Community management and community leadership is a growing, changing field. I first got into this kind of work when I led communities for PLP. At that time, it was almost a completely new concept. It was interesting and sometimes difficult to work in an entirely new sector as we were almost inventing frameworks as we went along.
Community management / leadership, combining kids with academic material, their passions, and their learning is like that. There are all kinds of online communities that kids take part in, but few of them are led by teachers or schools as hybrid spaces that combine their passions and the needs of curriculum. Now that our school year is finished, the first full year of the Idea Hive operating in its present form, there are a few lessons learned along the way that I think are worth sharing.
1.) The Idea Hive forums are partially closed. While our blogs are open to the world for commenting and interaction, the decision was made to keep our forums partially closed off. While these spaces can be read by anyone, they can only added to by the community of Idea Hive students. While I feel strongly that spaces should be kept as wide open as possible, the decision was made to keep these forums closed both for content and spam control reasons. Forums are easy to fill with spam, but we also wanted these forums to be places where kids were free to argue and post things that were close to their hearts. These are spaces where kids can post about their passions. We wanted them to feel safe and to know the people who were learning with them.
2.) As with leading any other community, leading a community of young learners is a process that involves nurturing their interests, building their passions, allowing them the freedom to they need to choose topics, write and grow. While much guidance in the early days provides the shape, structure and standards of the community, a good community leader also needs to know when to back off from topics and let students solve their own issues. This is a tricky one since discussions can sometimes become contentious, but you need to be willing to let students have these discussions. They certainly need to learn to disagree with each other within certain boundaries and doing so respectfully; but overall, it is OK if the members of your community have different opinions on issues (it can actually even help to push debate on certain things ahead!). Don’t be afraid to let the students in your community argue and disagree with each other. These are pretty essential online skills that they will need in more open communities.
3.) Track the stats of your community. The stats posted above are the real stats from the Idea Hive over this school year. While stats aren’t everything, we certainly were happy to see that students were engaged, posting new content and coming back to the site. As the school year ramped up and kids posted more content to the site, they saw more reason to return and keep posting; a virtuous cycle. We looked at what kind of content they were interested in and what drew them back to the site.
4.) As the year went by things changed on the site. We added the ability for kids to share in as many different ways as possible. They had blog and forum spaces. We made sure they could post photos and videos. We added achievements. We added mood icons. The idea was to find as many roads in to the site as possible for different kids. Some of them are readers and want text and want to share text. Others want photos, other video. Kids are motivated by many different things and need to communicate in many different ways. Having a community space like this lets them work in a variety of modalities – take advantage of it.
5.) Be a learner in your space. Although we find it hard to get out of our “teacher voice” sometimes, in an online community, we need to do that more. Share your passions and your goals. Write more. Share who you are with your community of students. This will give you and them an opportunity to get to know each other in new and different ways. While you still always need to be a leader and mentor and set an example of community standards and what is expected, this is also a place to connect with students who you may not have that strong of a connection with in the physical classroom. Quiet and shy or creative students sometimes flourish in online spaces, make use of these places.
Every community is different, just as every classroom is different. Being an online community leader / manager is a challenging and interesting role in your classroom, but one that lets you have another space to support the learning that happens in your classroom.