Review of research and practical experience in the field conducted to date for this project suggests consensus that several core qualities are fundamental to the success of notable online communities:
- A clear purpose and collective identity
- Effective leadership and moderation
- Clear policies, practices, and other methods to instill trust
- Sociability and social presence
- Organic growth, dynamism, and innovation
- Communication and outreach
- Integration with a larger professional ecology
These core qualities—and practical guidance for community developers—are discussed below.
Establish a Clear Purpose and Collective Identity
Notable online communities have a clear purpose that suits the needs of a well-defined targeted audience. Short-, intermediate-, and long-term desired outcomes of the community are directly tied to the purpose—and are clearly positioned to participants in this way (see, e.g., Carr Chambers, 2006; Jones Preece, 2006). Because the community understands their needs, people feel that participation is essential—and, in fact, like constructivist lessons, many strong communities are designed to demand a certain level of participation, require a threshold of personal investment, and, arguably, even designed to fail without it.
Notable online communities also establish a collective identity (e.g., Gray, 2004). They often have a distinctive style of interaction and a characteristic look and feel, a “voice” or “personality” (Grunwald Associates LLC Cotyledon Productions, 1998, 2002, 2010).
Focus on Purpose—and Purpose-driven Interactions
With the plethora of online communities, community developers should take a good look at the landscape and analyze other communities carefully to determine the best ways to create or add unique value to what already exists. It is worth asking the question: Should we create our own, or team up, even become part of someone else’s offering? It is also worth determining the primary (typically one to three) types of interactions that will most advance the community’s purpose, such as discussion boards, collaborative spaces, or mobile applications, and focus on these—subordinating and even excluding others, at least at first.
At the same time, notable communities typically provide a variety of ways for members to participate based on their style and inclination (Wenger, White, Smith, 2009), all tied to purpose in complementary ways. This is a principle of inclusion that successful consumer communities have long recognized.
Cultivate Effective Leadership and Moderation
Many studies cite the importance of effective community leadership (see, e.g., Babinski, Jones, DeWert, 2001; Farooq, Schank, Harris, Fusco, Schlager, 2007; Gareis Nussbaum-Beach, 2007). Notable online communities have leaders who are well connected and attuned to the group. They have a strong passion for the community’s goals (Bourhis, Dubé, Jacob, 2005) and some expertise in at least part of the domain (Gray, 2004; Jones Preece, 2006). They have excellent communications skills and, in some cases, prior experience at moderating groups and the capability to build alliances both within and outside the community (Booth, 2011). “Creativity and intuition” (Gairín-Sallán, Rodríguez-Gómez, Armengol-Asparó, 2010) and the ability to “develop innovative ideas to stimulate and encourage participation” (Bourhis et al., 2005) are important personal factors for effective leadership and moderation as well.
Effective leadership is active leadership. Strong moderators regularly start and “seed” discussions to model participation—often providing valuable amplifications, echoes, and syntheses to the dialogue. In particular, and to the extent possible, they ensure that most queries in their communities receive a response—either directly or, as the community grows, by creating a culture of responsiveness—which is key to establishing other important qualities, such as trust and sociability.
This is a challenge in many online communities, including education communities, where a third or more of queries appear to go unaddressed in more than half of forums. This is especially relevant in education, given that educators join communities to overcome disconnectedness and isolation or to get a quick response to their questions. Often underappreciated is the important role strong leaders play behind the scenes, working one-on-one with individual members to elicit and sustain participation, as well as their contributions to the rhythm and cadence of the community activity (Booth, 2011; Institute for Learning Innovation Grunwald Associates LLC, 2011).
Notable online communities empower—and even recruit—members to take on a variety of leadership roles and provide them with clear pathways for doing so, developing collective moderation/leadership organizations and approaches as the community grows. Participation, contribution, and leadership roles often are formally or informally recognized in a variety of ways in successful online communities. (Roles, responsibilities, and recognition systems in online communities are detailed below.)
Content Serves a Purpose
The role of content in notable online communities varies with the group’s purpose. Content might serve as a resource, a conversation piece, or product of community activity. In recent years, there has been growing appreciation of the potential of content, such as videos and case studies, to provide “campfires” that groups can gather around, especially front-line practitioners and groups that normally don’t interact with one another (see, e.g., Institute for Learning Innovation Grunwald Associates LLC, 2011).
