The stated purpose of the community establishes its raison d’être. It is through the hive of activities and opportunities within the community, however, that the purpose is realized. Successful communities offer a variety of opportunities for sharing knowledge and resources, for collaborating, and for networking (Wenger et al., 2009). Busy educators appreciate opportunities for engagement that save them time or expense. Simple needs assessments enable community leaders to better target the interests and most salient needs of the group. Knowledge-sharing opportunities may be as various as informal open discussion forums and more formal collaboration, such as authorship of books or white papers. Structured conversations that center on hot topics, that are limited in duration, and that result in tangible resources, links, documents, or the like are particularly popular in online communities (Booth, 2011). Fruitful opportunities may also focus on specific problems of practice, enabling educators to benefit from the collective wisdom of the community (Duncan-Howell, 2010). Those who are developing and implementing online communities should give great consideration to building a balanced array of options for participating in the community. Although there must be multiple avenues for constructively channeling the rich array of diverse perspectives, knowledge, expertise, and experiences held by members of the community, too many options can dilute activity to such an extent that the community no longer feels active and substantive. In addition, the opportunities for engagement in community knowledge sharing should accommodate a range of participation levels. In some cases, members may want to be integrally involved in planning for or participating in knowledge-sharing opportunities, and in other cases they may prefer peripheral participation. Table 1 provides a sample of potential activities for engaging members in knowledge sharing.
Sidebar: Table 1 Potential Opportunities for Engagement in Online Communities
Planning and Implementation Guidelines
- Provide a range of opportunities for members to engage in the community. Options should include informal knowledge-sharing opportunities such as online discussion forums, as well as more formal opportunities such as webstitutes (online institutes) or other collaborative projects.
- Provide members with opportunities to participate in structured conversations that center on hot topics, that are limited in duration, and that result in tangible resources, links, documents, or the like.
- To increase the impact of members’ experiences in the community, directly link knowledge-sharing opportunities to problems of practice. For example, provide opportunities for members of the community to engage in collaborative action research projects focused on a shared classroom-based or content-based challenge.
- Begin with a simple array of activity options that members’ time can support and for which there is organizational capacity to support.
- Use a variety of outreach options to let members know about all the activities within the community and drive traffic to the community.
- Snapshot from the field: Using Twitter to Drive Community Traffic and Conversation
The Educator’s PLN online community (http://edupln.ning.com/) is dedicated to the support of a personal learning network for educators. A unique aspect of the EduPLN community, and the most important driver of knowledge sharing according to the administrators of the community, is the pairing of the EduPLN with Edchat, an ongoing Twitter conversation. Twitter is a real-time information network in which participants can use hash tags (#) to join and participate in specific conversations. Hashtags are a Web tag that have the hash mark or pound symbol (#) preceding the tag (e.g., #edhat) and are used to help in adding tweets to a category. Twitter’s Edchat is a conversation among educators, parents, students, and other stakeholders in which challenging issues facing educational systems worldwide are discussed. Participants share perspectives and opinions, provide resources, and offer experiences. Officially, it is conducted on Twitter twice each Tuesday. Two chats are offered to accommodate the global time zones. The educational topics are chosen from a poll posted each Sunday night or the chat may feature a guest speaker. The chats are scheduled for an hour, but often carry on throughout the week. Complementing the conversation, participants tweet out short links to let Edchat members know about resources, websites, podcasts, videos, or the like that are relevant to the topic being discussed. So why have a community beyond the Twitter Edchat? Twitter tweets are limited to 140 characters and Twitter conversations often tend to move along quickly, and thus the lifespan of a tweet is quite short and not everyone is able to sign on to the Edchat conversations. To address this limitation, the organizers of Edchat created an online community in which Edchat conversations could continue and deepen and resources could be archived for later access.