Online, there are communities of all sizes. By the hundreds of thousands, some are huge stopping places that collect tens of thousands of users, while others are small, with only a few people who contribute and are struggling to stay alive.
Like real communities, each of these spaces has a culture of its own that can be read, developed and changed. New users are expected to respect the culture of a community that has already developed and are expected to know “the rules.” Not all online spaces are positive. Some are outright racist while others have a culture of respect built into them by their users and moderators.
For example, Wikipedia is a massively successful online community. With over 10, 300, 000 user accounts as of today, they have been very successful at creating a community which people want to belong to. Wikipedia encourages it users to post profiles of themselves which thousands of people have done. While there can be little personal information contained in the work that users complete on the articles themselves, many of their profiles are huge and ever expanding as people write about themselves, the types of articles they have worked on and what types of credentials (if any) they might have.
Many of these profiles are both informative and funny and people are willing to share significant pieces of information about themselves. Wikipedia even provides all sorts of banners and “barnstar” awards for people who have taken a leadership role on the website.
Wikipedia is a great example of a global community that is transparent and positive. The community is accomplishing a massive task while still encouraging their users to be individuals.
Other online communities are very different. For example, both Youtube and the CBC also have open comment systems. While dramatically different in personality from each other, both of these systems are much less transparent from the culture that has developed on Wikipedia. In both places, the majority of users have not posted personal profile pages, or if they have, they contain little information about the actual users.
Both of these sites have developed a much different culture than that of Wikipedia. In both places, comments can be outright rude and (on Youtube) filled with profanity. I believe that many of the culture “problems” on these sites can be attributed to users being allowed to remain anonymous and by a lack of, or weak moderation. Of course, the internet being a global space that is occupied by all sorts of people, these two sites are assembling a different community than Wikipedia has.
So what comes out of this? What are the lessons that can be learned for educators who may be growing online communities? I think there are several lessons to be learned:
1.) The culture of an online community is something that needs to be purposefully grown and encouraged. A positive functioning community does not emerge on its own. It needs to be guided, moderated and developed. Teachers have a significant role in this.
2.) Students need to be encouraged to develop their own space and profile online. While many schools may be reluctant to do this and while these profiles need to be checked over carefully by knowledgeable adults to ensure that students are not sharing personal information, the development of an online profile and space will help students become true contributors and members of their community.
3.) Teachers need to be present in different ways in their online communities. They need to be mentors and models, posting their own information and profiles, while encouraging students to do the same. They must be active writers and participants in the community. Co – learners and not simply administrators.
4.) Communities should grow and be open. Students need to learn to function in global online communities where they do not know all of the participants who are involved. This small scale modeling that might involved several classrooms will benefit students much more than a closed, one classroom only type of community. I know many systems have policies about the openness of their communities, but this is a battle worth fighting.
5.) Students need practice to become good netizens. Participating in online communities as a special event or a one time type of thing will do them little benefit. This needs to be a central pillar of how learning happens in classrooms.
We are still new to much of this in education so we have a lot to learn about these ideas, but the effect they can have on the learning of our students makes these things worth exploring.