Online communities

I just received an interesting email from someone I’m working with who’s interested in forming a virtual community of elementary school teachers:

Hi Andy,

I was really intrigued by some of the things you said about establishing a sense of community in an online environment.  Do you have any information about indicators of such a community?  I am curious to know how you and others are dealing with this, what you look for as evidence, how you make improvements, etc.  Thanks!

And here was my response:

Great questions! I’m not sure I have any great answers, unfortunately. I can give you some anecdotes of virtual communities that I’m in, though. First, twitter. I started twitter in december of 2010. Now I have 400 followers, most of whom are science educators. It doesn’t take much to be involved, but when I ask questions, I usually get answers. People see value in my comments and I see value in theirs, it’s why I keep going back. Second, the blogosphere. This is really connected with twitter as most bloggers that I follow are also on twitter. The conversations that can happen on a blog post are really awesome. People see something they like or question and they comment. I think the notion that most bloggers are our seeking help/conversation is what makes it work. The bloggers who come off as experts seem to be less useful, in my mind, anyways.  Next, listservs. I read all kinds of email from physics ed listservs, but I don’t think of them as my go-to communities for several reasons: 1) they tend to be dominated by opinionated, closed-minded blowhards. 2) It’s not organized well enough. Here I mean that twitter is organized by time (you’re either in the real-time conversation or you’re not) and the blogosphere is organized by topic (really, by blog post).
So where to go with this? I think if you want to build a vibrant, virtual community for these teachers, you 1) have to make the content/conversation meaningful. What does that mean? I’m not sure, but certainly it should be the opposite of something like a required number of posts. 2) You have to make everyone feel like an equal partner. I think if it’s novices seeking advice from an expert or set of experts, it’s not a conversation and people don’t value the community.
Sorry, I’m rambling a bit but I am genuinely interested in this idea. Let’s talk some more about it.
-Andy

Any other thoughts for her or me? (sorry for the twitter follower bragging, my point was that it didn’t take long to build a community I can count on)

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About Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist

Associate professor of physics at Hamline.
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