Thursday, 17 December 2015

In it for the long term - evolving your community of practice over time - LIVE BLOG - from #SocMedHE15 18th Dec. 2015

Hi everyone,

We're delighted to be running a workshop at the inaugural Social Media for Learning in Higher Education Conference on Friday 18th December at Sheffield Hallam University. Building on all the great work our NSMNSS community has done over the last four years we'll be working in the room and with you virtually to develop some top tips for sustaining and growing your online communities. We'll start by sharing our slide deck with you, but keep refreshing the page from 13.40pm onwards as we'll be adding content and thoughts from the workshop participants as the workshop progresses.

We'll also be tweeting some questions for you to respond to so you can actively join in the discussion. Make sure you keep an eye on the @NSMNSS twitter feed on the blog for these.

Q1. What communities and networks do you belong to? And how would you like to strengthen or grow them?

Hello and we're off with people drawing their own personal online learning communities and discussing the networks they belong to... comparing maps people are seeing some similarities and some differences, and asking is there a hierarchy of engagement? Some of our delegates lurk in some of their online communities and are highly active in others. We're discussing what makes a difference to online engagement.

Q2. What engages and disengages you in online communities?

Our group spent time noting down the key drivers and inhibitors of online engagement, here's what they came up with, it's a great list full of insights into how to build community engagement:

Drivers of engagement
  • Easy access
  • Good momentum - day to day engagement
  • Good curation
  • Social aspects: things being human, personal, dialogue not broadcasting, allowing people to have a say it's their community - building relationships - conversations
  • Meaningful value - content is useful, discussions are relevant, there is a purpose to the discussions, you learn something
  • Tangible outcomes - collective content creation
  • Having a recognisable rhythm to online activities: knowing what's coming when - regularity
  • Positive feedback on contributions from members, the community feels approachable and supportive
  • Reciprocity - sharing and appreciation of sharing
  • Persistence
  • Explicit calls to action for e.g. write us a guest blog
  • Structured events and activities to set the parameters for learning
  • Information behind password protected site
  • Lack of activity or dialogue - broadcasting is off-putting
  • Lack of feedback and interaction
  • Being spread too thin - lots going on across multiple platforms OR too many activities going on to keep up with (managing too many feeds, information overload)
  • Not having a rhythm of regular activities to engage with, irregularity
  • Conflict and disrespectful debate
  • Diversion - discussions going off point too often
  • Trolls and haters

Q3.  What activities keep you engaged in your online community?

We're moving on to discuss how you keep members engaged in the community what types of activities help?  Some of the suggestions include:
  • Running regular twitter chats
  • Sharing great content and encouraging member to member sharing using hashtags or other ways to label and tag content
  • Dialogue and interaction in between structured activities
  • Blogs - creating a rich source of content, get members contributing to blogs, videos, audio content - sharing their experience and insights with each other
  • Use polls to let your members set the agenda for the discussions so they feel ownership
  • Creating maps of the network to show members who else belongs and the range of knowledge and expertise they can draw on (our Twitter manager does this regularly using a range of tools) also feedback to members analytics on community activities & successes/impacts
  • Run on and offline activities (we run conferences and workshops as well as Twitter chats and online conferences)
Q4. How do you encourage members to deepen and widen their connections?

Over time it's important to support community members to widen and deepen their personal connections otherwise the community will stagnate. How do you do this? Curtis introduced Wasim to the group. Wasim has been managing our Twitter account for over a year and has done a great job of building a sense of community and putting people in touch with each other. Wasim talked about how important conversation and signposting was to this task: letting members know who else is interested in the same topics or has relevant expertise. He talked about how the #NSMNSS community has connected with other communities with shared interests (for instance running a Twitter chat with #PhDchat) to open up new connections for members. We also work with a range of supporting affiliate organisations who come from different sectors in the research community to ensure members hear different perspectives and can forge new connections. We all noted that this type of connective work in communities takes time and persistence, although over time a successful community will start to do some of this work for itself, certainly the #NSMNSS hashtag helps our members to connect directly with each other, they don't need to wait for the community facilitators to make connections or to share information and content.

Q5. How do you sustain the learning outputs of the community?

