The challenge of building online communities

In yesterday’s #whyopen Google Hangout, Simeon (@mtotowajirani), Cliff (@omcliff), David (@dvdgc13) and I wondered how to go about building thriving online communities.

What strategies would you employ to ensure that there is active participation, collaboration, the very essence of what we call open?

Simeon’s question triggered an exchange of experiences about how communities come together and what fosters participation within the network.

Network by Flickr user futureshape. Under CC BY license.

Network by Flickr user futureshape. Under CC BY license.

How do you get people on board?

As part of the course, we’re going to be engaging in open activities in groups. Unlike a traditional classroom setting, where most activities are bound by the physical environment, open activities should allow for a wider spectrum of participants to join in.

In our case, we could consider the student group to be a driving force behind the project (task force?), while people exterior to the course will be invited to collaborate on the project.

How do we reach out to the wider community to make this happen ?

  • Communicate about the project

People will first need to know what we are trying to achieve so they can decide whether they feel like joining us. Communicating about the project involves being open about who we are, what our goal is and what type of activities we’ll be carrying out together.

Being excited about it makes all the difference!

  • Use social media to connect people

Social media can be used to spread the word about our project as well as receive feedback from various sources.

Twitter, Facebook and G+ can also help to keep the information flowing between participants who might not be able to meet up physically or gather for a synchronous session.

As Simeon rightly pointed out during yesterday’s discussion, social media platforms are also fantastic at getting you in touch with people who may have skills or connections you need to harness for your project. If approached tactfully, most people will be happy to point you in the right direction, send you a link to a helpful article or just give you a tip on how to solve your problem.

  • Tap into existing communities

Our group is made up of people from diverse backgrounds. Why don’t we take advantage of existing communities with adjacent interests to find relevant information and maybe recruit new participants?

If our project has to do with education for instance, we’re likely to come across motivated individuals among the OER practitioners.

How do you keep the momentum?

Now that we have successfully formed a community around our exciting new project, we’re all bursting with energy. But what happens if the project takes longer than expected? What if we run into challenges? How do we keep our participants engaged?

  • A helping hand

Learning by doing is something that motivates people to join online communities but if the learning curve becomes too steep and nobody’s available to show you the way, then you’re likely to fall off the edge. A community should be a place where nobody is afraid to ask for help.

This is something I greatly appreciate at Global Voices: whenever someone encounters technical difficulties, has doubts about how to translate a certain passage, or needs guidance to draft a post, there will always be another team member ready to help. The knowledge base we have as a network is simply mind-boggling but the really amazing part is how generously this knowledge is shared.

  • Assign tasks…

To simplify coordination between team members and ensure that the work gets done, it can be helpful to assign tasks or let people sign themselves up for tasks so we’re all clear about who does what. This implies knowing each other well enough to match the skill sets with the tasks at hand.

When you’re assigned a task, you feel responsible for the outcome and tend to work at it with renewed interest.

  • …but keep it flexible

We’re volunteering our time out of dedication to the project but it should not become a burden. When someone is not available to contribute because of other commitments or just needs a break, they should feel free to step out for a while, confident in knowing that others will take over.

  • Sweets galore!

‘Give out sweets’ to keep up participation, said David in the chat window. The phrasing made us all smile but the idea that if participants feel that their work is valued, they’re more likely to continue being committed to the project does ring true.

Depending on the situation, a genuine ‘thank you’, a public endorsement or a badge, might be appreciated and encourage further participation.

What’s your experience of building communities or participating in one? Would you like to share what’s worked for you and what’s been rather disappointing?


