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Building an Online Community for Educators? 23

valianteffort asks: "I have had a site up on the net for over a year, and have attempted to get educators to respond in a way similar to the comments on Slashdot. My purpose is to build an educational community where educators could go to get advice or just blow off steam. Despite the fact that the site has a relatively large number of visitors I have not been able to entice the lively interaction I am hoping for. Does anyone have any ideas about how to get this interaction started and to maintain it once it gets going?"
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Building an Online Community for Educators?

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  • Librarian.net (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Go there [librarian.net]. Follow links. They seem to have a pretty solid community. Maybe wandering around their pages and links for a while will get you some ideas. Getting people to participate in a new/quiet public forum is hard.
  • by yelvington ( 8169 ) on Sunday January 05, 2003 @10:36AM (#5019455) Homepage
    This demonstrates (again) that building online community interaction is a human interaction project and not a technology or information project.

    You posted every news item on your site. No one else's name appears. Nobody is talking about anything.

    People don't stop to eat at a restaurant whose parking lot is empty. In order to get a conversation going, you have to have a conversation going. That sounds like Catch-22, but there are ways around it.

    You have to start out by recruiting, in the real world, a core group of deputies whose mission is to seed and lead conversations. Five or six people ought to do it. They need to post actively, and positively, modeling the behavior you want your community to adopt.

    You also will need to recognize that people need to "warm up" with small talk. Trivial conversation has layers of value that you may not immediately perceive. It's how social norms are established and communicated, and how person-to-person relationships are created. If people want to debate whether toilet paper goes on over-the-roll or under-the-roll, recognize that it's part of the process of establishing the process that can lead to more substantial conversations.

  • Start by faking it (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Motherfucking Shit ( 636021 ) on Sunday January 05, 2003 @11:13AM (#5019570) Journal
    It probably sounds crazy, but you have to start by faking it. The AC with FP is 100% correct when he says that "Getting people to participate in a new/quiet public forum is hard."

    One of the more interesting (and ingenius) business tidbits I ever came across involved Fred Smith, the founder of Federal Express. When he started the company, he had precisely one airplane. However, legend has it that painted on the side of that plane was the number 7. Why? People who saw the plane got the impression that FedEx had at least seven planes! It was all about making the company look bigger, which acted as a sort of subconscious trust/value/goodwill builder for potential customers.

    You can apply this same principle to your (and any new or stagnant) community site. People are more confident when the numbers are larger. Nobody's going to bother commenting on a story if they get the impression that no one else will ever read what they have to say. And if your site gets few or no comments, visitors do have the impression that no one is reading, regardless of what your access_log says. A Google search shows copious links to your site, so there's no doubt that you're getting traffic. You just need to motivate that traffic.

    I used to do some work for AOL, and when a new message board got created in our channel, it wasn't unusual for informal email to go out to various channel staff asking people to go generate some chatter in the new board. Even with an AOL audience of millions of eyeballs possibly checking out your forum, you still have to plant the seed yourself! Having created a couple of sites which focused on web-based message boards, I can tell you that I had to do the same thing there before "real people" began posting.

    The first thing you need to do is create some conversations on your site, and the easiest way to do that is to invent those conversations yourself. Register a few accounts at your site and start logging in as various personalities, posting comments and replies throughout each day. Don't be afraid to make outlandish comments and present radical opinions - in fact, these are the sorts of things which are most likely to motivate other people to comment! And, since you'd be posting them under various nicknames, nobody would know it was you making the crazy statements to begin with.

    Soon enough you'll find that your bogus conversations are attracting real replies. From there on out, it's a snowball process.

    All that said, you might try tweaking your site design and layout a bit as well. My constructive criticism with regards to that would be to shrink the Valiant Etc banner at the top of each page to perhaps half or 2/3 of its current height, move the "Welcome ..." text to an About page, move the poll (which is a very good topic) above the login box so that it's more readily visible when the page is loaded, and go for consistency in the font sizes of story description text.

    Donning my end-user hat, when I land on your site I'm sort of confused as to what's what, and the welcome text/mission statement prevents any of the stories from showing without me having to scroll down. That is, the real content of your site is hidden by a large banner and introductory message - neither of which are helpful to repeat visitors. If I were designing the site, the top story "Site-Based School Improvement" and the poll would be the first things greeting new visitors.

