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How do you design and facilitate an online community of teachers?

Teaching is a relational profession. Online networks and online communities make good sense: helping teachers to help one another. Yet history shows that good intentions in creating such communities often lead to poor outcomes.

There are just so many variables involved:

  • Having a focus for the community
  • Involving existing communities
  • Taking the right approach to facilitation
  • Understanding the need for long-term thinking and for sustainable approaches
  • Choosing the right technology for the community
  • Fitting in with teachers’ expectations

And that’s just naming a few of them!

In an academic paper, me and some colleagues use TeachConnect as an example to talk about some design principles that are useful for anyone trying to develop their own online community of teachers. It speaks to the big questions that anybody trying to get a new community off the group is likely to face.

The original article is posted on the Australasian Journal of Educational Technology website. You can also just download the whole PDF of the paper from my website, as the AJET journal is fantastic in that they use a creative commons license.

A summary of design principles (from the literature) is:

  • Start small with a core group (e.g., 10 – 100 users) and make it a strong community that embodies the values that are desired for the network. This serves two purposes. Firstly, it is a useful barometer, as if the community relies on being big to function then it is unlikely that it will ever grow to the desired size. Secondly, as the community grows in membership, the values held by this core group are the values that are likely to be perpetuated, so it pays to give close attention to details within a smaller group (Shirky, 2010).
  • Understand what motivates the members and make sure that the learning network provides for this motivation (Kraut et al., 2012). Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation ought to be considered as ways to encourage users to engage with the community. Intrinsic motivation can be addressed by ensuring that users have autonomy (freedom to act in a way that they find harmonious), connectedness (a human connection), and competence (no need to learn new skills to participate) (Ryan & Deci, 2000).
  • Any platform has a set of default options in set design, social design, and epistemic design, for example, default alerts, privacy settings, and display options. These defaults ought to be used wisely to promote social connectivity and the types of knowledge that it is desired to be shared (rather than defaulting all settings to being closed) (Kraut et al., 2012; Shirky, 2010).
  • Recognise that there will be many types of engagement within the platform and cater to these different types of engagement—there will be lurkers (Woo, 2015) as well as active participants and champions (Shirky, 2010).
  • Have as low a threshold for active participation as is possible. Require a bare minimum of activity from users for them to have contributed something to the platform. This contributes to their engagement and presence within the platform and makes future contributions more likely (Kraut et al., 2012; Shirky, 2010).
  • Be prepared to make changes as the network grows and to be responsive to what the community is asking for (Shirky, 2010). Changes need to be made quickly in response to the needs of teachers. This is in keeping with the principles of DBR (Barab & Squire, 2004).
  • The epistemic design of the community should focus on supporting authentic context and activity. The knowledge held in the community should pertain to real problems and issues that teachers actually face in schools (Herrington & Herrington, 2004).
  • Avoid ambiguity about roles within the community. Aim for clarity about who within a group holds the domain expertise and whose words should be attended to (Lin et al., 2008).
  • A barrier to co-creation of knowledge can be present through overly diversified foci, with members having different interests or disagreeing on the characterisation of a problem (Lin et al., 2008).
  • Members can fear criticism from other members of the community, preventing them from sharing knowledge (Lin et al., 2008). Anonymity can mitigate this. Hur and Brush (2009) similarly found that anonymity and lack of physical accountability is one of the reasons why teachers were looking online for support, noting: “the analysis of interviews and observational notes suggested that online environments provided places where teachers could safely share issues that they could not share with local school teachers” (p. 293).

And then, building on those, and using TeachConnect as an example we arrive at three crucial design principles that cannot be ignored:

  1. It is critical to understand the social norms within the teaching profession (and allow this to influence UI (user interface) and UX (user experience) design).
  2. Teaching is a highly context dependent profession and the social design needs to reflect this.
  3. The platform needs to have an inherent simplicity; speed and reliability should mirror user experiences with best-of-breed platforms.

There’s much that can be said about each of these, but I recommend reading the whole article to find out! It uses Goodyear and Carvalho’s ACAD framework for talking piece by piece about the considerations for social design, set design, epistemic design, and design for co-configuration. I really recommend this approach as a way of making sense of something that is really quite complex.

Key References

Goodyear, P. & Carvalho, L. (2013) The analysis of complex learning environments. In H. Beetham, & R. Sharpe (Eds.), Rethinking pedagogy for a digital age: Designing and delivering e-learning. Abingdon: Routledge.

Kelly, N., & Antonio, A. (2016). Teacher peer support in social network sites. Teaching and Teacher Education, 56, 138-149. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2016.02.007

Kelly, N., Russell, N., Kickbusch, S., Barros, A., Dawes, L., & Rasmussen, R. (2018). Online communities of teachers to support situational knowledge: A design-based study. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology34(5). https://doi.org/10.14742/ajet.3867

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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