10 thoughts on “The challenge of building online communities

  1. Great thoughts, here, Laila.

    What has worked for me in online communities in the past:

    – having enough people who are excited and engaged for there to be a sense of community, a sense that we’re working on something together
    — having those people actively communicate with one another in several ways (e.g., blogs, Twitter, etc.)
    — having people be available to help, and make it clear that you can ask any questions and others will try to answer
    — having fun/a sense of humour/make it be enjoyable
    — allow people to participate in the ways they can/want to, which may include “lurking”/just watching; maybe this way they can gradually get to the point where they want to be more active…or not..up to them
    — having the facilitators be active in keeping momentum going, cheerleading, supporting, writing comments on blogs, etc.

    Those are just first thoughts…there’s probably more!

    One I think we could have done better in this particular community in the beginning:

    — There are lots of written instructions for things like blogs, Twitter, G+, but we could have had more clear offers of one-on-one help for those who are struggling. Did we lose some people who felt a bit alone in struggling technologically? We’ll never know. We could have asked other participants to share what they could help with/create a list of people to call on when struggling, for example.

    — This community is heavily focused on people giving their own views and reading/thinking about/responding to those of others, rather than on providing “expert” presentations. Some people may have preferred the latter, as the former may not be a common practice for them? So maybe be clear about that up front and somehow scaffold people into it? Otherwise we’ll just get those who are already comfortable with this sort of learning!

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences here, Christina. It’s true that without a critical mass of active participants communicating with each other (the core of the project?), it’s hard to keep the enthusiasm going for very long. One quickly grows lonely.

      On making the ride enjoyable: It’s definitely part of bonding but is it really something you can consciously infuse in a group?

      Feedback on Why Open:

      * A tech hotline for ‘Why Open’ participants would have been a good idea, yes. Also, by offering to volunteer and thinking about the course a couple of weeks in advance, some of the participants would have had a perfect occasion to communicate ahead of the course and get to know each other. In case there’s another iteration of the course, let’s keep this idea!

      * I don’t really know if some would have preferred ‘expert’ presentations and feel uneasy about the uncertainty that comes with expressing their own views and interacting with that of others. Have you had any feedback to this effect?
      To me, it was clear enough from the start that there wouldn’t be any lectures as such. As in the previous point, it may be hard to tell whether some people dropped out because their expectations were not met, since they typically won’t respond to a survey on a course they ended up not taking.

  2. good post….and here’s some extra thoughts…

    – modelling from moderators and organisers – the impact here is huge. Engaged and enthusiastic organisers will have a huge influence in terms of the shape and feel of the community.
    – find and utilise power users of the media, platforms, and pedagogy amomgst he participants. Peer engagement can be hugely boosted by power users who are co-opted by organisers. Ask them to comment, support, post, and generally act as peer hypernodes
    – where vthere is a sense that participation is an active and meaningful part of pedagogical design. If there is a strong sense that connecting across the community has meaning, in terms of learning, and is part of a good, and visiblke, pedagogical design. So, be explicit about this from the beginiing, build it into your design, talk about, and demonstrate the usefulness of community / peer engagement, and provide well deisgned activities that showcase it. Power users are especially useful here.
    – community build, in part, where we have a meaningful sense that we are engaging, as oursleves, with others who appear fully realised. Or, maybe a better way of putting it is, if a community lets be be who I want to be (and that may not be my actual self) and engages ,meaningfully with that, and I get the sense that the other community members are representing themselves authentically in the community, then engagement tends to increase
    – a sense of joint and communal enterprise can help hugely. Letting the community pick a project and bring it to fruition across the course (like the etmnooc lipdud, where participants picked a song, and selected a short lyric, videoed themselves sijnging it, and had the oprganiser stitch it together into a complete video) is hugely helpful
    – encourage, encourage, encourage. Cheerleaders are key. The more respected and higher status the cheerleader, the more effective
    – meaningful feedback, from all sides. Setting tasks, with support, that are well framed, useful to the participants, achieveable and a little challenging, and designed to showcase, tangibly, the benefits in terms of useful feedback will help participants assign value to engagement

    there’s a lot more. But it’s late…

    • A couple of comments/reactions from my end:

      find and utilise power users of the media, platforms, and pedagogy amongst the participants. Peer engagement can be hugely boosted by power users who are co-opted by organisers. Ask them to comment, support, post, and generally act as peer hypernodes.

