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The Virtual CoP Toolbox - Guidelines for online community builders

If you are involved in facilitating an online community, are thinking of initiating one, or are working with, for example, students who would like to get one going...these guidelines may serve as a 'quick guide' of things to think about in advance.

The recommendations and guidelines are based on the findings from the research study associated with the Virtual Professional Learning and Development (VPLD) project - find out more here: http://bit.ly/GOuUhL. While they are designed specifically for the facilitation of Professional Development (PD) undertaken in virtual contexts, they are general enough to contribute to the effectiveness of most Virtual Professional Development (VPD) communities.

Initiating an online community

The setting up of an online community can be quite challenging, especially if the hope is that the community will flourish in a self-motivating and self-sustaining fashion. So, some key things you will need to do are (where possible and appropriate):

  1. Clearly define your audience and your purpose. Think about the problem that your members are trying to solve.

  2. Choose a platform or application which is intuitive to use, and supports communication, connection and collaboration.

  3. Ensure your community includes experts (professional and technology), practitioners and novices.

  4. Involve the community in the initial design, tools, rules, and protocols.

  5. Discuss, as a community, solutions and recommendations in dealing with the issues, controversies, or problems.

Community builders

As mentioned, CoPs are essentially non-hierarchical. The requirement for some form of leadership is stressed, however, but Wenger, White, and Smith (2009) stress that this is more in the form of a ‘convener’ of a CoP, as opposed to a ‘manager’.  However, systems in education are usually hierarchical; although, ideally, it might be suggested that a shift in the existing education paradigm would be a positive development this is unlikely to happen in the near future. Rather than creating an insurmountable barrier, though it is useful to bear in mind this ‘tension’, especially when identifying the types and level of support that may be needed to help VPD participants transition into a more fluid model of professional development, as well as coping with some of the restrictions and frustrations that may consequently be encountered.

Those who will act as community builders need to be identified.  The main focus of their role is to support and develop other members. Members themselves will fall somewhere within the continuum of novice to expert, and it is this range that can provide both opportunities and challenges for community builders. Informal learning and authentic modelling and examples are likely to occur naturally within the day-to-day environs of the VPD space. ‘Experts’ can also be assigned new members to mentor and support, and practitioners can be encouraged to form small groups, and invite experts and novices to participate. However, it is also wise to provide more formal opportunities and resources that will assist the development of digital literacy, as well as ‘how to’ engage in an online community and develop technical skills.

Online community spaces

Each VPD community will have its own online space, which can be customised according to the requirements of the members. Members of the community should have the ability to easily start discussions, comment, add and delete content, and customise the look and feel of their personal space. It is advised that each community has:

  • a design and structure that reflects the culture and identity of the online community

  • a welcome to the space

  • a brief tutorial about how to get started in the space, top tips for communicating in an online community, and how to use the tools

  • a brief statement of the overall purpose of the VPD community

  • a list of Frequently Asked Questions FAQs), in part drawn from previous communities' experiences

  • a 'personal' space for participants to build a profile, including preferred contact details, reasons why they have chosen to be a part of the community, and their main areas of expertise and interest

  • links to / recommendations for fresh, relevant, and useful materials, content and resources

  • a listing of group members and their photographs (or a preferred image of their choice)

  • spaces that encourage co-construction and collaboration in the group, and in the practitioner's school/institution community

  • spaces and simple ways to share effective practice in multimedia, from national and international sources

  • social spaces for community building and social events

  • a variety of tools for communication within the online environment (including forums, blogs, chat, and wikis), and to the wider community (e.g. Twitter and Facebook).

  • a method of advertising events such as conferences, and PD sessions (formal and informal) offered by group members, or other experts

  • spaces for members to reflect, discuss, comment, and create

  • a variety of multimedia, that can be contributed to by all community members

  • ways to celebrate successes, progress, and achievements

  • links to support systems (where appropriate) such as

    • a help desk

    • technical support

    • an organic, collaboratively created, shared resource of effective practices

    • FAQs

Sustaining and developing

It is recommended that input into, and evaluation of the VPD community be ongoing, with feedback and suggestions collected from all stakeholders, formally and informally through a variety of forums and tools. It is also a good idea to periodically seek the input of your community to ensure you are meeting their professional learning needs. Evaluation can then be fed-back into the operation of the VPD community. Minor adjustments may be implemented at the time they are identified where appropriate, and major adjustment implemented at a time identified as most appropriate by the convenors.

The online community, in part depending on why it was formed in the first place, is likely to evolve, split, change and even end. It is important to recognise where a community may need to be invigorated or re-designed, and when it is time to part ways.


References

Wenger, E., White, N. & Smith, J. (2009) Digital habitats: Stewarding technologies for communities. USA: CP2.

Acknowledgements

I would like to offer sincere thanks to Diana Ayling for her input into the development of these guidelines. Also, many thanks to the Ministry of Education and Te Toi Tupu for their ongoing support.

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