We kicked off today's session by talking about the critical difference between a network (a set of connections) and a community of practice which is network that shares a common desire to share experience/learn from one another around an aspect of their shared practice/profession/expertise. So the learning agenda and outputs are critical. We discussed a range of ways you can make sure learning is shared to push practice forward:
  • Having member's blog and create content (like videos or resources) for the community to share their experiences, this has been hugely successful with NSMNSS it helps members to feel they are contributing and ensures a wide range of experiences and insight is shared
  • Think outside of the box, we crowd-sourced a book of blogs and then published it. It provided members with a platform to share their work on social media in social research and took that learning beyond the community to the wider world.
  • Others have used Twitter takeovers to give individual members a chance to shape the stream of content for a week or a month, this is particularly good with students who can take over community social streams for a defined period of time and share their interests and learning
  • Hold workshops or conferences (on or offline) and invite members to contribute to sessions
  • Invite guests to share their insights with the community, Storify or record the session and then share that resource.
Q6. How do you avoid your community of practice becoming an echo chamber?

We're moving on to talking about the challenges of networks becoming echo chambers with everyone agreeing or sharing very similar viewpoints. If you surround yourself with people that express similar opinions to those that you express, you end up reinforcing and ‘normalising’ those views. In a CoP this can look like the community beginning to repeat itself – covering the same ground or members consistently agreeing or expressing the same opinions.

Curtis is talking about what happens when the community hears nothing new or doesn't contain a diversity of voices. He described how this can feel cliquey, deter new members and stifle debate.
It’s also (arguably) more likely to happen online because
  • Online media can limit the ability to communicate, meaning that views may be simplified and  some subtle differences may be lost
  • Social media algorithms are often designed to show you things you’ll like!
  • Dissenters can easily be labelled as ‘trolls’

This effect can, to an extent, be positive as it will help to promote community cohesion. However, it can also lead to a heightened risk of ignoring alternative views, reinforcing your own, and skewing your perspective. This is probably not great in general says Curtis but can be especially problematic for a CoP – it is difficult to learn, improve and develop if it is the same views being consistently expressed. Further, it means that you can’t assume that views being expressed as best practice are those of the wider population. Even if not to these extremes, these points can limit the effectiveness & appeal of CoPs as learning networks. As facilitators of online communities we need to encourage new voices and alternative perspectives.
1.     Attracting new members who may have different opinions/haven’t been ‘normalised’
  • Operate in new spaces – different online channels/offline
  • Invite new members to the filed (e.g. PhD students, etc.)
  • Encourage ‘lurkers’ to contribute
  • Link into new areas – e.g. partnering with related networks (international, in alternative disciplines for example)
2.     Cover new topics as old ones reach saturation/consensus
  • Perhaps revisit later as things change
  • Need to actively monitor discussion – while it’s fine for these to continue, need to promote alternatives
  • Those topics will vary from network to network
3.     Create a ‘safe environment’ for critical views
  • An element of moderation – ask questions, ensure things remain constructive
  • Be critical – if necessary, play the role yourself be the 'devils advocate'
These are all related, and to a certain extent mutually supporting, but they are also quite active – if a community tends towards a ‘norm’, then that needs to be disrupted, it won’t necessarily occur naturally. Fortunately, these themes play to strengths of online – where barriers to entry are low (given web access), it can be relatively easy to access other networks, and the ‘openness’ and relative anonymity of online platform can encourage participation.

Sustaining momentum and our top tips

We are coming to a close now with people contributing their top tips for building and sustaining online learning communities. Keeping it fresh, changing the rhythm to disrupt and inject energy into the community (for example we crowd sourced a book of blogs to inject some fresh energy into our community, check in with members regularly to find out what they need from the community & what their hot issues are, get members involved in contributing as soon as possible whether as content creators or community facilitators, invite in new members from other sectors/disciplines/areas of expertise. Here are some more suggestions:

Phew, that was a quick fire hour, thanks to everyone who contributed.

Here's the Storify of the twitter interactions around the workshop and below that you can find some additional resources:

Additional resources

Etienne Wenger coined the term community of practice, these are the key texts:
  • Wenger, Etienne. 1998. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Wenger E, McDermott R, Snyder, WM. Cultivating communities of practice: A guide to managing knowledge. Boston (Mass): Harvard Business Publishing; 2002
Jane Hart writes wisely about communities of practice for workplace learning, much of what she shares has wider relevance to any community of practice. You can find her website here: and she published The Social Learning Handbook which you can find more out about here:

A selection of HEA resources on building communities of practice in HE to support staff & student learning can be found here:

We the Nurses is a hugely successful Twitter based community of practice (see #wenurses): Moorley, C.  R., & Chinn, T.  Nursing and Twitter:  Creating an online community using hashtags.  Collegian  (2014),
Bronwyn Stuckey & John Smith have written about the qualities that successful (sustaining) CoPs and their ‘leaders’ display:

Suzanne Riverin & Elizabeth Stacey have also written about sustaining an online CoP:  Sustaining an Online Community of Practice: A Case Study


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