oro|oro Teacherslab | How to Support and Develop Online Communities
saturday 27 january 2001
| Introduction: Chris Wolz used to work
in the Office of Management and Budget, the US government department deciding
how to spend all those tax dollars. He left to start Forum One, which helps
public and private organisations (ranging from the World Bank to the Academy
of Sciences) develop communities on the Internet, or connect virtual communities
to real ones.
Before I start, let me do a little bit of research: how many of you (before oro/oro!) would use the Internet every day? Most of you. How many of you would visit five websites in a day? Many. How many of you would visit 20 websites in a day? A few. How many of you have ever participated in a web discussion or bulletin board? OK. How many of you have ever participated in a chat session on the Web? Quite a few! How many of you use e-mail everyday in your work? All of you. How many of you read ten e-mail messages in a day? Twenty e-mail messages in a day? Fifty e-mail messages in a day? OK, quite a few of you.
I'm going to talk about community building: what is it? What are the differences between how you might use the web, how you might use e-mail, or both of these? What are online communities? I'll give you some examples and talk about the benefits, and suggest why you should care about this on a rainy Saturday in Amsterdam, and look at some best practices.
What are online communities? This is a term that has probably been overused and means different things to a lot of different people. Think back to the early Internet, the early web; it was really a one-way flow of information - from you, the knowledgeable organisation, to a captive audience. The technology has
grown to allow more interaction between you and the audience you're trying to reach.
Now I think we're even at a third stage, where you - the host, the hosting website or organisation - are helping communication happen between your audience members, not through you. It's akin to facilitating a big party, so you're always trying to make that communication go as smoothly as possible, without controlling it yourself. We've heard about some technologies like Plastic.com or Slashdot, that even go beyond this and give the users more control themselves over shaping and filtering information.
So again, online community, what is it? I would define it as 'valuable content'. It's tools and services, it's allowing user-to-user interaction and especially, it's giving the user control over that interaction. Interactivity can have a lot of different shapes and forms. It's not just a chat session; it can be something as simple as a guest book, or questions and answers or frequently asked questions, an e-mail newsletter that goes out to people listing the favourite web sites that different people from an organisation or community put together. These are all things that I would consider 'interactivity' and should be a part of an effective web strategy, whether it's for education or for another topic.
Why is this relevant for you? And why is online community relevant for the education sector? We've heard how quickly young people, much younger than your students, how quick they are to adopt technology, to adapt it. You'll face the same challenge in how to serve them and provide them with the education in a way that is effective for them and they're comfortable with.
Also, it provides a lot of powerful ways to create new forms of education, where you're no longer the centre of the knowledge. Instead you're trying to help the learners, the educators and the students that you're working with to learn from each other, so that everybody has an opportunity to be a leader as well as to be led.
These are some websites that are at least part of the way to being an online community. A couple of them we've been involved with as a consultant. They're older projects, by no means our most technical, our most database-driven projects, and frankly they're not our nicest designs. But they're projects that have been running for two to four years, so there's a lot of experience to talk about.
We worked with a group of international organisations including the United Nations, World Health Organisation, World Bank, and the US Government to build an online network about AIDS research. Specifically, what are the most cost-effective interventions, most cost-effective strategies to prevent AIDS? The idea was to promote collaboration between researchers, so that changes in policies are made more quickly, and so quicker results are seen in preventing this disease. I think that it has grown into a community - whatever you think that is.
The site features reports, data and models. From the beginning, it has also featured an e-mail newsletter. That's something that we are very big proponents of. We think that the web is great; e-mail gets out to people, it gets in front of them. Your students over at the Hogeschool are in the lobby checking their e-mail on Hotmail. It's easy to get to - everyone can access his or her e-mail. For an international audience, which we're often trying to serve, it's especially important. And also it is viral. If someone gets something via e-mail that's valuable to them, it's easy for them to pass it around friends. This website has also featured offline and online discussions.
Let me speak about them briefly. We've tried online discussions of a topic for two weeks, with research papers, with a moderator and they've been interesting, we've got some interesting discussions going between researchers. We've had more success with online discussions when they've been used together with offline - a real-world meeting or an event where the discussion has got the dialogue going before a panel meeting or conference. We found those to be quite effective. In this project, as with a lot of others we work on, we paid a lot of attention to how the site is being used, and whether it was achieving what it wants to achieve. The site has users in different locations throughout the world, and we tried to gauge whether or not we're reaching the target audience.
