Thursday, May 3, 2012

Developing Online Learning Communities - Consider This!

Editor's note: This is part 2 in a look at effective online learning communities. Find out what it takes to be an effective community leader in part 1.

As more and more districts, give in and extend at least a little rope when it comes to the creation and participation of online learning communities (see the policy in NYC here), more and more educators will need to understand how to develop a successful online learning community. In her recent interview for the  USDOE-supported Connected Educators site, Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach author of The Connected Educator explains how to develop effective online learning communities.  You can read the full interview here.  Here is her advice.

  1. Ask essential questions for building community -Know your need. Why is this community necessary? What is the purpose? What is it that we’re trying to accomplish? “What do we want to avoid?”
  2. Work to ensure you have the composition of a great team -Bring people together who have different ideologies, different geography, different purposes and challenges to enable them to each bring what they did well to the table and people could learn from that. For example in the field of education this could mean public, private, Catholic, and other kinds of schools; educators teaching well-to-do, middle-class, and poor kids; educators in different states and nations, at different grade levels, and in different content areas and roles.
  3. Create an environment where relationships can be built -With the right pieces in place members can build significant relationships and spontaneous collaborations could come out of that where none had previously existed. For example, an independent school community developed which was unusual because, for the first time, instead of seeing each other as competitors (independent schools often compete for the same student “clients”), they began to see themselves as collaborators.
  4. Balance privacy and community -A hub can bring various communities together into a virtual commons area while providing each community with a private space.
  5. Organize for success -Provide private spaces with a community leader, while also providing an opportunity for members to be able to participate together in a wider and even more diverse network where they can leverage each other’s thinking.
  6. Know that size matters but bigger isn’t always better.   -One of the biggest mistakes is to think that size is what matters most, and that we’ve got to grow this community fast. Size becomes the most important metric, and if we can’t show a large membership, our community isn’t successful. I’d caution developers to not become fixated on size and numbers. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar said that you really can’t have significant relationships with more than 100 to 200 people at a time. The most common value you see is 120 to 150. You need to think about quality and whether you have the right people on the bus, not necessarily the most people. New communities that develop a relatively small but highly engaged core group are more likely to scale, if sufficient attention is paid to the pace of growth and to recruitment and induction.
  7. Know how you’re going to sustain your community -How are you going to grow and sustain your community? Do you have a dedicated funding stream, and if you don’t, how are you going to provide the funding? Are you willing to create a business model that will allow funding to come in from the people who are involved, or is that a compromise of your purpose or beliefs, and if it is, how are you going to provide the financial support for the community over the long haul? You have to have some way to compensate that incredible community leader you’re going to hire, as well as the great speakers / experts.
  8. Replicate what is successful in the real world -Consider staging virtual events and celebrations, online conferences perhaps, and those things need “event staff” just like they do in the physical world. You may want to have great speakers and other experts come in, and you want a site that’s going to have the technology and engaging design to satisfy the community’s expectations just like you would in a physical environment.
  9. Know your approach -What approach will you use for your online community. One approach that works is a three-pronged professional development model which included
    • prong one is local learning communities;
    • prong two is an online community of practice that’s both global and deep;
    • a third prong is more personal—the idea of a personal learning network that each educator develops as a mega-resource for ideas and information about their particular interests and areas of practice.
  10. Turn to membership for recruitment -Look to community members to attract more members. You gain a lot of built-in synergy that way. Another thing you might do is survey your core group and find out what components might be included in your community design that would constitute value-added elements for participants like themselves. When you’re responsive to their ideas, they gain a feeling of some ownership in the community and begin to act as agents to both draw other people in and help hold and engage new and less-committed participants. They help make your community a “sticky attractor,” you might say.
  11. Build community -Mitch Resnick from the MIT Media Lab (who developed Scratch) said that co-created content is what builds community. And so if you have this artifact that people are going to be creating and constructing together, then they will come together for that purpose. And even get excited about it.
  12. Measure success
    • Meaningless measuresSome of the popular metrics for measuring success or impact are really pretty meaningless. We all have counted “likes” and looked at page views, and analyzed the time spent on pages, things like that—the typical website metrics. They might give us some crude indicators, but to really measure success takes a lot more brain sweat.
    • Measuring meaningfullySuccess by anything other than the quality of what goes on in the community misses the point. The measuring piece needs to be about these kinds of indicators:
      (1) the quality of the conversations;
      (2) the alignment with purpose;
      (3) the willingness of community members to give and contribute, not just take;
      (4) helpfulness… of information, of the community itself, of designated support people;
      (5) the amount of substantive sharing that’s going on;
      (6) evidence of collaboration and how much;
      (7) the relationships that are being built among participants; and
      (8) how the existence of the community is impacting the world beyond the community.

Whether you currently run an online community, are considering it, or support one that is existing, these are 12 thought-provoking considerations to keep in mind when doing so.  Now that you’ve read these considerations, what do you think? What’s missing? What’s right about this? How’s your group doing?


  1. The 12 considerations are commendable! I want to point out the #3(Create an environment where relationships can be built), as a leader or member of the community, you need to know the your co-members so that you can easily communicate and build valuable relationship.