Professional learning communities

I have the privilege in my work to be able to both facilitate and participate in a number of online communities of practice (CoP). It’s a great opportunity to learn from others as well as share my own experiences and what I have come across. Like many online communities, sometimes they seem to rocket along and at other times they appear to be rather quiet. This has got me thinking about the online communities I’m a part of and question what it is that brings people to them and engage in them.

I have been given the opportunity this year to undertake some research and have decided to focus it (broadly) on what fosters engagement or participation of educators in online communities of practice (particularly in the communities in which I facilitate). While still very much in the development phases, I would like to come away with a better understanding of where educators are accessing their professional learning from and why. It is also an opportunity for me to find out and hopefully trial different strategies to increase participation in the communities within which I facilitate.

I feel like my thoughts are still quite a jumble, which I think is okay at this stage. As I’m going through the process of thinking around why I want to undertake this research and just doing some general wondering around the topic, I’ve realised how the whole thing kind of aligns with the research I did for my MEd on online student engagement. While there are definitely differences (I’m working with adults rather than middle-school students; participation in the CoPs is completely voluntary), there are also similarities. For example, we still have those that are visibly active and those that are often called lurkers (I prefer the term ‘listener’ myself). We don’t know what impact is being had on those who don’t contribute but could still be reading/learning from the community. It’s also not clear how deep the engagement is going. For example, someone might be reading and commenting, but there is no impact back into their classroom. Understanding this could be useful in determining steps to encourage greater participation.

The expertise and knowledge held with an online CoP can be incredibly vast. Yet, it appears sometimes that we like to hold on to our own knowledge, or perhaps we don’t feel like what we have to share is worthwhile to others. Other times, looking at the various communities, it can appear like we’re just after a quick fix, or something to get us by, eg. “Does anyone have a resource/unit on…”. I’m not saying this is an issue. It is simply an observation. I’ve got quite a few other questions and thoughts at this stage as well, but won’t list them all here.

If you’ve read this far – well done on making it through my jumble of thoughts. Hopefully as the year progresses and I get further into my research things will start to become much clearer. I’m looking forward to developing a better understanding of what is going on in the online CoPs and further develop my facilitation skills as a result. I’ll try to remember to share my progress here as well.

Online community management PLD

association-152746_150Over the past 5 weeks I’ve taken part in an online PLD course run by Jane Hart of Centre for Learning and Performance Technologies. The course focused on Online Community Management. I took part in this course to help develop my understanding and skills for my role as Enabling e-Learning Facilitator within the Virtual Learning Network (VLN).

I didn’t learn a huge amount from the course—a fair bit is common sense—but it was well put together with some good tips. I’ve also gone into a well-established community so some of it was not overly relevant to me at this stage. This is not to say it won’t be useful in the future.

The course was organised into 5 parts, one for each week:

  1. Planning
  2. Launching
  3. Maintaining
  4. Measuring
  5. Community Managers Role

This post highlights the key takeaways for me from each of the 5 parts.

 

Planning

When planning an online community the number one most important thing to consider is purpose

Don’t set up a community just to have a community. A community must have a purpose and it must have a clear focus. The focus of a community might change over time as needs are met and new needs arise.

The other thing that a community needs is a common interest.

Richard Millington from The Online Community Guide wrote,

We don’t create that strong common interest.

That interest must already exist. That interest must be strong. That interest must be common (shared by a number of people). People should be keen to discuss that interest in their spare time.

We cannot force people into being interested in something that they’re not.

 

Launching

While I’ve tried to consider ways to launch an online community before, I hadn’t realised how important the planning of this step is both in regards to when a community is launched and also how it is launched. We looked at 3 types of launches—soft, viral and official.

With a soft launch the platform needs to be set up and a small number of (willing) users brought into the site to get things going. These users can get some discussions going, for example, but also can test functionality and make suggestions to improve the space before inviting others into the community space.

A viral launch starts of in a similar way to the soft launch, but then viral marketing is used to grow the community. A strategy needs to be set up that encourages users to pass on the message about the community to others in order for it to grow.

An official launch requires everything in the site to be set up, ready to go, and then announce the community site in an official way. This could be, for example, a face-to-face kickoff session or an email out to potential users.

One person from Everest University Online organised a flash mob as their official launch!

 

Maintaining

This was the week I was most looking forward to. How to maintain an online community. Within here, 50+ suggestions were given to help keep a community vibrant. It was interesting to read through these suggestions (from 3 different blog posts) and see how many the VLN community which I had recently been given the role of Facilitator in were already doing thanks to it’s current and previous facilitators!

Some of the suggestions that are already used include:

  • member of the week/month
  • news round-up
  • host live events (webinars/forums)

A couple of things I would like to consider doing are:

  • Member interviews – it could be both interesting and useful to read/watch an interview with various members. It gives an opportunity to make further connections and grow your PLN.
  • Guest columnists/bloggers – although this can happen already, specifically inviting people (members or others) to write about a topic relevant to the community opens up opportunity for further discussions. This of course means that facilitators or community managers need to know their membership well and have a wide network to invite from.

 

Measuring

For me, a successful community is one in which the members are seen to be regularly engaging through meaningful, relevant (to the purpose/focus of the community) dialogue. Of course that’s not always enough. At a management level, numbers often matter. While the number of members in a community is often what is looked at, if you want more useful numbers you could consider:

  • how many posts have been made over the past month
  • how many new members
  • number of active members
  • number of different conversations
  • length of average posts (short “I agree” posts don’t often add to the conversation)

A study by Jakob Nielsen (2006) was considered in which he found that user participation tends to follow similar rules in different communities. The 90-9-1 rule is where 90% of the community are lurkers/listeners; 9% are intermittent contributors and 1% are heavy contributors. Flipping this around: 90% of postings come from 1% of users!

Recent studies have shown that now it is closer to a 70-20-10 rule (and the terminology has changed slightly). 70% lurkers/listeners; 20% commenters; 10% creators.

This type of ratio/rule could be looked at as a way to determine the success of a community. Decide on the ratio you want to aim for and measure according to this.

 

Community Managers Role

Whether you call them a manager, facilitator, guide, mentor or other name, the community manager wears many hats. It reminds me a lot of online teachers (well, any teacher to some degree) who have to be teachers, parents (at times), social workers, counsellors, tech experts and more.

Rather than list all the roles of a community manager it’s easier to simply finish this post with this brilliant infographic that sums it all up.

Inside the Mind of a Community Manager