You may be more interested in some other measure of how much your website or community is being used, but it's important to define that, to measure it and to act on it. Another big success of this project was that what had started as a virtual organisation (there was no office when we started the project, there was only the website), became real. People decided to come together and have more face-to-face meetings.
At the AIDS Conference this past summer in South Africa, the AIDS Network Online sponsored a sub-conference, a symposium and used the website to ask for papers and to invite people to attend. They got about 80 proposals for papers, about half of them from developing countries, which was really exciting. About 20 people from the website community ended up participating and presenting research at this conference. So it's a very exciting way of finding a real world, face-to-face component to an online community.
Next, The Motley Fool is a US website about financial investing for profit. It says that its goal is 'to educate, to amuse and to enrich'. I use it myself; it is very educational, it is amusing. I haven't yet got rich from it, but it's good information. I'll tell you a few things it does that I like. It amalgamates lot of news, research and data about financial investment that you can get in other places on the web. It has great tools - what's my portfolio doing today? How much do I have to save for my retirement so I can buy the house in France? There are online discussions, e-mail newsletters, and even online courses.
What I also like about this site is that they have a real strong personality and it all has a sense of humour about itself to it. The editors, the people who work for the site, also put their names and their pictures up, tell a little bit about themselves, and so you really feel personally that you have a sense of who these people are. And I think that works very well. The third example is a project that we worked on with the World Bank, to build a community of people sharing ideas about new policy approaches to industrial pollution in developing countries. It's called New Ideas in Pollution Regulation (NIPR) - a catchy line.
The project has been online for about four years. It is targeting different audiences - government people, researchers, students, and graduate students - who all have different needs. One thing that we have done on this and with other projects, is carry out a careful assessment of the different audiences we're trying to serve, and what their different needs are. It's effective in trying to prioritise what you want to do. The project makes available online research papers, data, policy and a variety of reports.
Again, e-mail newsletters are a very important part of this project and have grown rapidly. The mailing list started at around 500 people and has doubled every year until now to become a list of about 8,000 people who are really some of the most active, most interested and key people around the world on these topics. Something simple that we made that people still love, is a guest book. Sign up; put your name, where you live, where you work, what you do.
The project has basically slowed down because the funding for it has stopped. But we're still getting people coming to the website every week and signing the guest book. It's popular with people from the Philippines and Thailand. What we've been doing these past days in the practical sessions is in a sense creating a big, elaborate guest book, a 'who's who', and it's always of great interest to people to find out who their peers are. The project has also featured a 'Best on the Web' guide. You see this on a lot of websites.
The way that we did it here, which I think is effective, is that the site manager (David Sharman) put his name up and made it very personal. People would send him suggestions, he would respond, he would put little comments next to the websites that he liked the most, made it a very personal thing and made it very valuable in that way. When this research project came to a close, it condensed hundreds of papers from the website into a 150-page book, with a CD that had the website on it. We used the website to market it quite heavily and to promote a conference. So it was a combination of a publishing venture, with a CD, and the website played a strong role in helping to promote the release and where it came together and got a lot more attention for this important topic.
Drawing from those examples, and other work that we do in online community building, what are some best practices I might leave with you today?
First, whether you're trying to build a website and/or trying to build a website that has community attributes or features to it, have a very clear focus on your members, who your audience is. What do they really need, and what is it that you have to offer them? We often work with clients using a Venn diagram: one circle is you and the knowledge that you have, the other circle is your audience. You have some things that they don't care about, and they have some needs that you can't meet. Let's focus on the overlap: what is the information or knowledge you have that's most valuable to them, and vice versa? And over time, try to expand the overlap and not waste time on the things that you're not prepared to provide, because you can't do everything for them.
Second, online-offline synergies. If you're starting an online community, a website to support an existing community, that's great. A very effective way to get going. It can help make sharing information, sharing documents, sharing a calendar much easier. And we think that's a nice recipe. If you're starting something that's purely virtual, it can also work. It can be more of a challenge, but it can be successful. I would encourage you, though, to try to find ways to get that community of people who meet on your website together, face-to-face. Have a coffee or a beer once in a while. That will strengthen the relationships between people and help them share with one another more effectively. Third: start simple and grow.