      It’s the first time I come across the terms ‘power users’ and ‘hypernodes’. I think I can sense what it means though: something like connectors, people who act as catalysts of interactions. They can be in turn cheerleaders, help-desk staff, moderators, conversation starters. Is this what you mean?

      If there is a strong sense that connecting across the community has meaning, in terms of learning, and is part of a good, and visible, pedagogical design. So, be explicit about this from the beginning, build it into your design, talk about, and demonstrate the usefulness of community / peer engagement, and provide well designed activities that showcase it. Power users are especially useful here.

      It’s true that merely stating that peer engagement is important and meaningful for learning in the course doesn’t make it magically happen. What are good examples you would give of participation being explicitly embedded in the course design and properly showcased?

      My idea of an activity showcasing the value of peer engagement would be including discussion topics stemming from an interaction amongst learners. Let’s say we were discussing open licensing in the course and some people raised the issue of how they deal with their own fears and other people’s reservations towards openness, this could be taken up the next week as a thread. It would broaden the scope of the discussion by involving all the participants (as opposed to a small group) and provide positive feedback for the discussions happening on various platforms.

      community build, in part, where we have a meaningful sense that we are engaging, as oursleves, with others who appear fully realised. Or, maybe a better way of putting it is, if a community lets be be who I want to be (and that may not be my actual self) and engages ,meaningfully with that, and I get the sense that the other community members are representing themselves authentically in the community, then engagement tends to increase

      Hum, I don’t know what to make of this.

      I have an experience to share on this matter (not sure if it’s relevant…). I recently joined a translation community (besides global voices). I took some time settling in, observing what was happening on the discussion board, editing translations, but overall not being a fully active member. After a few weeks of doing this, I still don’t find myself in a secure enough position to speak up in the discussions. This may have to do with not seeing where I fit in: I don’t feel close to any of the members, or feel like I know something meaningful and personal about them. There’s sometimes jokes flying around but they tend to feel like ‘inside jokes’ to me – I being very much on the outside here!

      I wonder: what does it mean to respresent oneself authentically? Do you have to share personal things about yourself? Share opinions?

      there’s a lot more. But it’s late…

      Sure, more another day then 🙂

      • I think you get the idea re power users. They have various functions – they cheerlead, they lead by example, they provide tech help, they seed activitiesd – as in they shpow how something is done, and others follow – they deploy the techniques so others can see the benefit, and they provide resources for others, helping to generate a skills base, and kickstarting the sharing.

        They can also act as what are sometimes termed brokers, or weak links. A broker is someone who acts as a conduit, for new information, between fiedls or areas of expertise that are not directly, or are indirectly linked. Connectivism is big on weak links – the idea that resources will come from people you don;t have string connections to by the nature of social media. These two ideas come together – new resources, from areas and fields that you might not otherwise encounter, shared by people who you are loosely connected to, that are brought in to you by those loose connections, or a broker who hangs around the edges of lots of cnversations, looking for new resources to grab, and share with their community.

        Re making the pedagogy explicit, I think your idea is good, but I mean something slightly different I think. Adulkt learners, apparently, deal well when told what they are learning, why, how it will help them, and also how they will be learning it. A session that explicitly details how the pedagogy works, and includes tasks, opportunities and types of engagement that mirror that pedagogy, during something like a seminar, will help immensely.

        Both etmooc, and cck08 had sessions on the pedgagogy. what is was called, jow it worked, what that looked like, and what the benefits were. Using real examples from the course would help here ( a useful role for a power user…).

        think it;s important to not just have a group discussion, but to have a centralised, and probably instructor focused point where it;s made completely explicit. That session can have discussion, and probably should have, and user contribution, and peer engagement, but at it’s core, the basics have to be put across.