As a result, and due to more general Web 2.0 pressures, education providers increasingly are making all of their content open to comment and developing platforms specifically for this purpose. In some communities, paid staff refines community-generated content, thus strengthening its value to community members and its impact on the domain and field. In general, as the volume of (shared) community content grows, the development of (cost-) effective Implement Clear Policies, Practices, and Other Methods to Instill Trust
A sense of trust is paramount in online communities. People need to feel comfortable admitting what they don’t know, asking for help, sharing their thoughts, exposing their practice as a work in progress, and taking risks—often in full view of a large group. The “lack of face-to-face contact and visual cues,” as well as such aural clues as tone and inflection and uncertainties about the true identities of community members, all can make cultivating trust a challenge in virtual communities (Ridings, Gefen, Arinze, 2002). “In the virtual setting, the sense of social distance and the lack of social cues make it hard for people to identify with each other and to assess mutual ability, integrity, and benevolence” (Young Tseng, 2008). On the other hand, as some online research suggests (see, e.g., Davies Graff, 2005), this same distance and absence of non-textual social clues could make some people, who might be quiet and reserved in face-to-face social settings, feel safe to speak up in online conversations.
Notable online communities generate trust by implementing clear and effective guidelines for participation and other governance structures and policies (Beenen et al., 2004; Wu, Chen, Chung, 2009). For example, using a screening and approval process can provide an important level of reassurance for many educators about the credibility of other members (Booth, 2011). However, rigorous registration can create administrative burdens and erect barriers to achieving critical mass.
Many online communities balance these competing tensions by providing a continuum of public to private registration options. For example, many admit new members with a fairly open registration, but allow community members (ideally via a moderated or managed process) to create closed groups within the community. Users also are often given some control over who can see particular elements of their member profiles and other personal pages.
Reducing Barriers and Adding Benefits With Persistent Profiles
Registration itself presents a barrier to greater educator involvement in online communities. Currently, educators have to enter essentially the same information each time they join a new community and update it in multiple places as their interests and experiences change. Enabling educators to create a “persistent” profile that they could use, customize, and build upon from community to community would be a welcome improvement.
Persistent profiles also could record “collaboration trails” where educators could share selectively to represent their activity throughout their personal learning networks to other members of the communities in which they participate. Such records of distributed participation could provide new opportunities for recognition and incentives, such as through badges or professional development credit, and could support crafting more reflective and competency-based documentation of professional quality, such as teaching or administrative portfolios.
In addition, just as leading e-commerce sites recommend products based on past purchases and browsing history, a persistent profile system might recommend new communities with content and activities that educators might find useful. For more on persistent profiles and other new infrastructure to support educators connecting online, see the Ideas section of this project’s site at edcocp.org/ideas/.
Support Sociability and Social Presence
Notable online communities emphasize the social dimensions of learning—the actions and activities of participants. As an initial condition, sociability can be cultivated by starting a community with a known critical mass of active or core users that can sustain it until it grows (Grunwald Associates LLC Cotyledon Productions, 2002). Once launched, community responsiveness—making sure that questions are answered and contributions elicit responses—is key to sociability and to building trust as well (Ridings et al., 2002).
Notable online communities support social presence in a number of ways:
- Networking functionality (e.g., automated connection finders such as LinkedIn’s “People You May Know” feature, the ability to “follow” or “subscribe to” other users, and creative ways for users to leverage their networks, as LinkedIn offers)
- Acknowledgment functionality (e.g., simple ways for members to acknowledge one another, such as “like” meters on forum posts)
- Presence indicators (once the community has reached critical mass—e.g., how many people belong to the community, are on the site, or are on the same page as the participant)
- Reputation systems, badges, and integrated member profiles that help users “put a virtual face” to the other community members with whom they interact
- Support for meaningful interactions, such as designating individuals to regularly perform roles related to social presence (see Roles Responsibilities below), and developing supportive norms, such as acknowledging and building on previous contributors in discussions
Recognizing and Rewarding Individual and Team Contributors
Content tagging, ranking/rating of content, and tracking the reputation of its author(s), all relatively uncommon in education communities, can enhance group productivity and ownership of content. Directly or indirectly, all of these approaches are impacted by the extent to which communities recognize and reward individual contributors. Outside education, this takes many forms:
- Some sites prominently promote top contributors, highlight the profiles of “featured members,” and even conduct and publish celebrity or news-style interviews with them.
