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Best Practices for Building an Online Community (what you really should be doing)


Follow these best practices for building an online community and you’ll have a group of happy excited learners.  I recently built a thriving community following these guidelines.

But first, why would you want an online community?

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– A community supports learning and gets people chatting about shared topics.

– New knowledge can be built and acquired through in depth online discussions.

– Lack of peer interaction can cause people to feel isolated and eventually quit. People like to have a sense of belonging.

– Online communities allow for people to interact at their own rate and in their own time. It does not matter what time of the day or night or whether someone wants to go and read an article before responding.


Online communities are also known by the term ‘Communities of Practice’ thanks to the great work by Etienne Wenger.



Best Practices For Building An Online Community (What You Really Should Be Doing)


* please note there are many different types of online community. Here I’m working around the online discussion groups that are common in online courses. These usually follow a similar set up to a forum.


Make sure that everyone ‘commits’ to being honest in the community. Avoid avatars (as much as you can) and also avoid anonymity. You want people to express themselves and hold an opinion that is true to them.


Get your friends to join. People don’t like to join an empty community. Get some people you know to start off the interactions. This will build content and show others that the community is legit. No one wants to be lonely.


Let people know the do’s and don’t’s, or otherwise, ‘netiquette’. It’s a good idea to have a set of general rules before you start. This could be anything from not using caps because it comes across as shouting, to always addressing the person to whom you are replying, to treating others as you would treat yourself.


Provide a ‘water-cooler’ area. Create an area where people can chat about anything; kids, holidays etc. It is a good idea to get people to introduce themselves in this area. This leaves your discussion area just for guided discussions.


Provide a Qs & As area. This can be an area where people go with general questions or if they’re stuck on anything. Check this area regularly AND encourage other participants to answer questions.


Start small. One (or two) discussion points to start. Your community WILL start small. Have just one or two discussion points and focus on these points. Don’t worry, everything has to start somewhere, just be proactive with encouraging people. Expand the discussion as more people join.


When your participant numbers grow consider group activities. You don’t want a group smaller than about seven people. You also don’t want a group larger than about 20, but it depends on the activity. Sometimes smaller is better. Allocate these groups their own space but also have plenty of activities in the larger discussion area. Remember, you COULD also do a peer assessment activity within the group.


Use the discussion area as a learning tool. You can build this into your course design. Contributing to a focused discussion is a great way to learn so why not stipulate that course participants have to contribute a certain number of times to the discussion. You could also count this towards a grade.


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– Provide updates with what’s happening on the site. Most forum sites are built to allow the users to opt in for weekly or daily updates. Let people know what’s going on.


LEARN FROM WHAT YOU’RE DOING – what is working, what isn’t working. Review the site and ask people for feedback. You might be surprised at what you get.




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