Online Communities

Abstract

An explosion of online communities in the "virtual" world (based on internet technology) has successfully defeated time and distance to bring innumerable interest groups together worldwide. However, little has been done with the same technology - now very flexible and inexpensive - to support local communities. This note sets out some of the possibilities, focuses on the School Community by way of example and concludes that it's time to put these ideas to the test.

Which Communities?

Most of us are primarily concerned with our families, our workplace, our local environment and, within that, our childrens' schools. This is not to say that we eschew other communities but these are good examples for the purpose of this discussion. They are very different from the worldwide interest groups that have sprung up all over the internet.

Traditionally, local communities communicated face-to-face. You did not write a letter to your next-door neighbour or the friend who lives three streets away. However, as soon as the telephone became ubiquitous you would phone your friend much more often than you would go round to see them. Today, we are beginning to use email much more when we could as easily pick up the phone. Why?

The issue is one of time more than distance. For example, if I need to communicate with my daughter's teacher I can't easily go to see them personally because we work while they work. It's also hard to phone them for the same reason. It is quite common for paper notes to be sent back and forth in the childrens' school bags. Although a little arcane, this works - most of the time.

So I have chosen the school as my example community for the purposes of this paper. However, I believe the same analysis on other important communities of interest would yield a similar picture.

The Actors

Who are the people in this community?

  • Students
  • Teachers (and departments)
  • Parents (and prospective parents)
  • Governors
  • Non-teaching staff
  • LEA staff
  • Suppliers
  • Local police, church, doctors and community leaders
  • Whoever I've forgotten (apologies)

We immediately notice that there are overlaps in these sub-communities and that each group has different communication needs.

Communication Needs

These are just a few illustrative examples:

  • Teacher wants to arrange a school skiing trip
  • Sports department wants to talk to parents about supporting school matches
  • Parent is organising a charity event and want to involve students and parents
  • Student is running a new club for stateboard enthusiasts
  • Chef is announcing a new menu
  • Police chief wants to help with drugs education
  • Doctor wants to inform people about a flu epidemic
  • Vicar is arranging a program with Help the Aged
  • Governors are planning a retirement party for a long-serving teacher
  • School Head is announcing the exam results, the opening of a new building or voluntary contributions to the fund for new IT equipment.

This could become a long list! Let's just look at these are see what issues are involved:

  • Are these 1-way communication?

    They could be 1-way but it would be much better if they could be dialogues. "OK, I've got the information about the skiing trip and I'm interested. What can you tell me about supervision and safety?" Ideally, the communication would start with an announcement, there would be dialogue with interested parties and some of that dialogue could be published to augment the original announcement.

  • How easily can these announcements be published?

    The Police Chief would have little problem getting an announcement typed up and circulated but this could be difficult for a parent without free access to office facilities. For many members of the community a no-cost method of publishing would be important. Online distribution goes a long way to achieving this (see point about access below). Even the Police chief has better uses for photocopying, not to mention an aversion to wasting paper!

  • Will the announcements be distributed to (and seen by) interested people?

    Leaflets stuffed into school bags reach parents well enough, provided they are not lost in the incoming paper trail. However, most other members of the community need announcements sent to them and cost of this usually limits distribution. Blanket distribution such as leaflets through letterboxesis also very inefficient - do I need to mention double glazing?

  • Can responses be gathered easily?

    I mentioned earlier the paper slips that we tear off and send back to teachers. Even if these reach their destination, it's a chore to collect and summarise these and in some cases they will also need to be keyed in to a school computer. This really is not a satisfactory method for dialogue. You would have to phone to deal with the safety question example above.

  • Is there sufficient Internet access to be able to use that medium effectively?

    No, but that's a poor reason for not using it. For orginating messages and responding you need access to the Internet whereas for receiving information a mixture of Internet and paper could be used. Internet access is best when it's available at home and in your workplace. However, public terminals are becoming more common now. The local library, petrol station or cafe provides enough access to those otherwise without. The government is also addressing this issue more actively now. In the meantime, the fact that a certain proportion of a communitiy's communications still need to use paper does not mitigate the benefits.

  • Does the Internet introduce issues of privacy?

    Properly designed, secure web services are now used in a wide range of applications and the techniques for protection of personal information are well established, economical and reliable. Third parties are also providing additional assurance through certification programs. My bank account is accessible over the Internet and I have no concerns about privacy on that.