    Good luck!
  • One worthwhile method would be to have controversial opinions available for comment. Nothing sparks people starting to talk like reading something they totally disagree with, and making the REPLY button prominent. Just witness various /. articles that become heated discussions because of the extremity of the position. :) -Andy
  • Have you thought about something as simple as layout?

    Your design seems close to PostNuke defaults - Which are useful but not always perfect - From my experience of Educators (Student who runs a "Learn Computers" course for other students and teachers) I know that teachers can often be: Clueless - This happens a LOT

    You need to make a site that is very easy to use - Things like the small story headers all over the place - They are a bit of an overload on infomation - Simpify the site - remove all the kruft from around the edges and concentrate on the middle

    This is all my own opinion but you would be suprised how many people just turn off on a ugly/badly designed website
  • You may want to specify the kind of educators you want. Then invite some people by name. For example, there is a relatively lively forum mathedu [utk.edu] on the topic of research on post-doctorate mathematics education. There are active forums on unschooling, Reggio Emilia schools, and other specific areas of education... Good luck!
    • I mean the forum used to be lovely at some point. It is also on post-calculus education, not post-doctorate. Sorry for these typos :-)
    • The site is intended for a wide range of educators and we have tried to satisfy your suggestion by including different topics for different groups. So far the right people haven't found their way to the topics page. I do appreciate your pointers and will continue to work at finding a way.
  • People who are both tech-expert and seriously interested in education are a comparatively rare breed. However, there have been a number of stories by, for, and about us here recently, including Education Research by a Consulting Firm? [slashdot.org].

    I think there will be a natural and unavoidable shift toward more tech-capable teachers as older teachers retire and younger teachers (who have grown up with the Internet) come on board. As that happens, I think sites like yours [valetc.com] will become more popular.

    Currently, however, the tech-expert + education crowd needs cohesion -- there's an awful lot of redundant research, speculation, and experimentation going on out there. Further, a lot of the research is done by people who are not tech experts, and their results are pretty outlandish. So currently I would cater to that crowd, with the expectation that use by non-expert educators will come in due time.

    An unrelated suggestion: given the virulent anti-advertising attitude of most readers here, it might be a good idea to separate the public-participation stuff from the consulting stuff you do. Sourceforge might be a good model -- banner ads and whatnot make sure you're aware of it, but also make it clear what is commercial and what is public-participation.


    • Thanks, Dustin. I know you are correct about the number of tech-capable teachers being low at the present time. Do you have any ideas for issues that would get them thinking about what they are doing?

  • Don't be discouraged about the percentage of posters to readers. Most people have no idea how few people post out of a pool of readers. It's VERY small. You have to generate tremendous ammounts of traffic and/or prestige to get good discussion flowing.

    Another thing most people don't realize is that most of the discussion on any posting board is created by a handful of dedicated and active posters. The posts are not generaly spread out evenly through the population. Most people don't post at all or rarely while a VERY FEW people post ALL THE TIME. Most of your PR and effort will be to attract these people. And it's not always easy, especialy when your topic is narrow and about work ;)

    The best way to cultivate those posters is to give them as much feedback as possible. Slashdot is an ideal place to see this in action. When you click on an article, most of the time, the actual information is merely linked to, but all the posts are displayed! Because here, the posting is the point. Also, the rating system does more than sort the posts, it gives many people a REASON to post. You WILL be seen (and modded, and flamed, etc ;)

    So put posts on the front page, respond to EVERY post, encourage the frequent posters, create stories from reader responses, do whatever you can to make your posters prominant. Don't be afraid to be aggressive in encouraging or recruiting these people. You HAVE to. Get your friends/colleagues involved etc. Actually ASK them to post. As another example, when the WELL (now Salon) started they actualy gave out free accounts to writers just to make sure that there would be interesting people writing !

    Dilution may also be a problem. If you post a lot of stories with discussions attatched, you actualy dilute the pool of posters. Try to concentrate these posters around a few long-term posting boards at first that deal with general topics, and link the articles to these boards.

    Obviously, this is a lot of work, but if you want lively discussions, you just have to put the energy in. There is no other way.

    BTW, posting this on /. was a great idea. You're on the right track.
  • I imagine the quality and quantity of the interaction that you're looking for has a direct relationship to the amount of free time your audience has to muck about on internet discussion sites, instead of doing what they're getting paid for.

No extensible language will be universal. -- T. Cheatham