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.

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)

About Andy Rundquist

Professor of physics at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN
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