall purpose of the community. Highlight unique ways in which participation in the community will inform practice.
  • Identify primary avenues for participation, indicating ways in which they directly relate to the purpose of the community.
  • Clearly state the purpose of the online community on the community website and on all promotion and outreach materials.
  • Frequently reiterate the purpose of the community through ongoing communications such as weekly or monthly newsletters.
  • Determine strategies for targeted recruitment of members.
Snapshot from the field: Clear Purpose

The English Companion Ning (http://englishcompanion.ning.com/), an online community for English teachers, was created in December 2008 by Jim Burke. The community was initially created to provide support for new English teachers. Jim had just returned from the 2008 National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) convention where he had seen firsthand just how few new teachers were actually at the convention and how few new teachers were joining the “professional conversation.” In an effort to address this problem, he decided to experiment with creating an online community. What began in December 2008 as one experienced teacher’s quest to support new teachers and engage them in the professional conversation of English teachers has grown into a successful international learning community of more than 25,000 members. The community’s purpose is simply stated on the main page of the website as “a place to ask questions and get help. A community dedicated to helping you enjoy your work. A cafe without walls or coffee: just friends.” The purpose of the community is frequently reiterated in weekly newsletters from Jim. For example, one newsletter ended as follows:

Let me end this week’s letter by reiterating what the EC Ning is and what it attempts to accomplish: we are a community of professionals who come here to help each other. To that end, we have three specific goals, which you are all charged with helping us achieve:</p.

  1. Support each other, in particular the new teachers, throughout the school year
    as we face, individually and as a profession, challenges.
  2. Improve our teaching through ongoing discussion of and reading about not only what to teach but how to teach it in ways that will best educate our students.
  3. Identify and develop the next generation of leaders within our profession by
    encouraging them to write, present, or otherwise use their expertise to help
    other teachers.

Identify and develop the next generation of leaders within our profession by encouraging them to write, present, or otherwise use their expertise to help
other teachers.

Next: Leadership and Effective Moderation

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