SAGE Musings: Building Online Academic Communities

Carol Ormand, SERC, Carleton College

published Jun 4, 2020 3:34pm

As the academic world moves online, several of my colleagues have expressed an interest in knowing more about how to build an online community, both in their courses and for events such as online academic conferences. Thinking about this question reminds me of what we have learned from years of running online professional development events for the SAGE 2YC: Faculty as Change Agents project, from relatively short book clubs, journal clubs, and implementation groups to semester-long online workshops. On reflection, what I see is that we have translated face-to-face community-building practices into the online environment, in ways that take advantage of the affordances of that environment whenever that's possible.

Be explicit about your expectations, from the very beginning

Prior to our first synchronous meetings with a new cohort of Change Agents, participants watch a video about the SAGE 2YC project. This video includes a description of our grounding philosophy for the project, the schedule of synchronous and asynchronous sessions for our virtual workshop, and an explanation of our expectations for participation in the project. Explicitly stating norms and expectations lets everyone know what they can expect from you (their instructor or event leader) and from each other. This can be especially reassuring for anyone entering a new environment, whether that's college, an online setting, or a conference or other event they've never attended before. If you wish, you can also invite community members to suggest additions or modifications to your "draft" expectations, thus giving community members some ownership over the expectations.

Design with equity and inclusion in mind

This is the time to articulate what you will do to support equity and inclusion. Will you normalize including pronouns in introductions by including yours and inviting (but not requiring!) everyone else to do so? How will you ensure that all voices are heard in synchronous sessions? What you do and say now sets the tone for all future interactions.

Ask yourself whether there are steps you can take to ensure that each of your community members has full access to your event. The SAGE 2YC project has offered video cameras to all project participants who didn't already have them, so that everyone has the opportunity to be seen by the community (if they want to). We also have someone on hand to provide technical support in case anyone needs it. This is particularly important for the first synchronous meeting; being unable to join the conversation at the beginning of an event can have a lasting impact on a person's sense of belonging in the community.

Begin with introductions, even before you "meet"

In all of our programming, community building begins with introducing ourselves to each other, often before our first synchronous meeting. In the SAGE 2YC project, this process of getting to know each other has two parts:

  1. We ask project participants to tell us a little bit about their work for our project website. For example, here's the Lane Community College team. Participants can read about all of the other teams by following the links from the list of Cohort 3 teams.
  2. Each participant introduces themselves to the rest of the cohort, either via a brief email message or in a synchronous meeting. The project leaders prescribe the components of this introduction and also model our expectations by going first.

Remember what brings you all together

I think it's important to remember what kind of community we are trying to build. In the SAGE 2YC project, our goal is to build a community of practice: a group of people with a shared passion, who learn from each other through our interactions. My goal would be the same in a classroom or at a conference. Once you have established the norms of your community and introduced yourselves to each other, you can focus your attention on that shared interest. Of course, not every online community will start with a strong, shared vision. Be prepared for this to take some time to emerge. Tuckman's description of the stages of group development may provide a helpful perspective.

Structure your event through activities that engage community members in interactions that will facilitate learning, just as you would in a face-to-face setting. These activities can be synchronous, asynchronous, or both.

Use engaging pedagogies in synchronous activities

Given that facilitating meaningful exploration of ideas is an important component of building an online community, effective use of pedagogies is essential. We've been using Zoom since 2016, so I'll use examples from that platform. Whatever platform you use, find out about its capabilities and use them to facilitate engagement. In addition, make sure that all participants know who to contact, and how, if they need tech support for any reason.