- Many sites provide “badges” or titles associated with leading users everywhere in the community.
- Some sites work with their funders to provide sponsored benefits (Discovery Educator Network’s Star Educator program and the National Science Teachers Association’s partnership with uBoost are examples of this in education) or support incorporation of users’ status on CVs or résumés in some way.
- Some sites give top contributors special levels of access to functionality, areas of the site, or site owners (this might be access to association leadership in the case of educational organizations).
Team-based recognition approaches (e.g., by school or district) or levels that are universally attainable may work better with educators than zero-sum systems that single out some members at the expense of others. In general, approaches that speak strongly to educators’ specific aspirations seem likely to be successful. In any case, an almost universal experience is that what may seem to be fairly minor forms of acknowledgment often have surprisingly large effects.
Embrace Organic Growth, Dynamism, and Innovation
Business developers of online communities have identified several distinct qualities of successful communities, which could inform development of educator communities (Grunwald Associates LLC Cotyledon Productions, 1998, 2002, 2010):
- Organic growth. Online communities should reflect the natural growth of the group in terms of its critical mass and sophistication. Many of the best online communities start as small and simple ventures. Growth in basic units (e.g., the number of boards, blogs, groups), the topics the community covers, and new features and functions are undertaken carefully but responsively, driven by growth of the group and determined by the community’s demands—much more bottom-up than top-down. Many online communities suffer because they offer more opportunities than their participants can take in or comfortably address, dissipating core interactions in the process (see About Overbuilding, below).
- Dynamism. At the same time, successful online communities refresh their sites with rapid turnover of featured content, including topics, events, promoted contributions, challenges or contests, on the home page and, in some cases, elsewhere on the site as well. This dynamism gives people a reason to keep coming back. For organizations with limited resources, highlighting member contributions (rather than only what the organization itself produces), giving members who have earned trust specific editorial responsibilities, taking longer pieces or collections of pieces and serializing them, and creating continually relevant content that can be resurfaced and re-promoted periodically are all strategies that can help ensure a dynamic flow.
- Innovation. Savvy developers also recognize the disproportionate sway of “online influencers,” people who by nature and to maintain their status are constantly seeking out “what’s new.” Online influencers often are key drivers of online community use. (For more on influencers, see e.g., the George Lucas Educational Foundation Grunwald Associates LLC, 2005; Li Bernoff, 2008). To retain online influencers, successful communities often place a premium on innovation. A steady stream of small innovations such as creative content, small interactives, new feature twists, and the like, all of which make for easy e-mail notices, can be as effective as major, groundbreaking developments for many communities, at least in the short term.
Attract, Secure, and Retain Members with Communication and Outreach
Nearly all notable communities, in education and in other industries, reach out to participants and potential participants with regular, targeted communications. These communities use multiple means, including communications, marketing, and media work, to recruit new members and make the work of the community visible to a larger public. They share accounts of activity with other online communities and organizations within the domain to look for opportunities for collaboration. They understand that site registration is only the first step in securing and retaining the loyalties of their members, a process that never really ends. Outreach efforts include:
- E-newsletters, generated editorially or as automated digests
- Notifications and alerts, such as of new postings in a topical thread of interest
- RSS feeds
- Sharing functionality, such as toolsets that facilitate content sharing via e-mail, Facebook, LinkedIn, Digg, or other social media sites, as well as member-to-member outreach that allows people to subscribe to or follow others’ activities
- Outposts on major social media sites, such as dedicated Facebook or LinkedIn groups, Twitter streams, or YouTube channels
- Partnerships with other organizations in the field
- “Purposeful (targeted) recruiting” of new members (Jones Preece, 2006)
- “Evangelist” programs (encouraging committed community members to convince others to join), viral marketing (the development and deployment simple games or other interactive elements, multimedia clips, and short provocative articles all designed to be passed along, primarily through social networks, to increase awareness or memberships), and syndication (making content available to multiple other communities or sites)
- Communications with offline communities
In general, online communities for educators have significant opportunities to expand outreach. Currently, for example, education community participants often have to “opt in,” or find and sign up for, communications vehicles, rather than receiving them by default if they don’t opt out when they register. While a clear opportunity to opt out should be provided, it also should be easier for participants to receive communications if they want them. Outreach for educators also seems to be less frequent and takes fewer forms than it could. The relatively rare online partnerships between education organizations/communities could be strengthened as well.