This stuff can be very hard. We tell clients that come to us: 'it's harder than you think, it takes more time and costs more money than you think, but it can be very valuable and can open up new ways of working, new ways of communicating together.' So start with some basics. Some basic valuable information that is worth coming back to a second, a third and a fourth time. Don't start with something that's under construction; that's insulting your users. Don't put something online until it is full of 20 or 30 documents, 20 or 30 events on the calendar, or 20 or 30 frequently asked questions. Do that before you open it up to the others. Your database about teachers was filled up in a day? Fabulous, but be sure that whatever you put online is worth a visit the first, second, third time right from the start. Plan on changing your plan. Expect to learn things, and expect to want to change as you go along.
Fourthly, e-mail is very important. It's easy, it's portable, and it's viral. You may think that the web and databases are the way to go, and that's a big part of what will be an effective online resource and an effective online community, but e-mail is still a key part of it. It gets to people in a valuable way, so build it into many features. The database you're filling in with all of your personal info is a great tool. Will you be going back to it six months from now? I don't know. What if you could not only go on and search for people who share your profile, but get an e-mail back every time there's a new person who signed in who matches your profile? Every time a new person puts biographical information in who works on the same topic you work on? That e-mail might inspire you to go back and make more use of it.
We're seeing more and more personalisation features on commercial websites, often with an e-mail component to them, so we're sending news or information out to people on a daily or weekly basis by e-mail.
Lesson five: build a team of people, if you can. This can be hard and complicated. But you can do a better job if you have more people involved to share the work, to get different perspectives. You're trying to build a community of people to learn from each other, to teach each other, so with the different perspectives and with students involved in helping to manage it, you'll have more ownership, and ultimately more success.
Number six: allow users to set directions. This is difficult; it's both a technical and a methodological problem. Find ways to give your users use of your web resources and ways to create their own space, ways to set their own direction for the kind of information they're interested in. And you as the host should also be open to competing information. We've done work for some large organisations I won't name, but they sometimes have difficulty in having an open online discussion because they're afraid people are going to criticise them. That's an issue with some organisations. Hopefully, you can be open to that and open to people putting competing claims up.
A nice example - not something we've worked with - is Royal Shell, based in London, which has a website about their Social and Environmental Policies. You can be cynical about how well they follow the standards they set, but they have an online discussion where people can criticise them, on the Shell site. As the webmaster told me: we'd rather have the criticism in front of us than behind us. So try to be open to that.
Seven: show some personality. Who is who? Who is managing this website, who are you, who are the people helping you? Make it obvious. People enjoy that. And have some fun with it, show your style. If you're a great teacher and you have a sense of humour, people will love you even more. If you're a bad teacher and you have a sense of humour, you'll be bearable; people will still be able to put up with you. So try to do that online as well.
Finally, for eight I'd say, use copy that works. The web is extremely transparent; you can see hundreds and thousands of really bad examples of what you should avoid. And you can see some examples of success. Somebody has probably tried just about anything you might want, (well, maybe nobody's combined video and poling yet), and you can find a lot of examples and learn from them. Why can an online community be beneficial in education? You can learn a lot about the audience you're trying to serve. You can find new ways to communicate. We all know that some people will find it easier to communicate by e-mail than face-to-face, either between students, or between student and teachers. You'll get valuable content from members that you previously may not have been able to collect. You'll attract and retain members.
Think of your students - this might keep them more interested in the topic than otherwise. And it can lower your costs, to some extent. You may find it's easier to make materials available to people online than on paper. Ideally, why do you do all this? I think what excites us in using the Internet in organisations involved in policy issues or education, is that you can promote faster sharing of information and experiences between people who are working or learning together. Quicker learning, and, hopefully, quicker progress on the issues and faster progress in education as well.
One final note on issues of content ownership in online communities. We work mostly for non-profit organisations, so I don't get as involved in legal issues for profit online communities, where who owns the messages, or who owns the mailing list are important questions. Our approach is generally to make it clear on the website that the material contributed is the property of the website host. I think another important point is that is you have to treat the community very carefully. If you offend people, if you give them some reason to dislike what you're doing, you can lose the trust and the relationships you've been building up with them very quickly. Ideally the community, if it's distributed and there are a number of people in managing it, it can continue on its own.
On one of our projects, the funding has run out, and it's slowing down and almost stopping and it's a shame. If that website community had been distributed to six people around the world to help manage it, which could have happened, it could be continuing to grow. So you get around organisational issues by involving a network of people to manage it. There have been books written about the pioneering electronic community The Well, and how it developed social structure, rules, and ways to share and collaborate. I think every community, every group, and every project needs to discover this on their own. There is not an easy solution to it. Every community needs to come to an agreement by itself. It's not enough to write down rules; it needs to be something that people buy into.