Tips for Building an Online Community

Attention school administrators: using technology to support virtual collaboration and establish an online community can serve as a useful tool to “keep the fire burning†among a planning group and help bring positive resolution to the task at hand.

The value of bringing the school community and various stakeholders together to address problems, find solutions and generally contribute to improving situations on the campus cannot be overstated. The most common way to bring people together is to host a face-to-face meeting. However, most issues are not resolved during a one-time meeting and follow up is usually required. In today’s world of competing priorities, it is difficult to find the space and time amenable to everyone’s schedule to allow for follow-up and ongoing conversations. To the rescue comes Virtual collaboration, and it can make a real difference.

Virtual Collaboration Tools

Virtual collaboration may be either Synchronous or Asynchronous. The difference: if it occurs during real-time activities like video teleconferencing or audio conference, where people are in different places participating at the same time, it is Synchronous; but if it enables participants to join in from different places at different times, then it is Asynchronous.

Some strategies to support virtual collaboration include the following:

  • Establish regular times for team interaction
  • Send agendas to participants beforehand
  • Designate a team librarian
  • Build and maintain a team archive
  • Use visual forms of communication where possible
  • Set formal rules for communication and/or technology use
  • What norms need to be established for things like: response time, whether or not Email can be forwarded to others?
  • What norms are important about who gets copied on Email messages and whether or not these are blind copies?
  • How does the style of Email messages influence how people feel about the team?

Decision Making Support Systems

  • How does the ability to contribute anonymous input affect the group?
  • How can you continue to test whether “consensus” as defined by computer processing of input is valid?

Audio (telephone) Conferencing

  • How can you help participants have a sense of who is “present?”
  • How can you sense when people have something to say so you can make sure that everyone has a chance to be heard?

Media

Questions for Facilitator/Manager

Video conferencing

  • How can you best manage the attention span of participants?
  • Where can video add something you can’t get with audio only?

Asynchronous Web-Conferencing

  • How do you deal with conflict when everyone is participating at different times?
  • What’s the virtual equivalent of eye contact?
  • What metaphors will help you help participants create the mental map they need to build a culture, which will support the team process?

Document Sharing

  • How can you balance the need to access and process large amounts of information with the goal of developing relationships and affective qualities like trust?

Building trust and establishing relationships is cited as a challenge for online communities, so begin with a face-to-face meeting and then pursue the online community. During your face-to-face meeting, let people know that you want to continue the conversations and ask people to join your online community by submitting their Email addresses to you.

To reach as many people as possible, keep things simple in the beginning. Initiate your online community with listserv messages. Begin by sending a message to your group thanking them for attending your recent meeting. One way to begin interaction is to post a question and ask people to respond.

Consider if you want responses to go out to everyone on the listserv or if you want all responses to come to you and you will compile the responses and send back to everyone. Compilation of responses may help ensure anonymity for your members and encourage participation in the beginning when the trust level may not be where it needs to be.

As your online community grows, it will be useful to host an audio conference or another face-to-face meeting to continue the work on building trust.

Remember to offer content and information focused on participants’ interests. Provide resources to help participants make informed decisions. Although information sharing does not encourage community interaction, it may serve to reinforce continue use of the online community.

Use opportunities to share success stories and reward or recognize members.

As your group becomes comfortable with the online community, you may want to consider providing more sophisticated methods to support and maintain your community. Of course, this will be determined by your members’ level of expertise and ability to meet the technology requirements.

Email:Susan Taylor

REFERENCES

Kimball, L. (1997). Intranet Decisions: Creating your organization’s internal network, Miles River Press.

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