  • Pose a question to the community: Is there a question you would like to pose to the group? The "poll" function in zoom supports multiple-choice questions, and you can show the community's responses to everyone in real time. This can help everyone in the community to get a sense of who is "in the room." You can also pose an open-ended question and ask everyone to type their answers into the chat window. This allows everyone to answer the question simultaneously, and allows everyone in the meeting to see all of their answers. You can save the chat at the end of the meeting if you want a record of these answers.
  • Discussion-based pedagogies: In zoom, you can send community members into "breakout rooms" to have a discussion in smaller groups. You can assign participants to rooms randomly or pre-select who will be in each group. Groups can be any size, from 2 people on up. This tool can thus support the use of discussion-based pedagogies such as think-pair-share or jigsaws. It is helpful to tell participants in advance how long the breakout session will last and what you expect from them when they "return" to the main meeting, just as you would in a face-to-face setting. If your platform doesn't support breakout rooms, you could still assign participants to pairs and have them engage in a private chat with each other.
  • Working groups: Small groups can be assigned a task to complete, in addition to or instead of discussion. For example, you could also send small groups to discuss a case study or scenario and to report back to the larger group about how they would respond to the given situation. Or you could ask them to produce a written document, such as a set of recommendations.
  • Side conversations: The chat window in zoom is a remarkably versatile tool. I have seen participants use it to ask and answer questions and to share resources or references, including links to online resources. It can also be used for private conversations; do not underestimate the power of this to build online community. Community members may have a private chat with each other about a shared interest without you knowing this is happening. One advantage of the online environment is that these conversations aren't disruptive for you or other participants.
  • Develop a concept map or sketch: Would you like the whole group to develop a concept map, collaboratively? Do you or someone else want to sketch something for the community in real time? Zoom has a "whiteboard" that supports either of these activities. Be aware, however, that whiteboards in breakout rooms are not automatically preserved or recorded.
A note about equity and inclusion: If you choose to have small groups report back to the larger group about their small group discussions, consider choosing "reporters" rather than calling for volunteers. You can ensure that the group will hear from a diverse set of voices.

Use engaging pedagogies in asynchronous activities

In our SAGE 2YC project, synchronous activities are relatively brief -- often only an hour every two weeks or so. Therefore, we make extensive use of asynchronous activities to engage community members in deeper learning. We also make an effort to include multiple modalities in this asynchronous work.

  • Assigned reading / watching: We are a community of learners, so all of our asynchronous activities involve learning from a variety of sources: journal articles, videos, excerpts from books, websites, etc.
  • Required reflections or responses: We ask everyone in our community to respond to each of the assignments in some way. This can take many forms: sending the workshop leader a list of suggested discussion questions prompted by the assignment, reflecting on how the assigned reading/video/etc relates to their personal experience, thoughts about how they will apply what they have learned from the assignment to their own practice. These responses are shared with the entire community, often via a (private, password-protected) discussion board or a private email list, prior to the next synchronous meeting.
  • Structured community interactions: We sometimes assign community members to respond to each other's reflections and/or implementation plans. In my opinion, these interactions are particularly important to developing a community of practice.
  • Implementation and reporting: In some cases, we assign community members something to do and ask them to report back to the community about how it went and what they learned from the experience.

Invite formative feedback

In addition to performing end-of-event evaluations, we invite our community members to let us know what is working and what is not, early on and throughout a series of events. We use surveys consisting of just a few open-ended questions to gather this feedback. This provides an easy mechanism for anyone to alert us to issues or raise concerns. Our project evaluation team collects responses, anonymizes the data, and shares it with the project leaders. However, you could also use an anonymous survey tool (such as a Google form) to invite this kind of feedback.

Explore the tools available to you

The SAGE 2YC project, hosted by SERC, uses Serckit, SERC's Content Management System. Serckit has lots of functions that we make use of; if your online community uses a different CMS, I encourage you to learn about its functionality and think about how to use those functions to support community interactions. Tools we use include private (password-protected) wiki-like web workspaces, formative and summative evaluation forms, discussion boards, and email lists. SAGE 2YC doesn't use social media and / or instant messaging services, but many of our community members have connected with each other on social media, and I can imagine an academic online community intentionally using such platforms for informal conversations.

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