We have two purposes in this look at building online community:
- to introduce you to resources and software services at the Forum that might help you build your online communities.
- to invite you to join us in thinking about what makes for effective online communities.
Note that there are three places in the following (marked A, B, and C) where you are asked to do some writing.
The Math Forum began life as the Geometry Forum, before the WWW existed, and was initially focused around a set of newsgroups. We have always defined ourselves as a community and believe the growth of the Forum is primarily a result of this focus and of supporting and building on the activity of those who use our resources, projects, services, and public forums. Thus we are very interested in figuring out both what makes for good online communities, and how communities can help achieve goals such as the support of systemic reform efforts, continuing professional development, nurturing students' interest in mathematics, and helping the Math Forum become self-sustaining.
Communication, naturally enough, is at the heart of online communities. At the Forum we host a number of newsgroups, mailing lists, and web-based discussion groups, and we have experimented with different ways to seed and organize discussions. We have also been exploring TappedIn, a multi-user, real-time environment that we use for virtual office hours, group tours, and topic-specific chats.
What Makes for a Good Discussion?
Go to our discussions page at http://mathforum.org/discussions/ and visit at least 10 different groups, including some under Special Projects. (A) Think about the following questions and use the geometry-institutes group to share your thoughts on what makes for a good discussion. See also onsite participant Evan Glazer's paper analyzing the discourse in one discussion group:
Which groups are most active? Of the active groups, is it the same small group of people talking, or a lot of different participants? Which groups appear most focused and resourceful? What do you think influences the character of the activity and the focus? Is it:
Moderation and facilitation are two means of focusing online discussions that have been used to varying degrees of success. See the Learning and Mathematics series, NCTM Standards 2000, mathedu, k12.ed.math, sci.math.num-analysis, and Collaborative Learning discussions as examples of different forms of moderation or facilitation.
- the mechanism of participation? (See if you can tell which ones are primarily done via email, news, or the web.)
- the topic?
- the level?
- the intervention/activity of a few individuals who set the tone or moderate?
- the expertise, resourcefulness of the people who respond?
- the quickness of group members to respond?
- the number of members, a critical mass?
There's More to Community than Discussion Groups and Conferences
What else can contribute to successful online communities, and what benefits can such communities bring to your projects? (B) Think and write on this question in the geometry-institutes group. What follows are a few starting points for reflection.
Personal Contact and Support:
Even in terms of communication there are important avenues that many successful projects exploit. Certainly private email with an author is one way in which community is built. See some of the exchanges between Suzanne Alejandre and users of her online units:
The Math Forum receives a fair amount of mail from users needing support through our Suggestion Box and Help links. Responding to this mail is a labor-intensive task, although there are ways to capitalize on previous answers and draw on volunteers from the local community, as is done in Ask Dr. Math:
Answering each others' questions can be a good way to build community, and we plan eventually to make it easy to set up such community help services for teachers developing projects on the Forum, as well as for our own webmaster activity. Even without a sophisticated service, archiving the correspondence is a good way to build community resources as well as present a sense of the activity. Of course, it's important to think about whether your correspondents are prepared to have their messages made public.
Bridging Email and Public Discussions:
The Forum recently started a service called Teacher2Teacher to handle teaching questions:
Once a question has been answered well enough by the service, we make it available to the public with in addition a public discussion attached to it where people can add their thoughts. We hope that by associating public discussions with specific, substantive questions and answers we may be able to foster new, focused discussion groups. Again, it is possible for the Math Forum to add public discussions to any project or archive of correspondence and this is something onsite and online participants should consider for their pages.
Resources, Projects, and Common Work
CommunityWare is an online service helping others set up communities:
I was interested as I explored their site to see the defining elements of the communities they build, and the process you can follow in setting up your own community. I present their descriptions in an appendix at the end of these notes. We already implement a number of the elements of their setup, including a regular newsletter:
and there are others that I think we could add to or improve here at the Forum, and that you might think about for your communities.
Resource sharing is something we have planned to implement for over a year, and we have even mocked up a Teacher Exchange for this purpose:
but others of our projects need to be finished before we can continue with this. A bulletin board should be part of such an area.
It would be interesting if we could develop a more clear membership area, one that would make it easier for people to develop a sense of who uses the Forum and how to find colleagues. Along with this, it would help to formulate a clearer description of who uses the Forum and the various areas within it, along with models of effective use for classroom or professional development or just plain fun.
One notion not so much in evidence at CommunityWare is that communities develop around common work and projects. In our case this would be around activities such as our various Problems of the Week that offer challenges for the student and that benefit from the support of teachers and students who contribute ideas and problems, and simply participate.
In the case of the Elementary POW, teachers and their students can serve as mentors, and this in turn can lead to community among the participants.
Spending time together, in person, is another easily overlooked contributor to community, and virtual communities often organize get-togethers at related conferences. The Forum has attempted to continue a regular offering of workshops, conferences, and presentations in schools:
These personal connections can reinforce a sense of commitment, enable planning and problem-solving that's hard to do effectively online, and enrich relationships. Of course, an additional benefit of conducting workshops about the Internet is that the resources developed for these programs can be made publicly available and remain useful long after the original event. See also Suzanne Alejandre's web pages on the workshops she conducts:
The benefits of community are many, including the additional resources contributed by community members, the helpful feedback and perspectives offered, and the support of colleagues. They can also be labor-intensive, and one of the challenges in developing online resources is to balance your involvement with others with your own development efforts. The Math Forum has some services that can help manage your communites, and we expect that more are on the way. At the very least, we hope you will help us form a community that will serve your needs as developers of online mathematics education resources.
(C) Write me a note if you would like to implement a mailing list or web discussion group or some other community element for which you would like some help from the Math Forum:
Elements of CommunityWare communities:
- more than just the individuals who join, but features for finding and identifying people in your community.
- discussion areas for different segments of your community
- real-time discussion area for groups of members.
- internal communication, private and semi-private, subgroups within the community.
- connecting to other related web resources.
- Bulletin Boards
- a place where community members can post notices of needs or offerings.
- a regular publication for members who choose to receive it.
- a web site that CommunityWare helps you make that is associated with your community.
- description of the character and purposes of your community.
- functions to help you host conferences and run the various aspects of your community.
Process for starting a community:
- Choose whether you would like your community to be public or private. Public is open to all people on CommunityWare. Private is password protected and accessed only by invitation.
- Describe your community. Give it a name, enter it in a category, set standards of conduct.
- Select the opening view or welcome page. Choose from such applications as chat, bulletin, conferences, homepage, etc. This is what will greet your members as they enter your community.
- Invite friends, family, colleagues, business partners, students or anyone to your community.
- Click the "Come In" button on the last page to enter your community.
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