Organic, Dynamic, Innovative Action: Members Make a Community Their Own
The Latin root of education, educare, means “to lead out.” A classic milestone of community development occurs when its users “take over” the community in some critical way and “make it theirs.”
A remarkable and ongoing example of this is occurring in the popular English Companion Ning, where members of the community are spontaneously organizing multisession, real-time “webstitutes” as a new model for online professional development. The first webstitute, “English 2.0,” held in 2010, offered keynote addresses and multiple breakout sessions throughout a two-day period. The founder of another prominent online community, Classroom 2.0, provided logistical and technical support. A second webstitute, “Work With Me,” was held early in 2011.Integrate Online Communities Into a Larger Professional Ecology
Notable online communities do not exist in a vacuum. Their activities and interactions are well integrated with the online content, services, and larger goals and activities of the sponsoring organization(s), such as key initiatives, partnerships, or events. Equally important, many online communities connect to face-to-face opportunities for networking, learning, and collaboration, such as meetings, workshops, or conferences. Online communities of practice also should be integrated into a larger ecology of online community work, online services, and social media platforms that relate to their domains (areas of shared interest). Since the early days of community building, when integration simply meant weaving community content and interactivity throughout the online offerings of the community sponsors, level of integration often separates leaders in online sectors from other participants. In a medium that is increasingly diffuse and overwhelming, integration is likely to assume greater importance in the future.
Integration and Education Leader Communities
Groups aimed at education leaders have led some of the best integration efforts to date. Edutopia has made a notable effort to solve the challenge of balancing groups and core discussion by integrating and cross-posting group content throughout its content areas. ASCD does an admirable job of collecting and synthesizing information from a number of different education sites every day. Both groups do well at integrating social media into their offerings (and integrating their social media satellites with one another), and both have made significant efforts to mobilize resources thematically and around offline events.
Other leadership groups are showing the way as well. The Alabama Best Practices Center, for example, shows off some of the possibilities and promise that blended online and offline offerings hold, with local offline conversations and events feeding into online success stories and blog-based discussions. The National Association of Elementary School Principals offers an online mentor center where trained and experienced principals support aspiring and newly minted education leaders, as well as providing monthly outreach to parents, among other notable features.
Integrating Online Communities of Practice at the School Building Level
Is an online community of practice superfluous at the school building level, where educators work in a face-to-face environment? Perhaps not. Online communities at the building level hold great promise on their own merits, and for the online community ecology as a whole, potentially providing the strongest anchors to practice.
Many educators actually feel disconnected from their colleagues even in their own buildings. Groups of educators who see each other every day could benefit from many-to-many asynchronous communications and resource sharing that a local online community can suppport.
Before starting a local online community, school leaders will want to think carefully about whether there is in-house capacity to sustain educators’ engagement. School-level online communities could suffer from low critical mass or a lack of experienced moderation. On the other hand, many early online community moderators inside and outside of education were teachers, who often bring an ideal mix of communication skills and participatory group management talents—honed from experience in classrooms—to online moderation. Thus, schools may discover great leaders for online communities right in their buildings.
School leaders also may want to consider supporting their teachers’ and other educators’ participation in district, state, or national online communities (e.g., by offering them professional development credit or “sabbaticals” from other responsibilities). Ideally, particicipation would occur in contexts in which educators can develop skills they can apply in their schools. Again, ideal leaders for these online educator communities—and for larger, mixed communities of educators, parents, students, and other local stakeholders envisioned in the National Education Technology Plan 2010 (p. vii)—likely will emerge from local school buildings.
Going forward, the structure and suppport of building-level communities, along with and blended (online and offline) communities, will be a key area of research for the field.Additional research and details on core qualities and how they manifest themselves in education (and other) communities today, will be provided soon in two briefs , Online Communities for Educators: Guidelines for Planning and Implementation and Online Communities: The State of Practice, which will be posted on this website.