        Re representing yourself authentiucally…I think you raise a different point. Rekated, but different. Working out where you fit in to a community is something we do, off and online. And It’s a key thing to do. Communities negotiate entry, have their rituals, processes, and adjustment mechanisms. Wenger’s Communities of Practice is good on aspects of this.

        But I mean something different.

        There’s a theory called “Communities of Inquiry” that details ideas of presence. Social presence, Teaching Presnece, and cognitive presence are the ideas I was thinking of. Cognitive presence has to do with how well the individual is able to create meaning through communicating with the community members. Social prsence – the idea I badly described – has to do with how well you feel you are able to project who you are into the community, and how well others do that. It’s not necessarily the whole, real you. But the biots you put foraward, or the person you want to be in that context – how well you can project that into the community, have it engaged with, and feel you are engaging with other people who are able to project themselves well. Teaching presence has to do with learning, design, learning outcomes, feedback, facilitation. All that yummy stuff that learners tend to set large store by (I do too). – Communities of Inquiry website
        / – Communities of Practice – Rita Kop, on presence and Connectivism

        sorry for the typos. Pushed for time here…

  3. * One thing we could have done is upload Youtube videos of how to do things so participants could see and copy the process. I write this as a visual learner who has spent years in text only learning environments.
    * Tech hotline is a great idea to get participants thinking about an open project before the course and also to post their ideas. Therefore, we could group participants who are interested in similar open activities together as opposed to grouping participants by timezone. (This came out of last week’s Google Hangout).
    * Maybe, we could have a couple ‘expert’ presentations with power users. However, I would still want to value the role of each participant in the community. Perhaps, we could think about community building as a way to increase investment in completion. For instance, if the activity was something that a participant could use in her professional life, then she might be more invested in completing the course. This relates to the point about making pedagogy explicit. We could have an individual activity and a group activity as well as check-ins on the activities, so participants can comment on each other’s activities.
    * Great idea of continuing discussions across weeks.

    • Hi Jeannette,

      Point by point, then:

      * There’s a lot of ways of going about tech support: text-based instructions, video tutorials, step by step guide with screen shots, good old-fashioned phone call. I think it’s best done on a needs basis to avoid overwhelming people even more. That’s why I like the idea of the ‘go-to’ people who can direct those who are struggling to the right resources for them.

      * Sure, we could have a common place to gather project ideas right from the beginning of the course and let people cluster around the ideas they’re excited about, offer help, comment etc. There’s no guarantee that everyone will spontaneously participate but with a bit of nudging (like the badge for open practise in this course), it should work pretty smoothly.

      * Going back to your point about investment on completion, why not ask participants to explicitly state their goals for this course? It would encourage us to focus on how the learning relates to our lives.

      Thanks for pointing out the link to making the pedagogy explicit. In the case of a second session of ‘Why Open’, I could imagine a short introduction to the pedagogy on the ‘about’ page as well as testimonies of former participants about how it has worked out for them. Once again, I would be curious to hear from participants who were put off by the course design, why it didn’t quite match their expectations.

      Bringing in a bit of an expert flavour could be done through interviews or live discussions with people working in the field at hand (in our case: artists, academics, software developers, etc). However, we can’t fit everything in 5 weeks 😉

      * Yes, across weeks and hopefully beyond the duration of the course.

      See you in the hangout !

  4. Hello,

    As an open source developer, all of the above rings true, but I would wonder how people propose doing things differently when there is a handful or only 1 of you.

    A lot of stuff I develop is just me, and no one else. I think a lot of people sort of expect A Grade support for OS code, but don’t give anything back.

    I wonder how many great OS projects died because no one showed an interest

    • Hard question for someone like me who doesn’t know much about the world of open source software, or about software development for that matter.

      Do these projects really die or can they be revived when people do show an interest?

  5. Pingback: Some ideas on community building for #whyopen « Experiments in the world of moocery

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