To be successful, online communities must develop governance structures that include policies for membership, etiquette, privacy, as well as informal norms of behavior (Beenen, Ling, Wang, Chang, Frankowski, et al., 2004; Wu, Chen, & Chung, 2009). Membership in online communities can vary along a continuum from private to public. Although private communities may allow for an increase in trust and deeper forms of knowledge sharing among members, application processes to private communities may create barriers that limit participation. Online communities that are completely open to the public offer a lower threshold for participation but can open the door to unwanted guests.

Guidelines for Participation: An Example From the English Companion Ning

Guiding Principles

  • The English Companion Ning is a place “Where English teachers meet to help each other.”
  • It exists to support its members, not to make money. No ads or anything for sale here.
  • Members are welcome to refer and link to their own books, blogs, businesses, or websites within the context of their EC Ning posts but should not use this site to promote their own books, blogs, businesses, or websites (i.e., don’t try to sell us anything).
  • If you were, are, will be, or do work to help an English teacher, we want you in our community.

Common Practices

  • Post your content in the most appropriate place. EC Ning member “Clix” offers the following elegant summary of posting practices:
    • blogs are for stating why you teach something (e.g., classics or YA).
    • forums are for arguing about whether to teach something (e.g., classics or YA).
    • groups are for sharing suggestions how to teach something (e.g., classics and YA).
  • Respect people even as you challenge, question, or disagree with them.
  • Make an extra effort to support new teachers to ensure their success.
  • Do not duplicate postings or discussions. This is especially relevant for the Teaching Texts group. Before starting a new discussion (e.g., about The Things They Carried), use the search function to see if a discussion on that topic already exists.

Recommendations for Efficient Use

  • Give each post a clear title with words people can find through search. “The Zen and the Art of Teaching” is a bit vague and would return every post with “teaching” in it. “Classroom Discussion Strategies,” while not a sexy title, will get more hits and be more helpful for those who search for “discussion strategies.”
  • Consider setting up an RSS feed to EC Ning or creating an account with Pageflakes to track content on the EC Ning.
  • Link to articles you reference whenever possible. This makes for more efficient use by those who read your ideas.
  • Consult the EC Ning FAQs.
  • Add tags to all postings to improve search within the EC Ning.

Participation policies in online communities vary from tacit assumptions and rituals to formal protocols, rules, and laws that guide people’s interactions (Preece, 2000). Typically, successful online communities establish guidelines for participation upfront and usually post these guidelines on the community website. Guidelines for participation often include examples of what is considered acceptable practice within the community and what is not. In addition to establishing the guidelines upfront, enforcing trustworthy behavior over time helps to build and sustain trust among community members. Members of an online community need to feel safe. Their trust in the community as an institution and their trust in individual members of the community directly impact their willingness to engage in knowledge-sharing interactions (Ardichvili, 2008). The job of enforcing the informal norms of the community typically falls to the community moderator. An ongoing part of the moderator’s responsibility is to shepherd the community and keep it safe. This may be accomplished through behind-the-scenes e-mails or more visible posts to the entire community. In addition, the moderator may call on core members of the community to purposefully model good community behavior.

Planning and Implementation Guidelines

  • Consider pros and cons of variations along the membership continuum.
  • Establish guidelines for participation in the community upfront and post these guidelines on the community website.
  • Enforce trustworthy behavior.
  • Call on core members of the community to model desired community behavior and interaction.
  • Take into consideration legal issues, such as following FERPA guidelines when sharing student work, and incorporate these into guidelines for participation.
Is lurking a legitimate form of participation?

A current debatable topic among community developers and members involves the presence
of “lurkers” in online communities. Lurkers are members of the community who observe interactions and absorb information from the community but do not contribute to the community. Active members of communities often resent the presence of lurkers, viewing them solely as “takers” without giving back to the community. Lurking may or may not be a problem and depends on the perspective from which this behavior is being judged and the goals of those making the judgment: “If there is little or no message posting in a community, then lurking is a problem. No one wants to be part of a conversation where no one says anything. Such online communities cannot survive because there is so much happening on the Internet that people do not return to silent communities” (Preece, Nonnecke, & Andrews, 2004, p. 203). On the other hand, in vibrant, active communities, lurking may be less of a problem. From a community of practice perspective, lurking is considered a form of “legitimate peripheral participation” and, as such, a crucial process by which a community can offer learning opportunities (Wenger et al. 2009). The purpose of the community determines the acceptable level of lurking.

Next: Community Sociability and Usability

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