Elements of a Solution

These are some of the online tools available to assist communication within the community:

  • Email distribution

    The first and foremost community communication tool should be a set of mailing lists. These allow authorised personsto easily send a mail to a group such as "all students", "all teachers" or "governors". The lists can be used for a combination of email and paper-based communication.

  • Web micro-sites

    A school department may already have pages within the school website. However, a parent organising a charity concert may not have a convenient place to place announcements and supporting information. The community should have a flexible facility to create micro-sites of, say 1-10 pages in support of such activities. These micro-sites must be able to be built as and when needed, with little or no expert help.

  • Shared folders

    It is often necessary to share documents and other electronic files between participants in a given activity. Each micro-site could have a set of folders for relevant documents. These could be controlled by a nominated individual within the activity or, more flexibly, could be maintained collectively by the activity's participants.

  • On-line surveys

    To turn the web into a 2-way communication tool one of the first requirements is to be able to ask questions of recipients and collect the answers back. If a parent is expressing interest in the skiing trip they could be asked such questions as "How many seasons' skiing experience does your child have?". The results could be automatically tablulated and made available to the organiser online.

  • Discussion boards

    In some cases it is useful to have a multi-way dialogue where all participants can seea discussion as it proceeds. This allows several arguments to be put forward and debated on-line. Discussion boards to not require participants to be on-line simultaneously. (They are therefore not the same thing as "web chat".) Again, no special skills are required of participants.

  • Calendars

    Some activities need the type of coordination best based around a calendar. For example, the school choir might have its Christmas schedule online.

Additional tools are available from various service-providers, often without charge. These could be provided as part of a community system but there is really no need for the community to support their overheads.

  • Personal email accounts;
  • Personal web pages and supporting design tools;
  • Instant messaging - the online equivalent of text messaging.

Scenarios of Use

To follow: show how this would be used in 2-3 practical examples, possibly:

  • School fundraising
  • A community project
  • Announcing exam results

Benefits

This needs more work...

  • Accelerate and reduce cost of numerous areas of communication within in the normal business of the school;
  • Encourage activities in the wider community and make these more visible;
  • Increase awareness of what online communication can do and how to use it;
  • Demonstrate the school's progressive attitude;
  • Incur negligible cost other than that associated with your web server (which should be sponsored anyway).

Implications

Certain administrative tools are needed to support the community process online.

  • Community database

    At the core of community communications must be a database of participant's contact details. This is used to support mail distribution and also supports the mechanisms for information management and privacy within the community. The database should include contact details for email and paper-based communication so that those without email are included whereever possible.

  • Group database

    At the next level there should be a record of who is in which "groups". This is so that if you send a message to, for example, all parents and all governors, all the right people will get the message (and people who are members of both groups will receive just one copy).

  • Access control system

    A password-controlled personal login system is needed to ensure that the system knows who each of its users is. Different priviledges are made available to each individual according to their needs. Care is needed in the handling of passwords (as with bank PIN numbers) to ensure that system cannot be abused. The system must comply with prevailing data-protection legislation.

  • Page composition tools

    Given that any member of the community may need to post information online a set of composition tools is needed. These must be simple to use and require nothing more than a PC and a web browser. The tools need to work like a simple word processor to facilitate text composition, formatting, the addition of graphics etc. (It is important that there be little of no need to distribute this software as that is an avoidable overhead. Fortunately PCs are now almost all equipped with browsers.)

  • Moderation

    With many people contributing to online discussions there is a need to "moderate" their inputs. This can be partly automated but most of the real work to keep online discussions on topic must be managed by a human being. A community system should provide tools to make this as simple as possible. Anyone who sets up a published online discussion should be obliged to ensure that its content is moderated.

Putting this all into action

In picking a school as the subject of this discussion I have cheated slightly in that many already have a web presence, albeit a strictly 1-way mechanism at present. This can be the basis for the above type of community solution by simply adding the necessary additional software on the school web server. The server may also need additional traffic capacity. The cost of this might be borne by a local sponsor in return for appropriate recognition.

With any luck the school is also running a student and parent database which could quite easily be adapted to drive this system. This database would, of course, need to be extended to other parts of the community. This could be achieved by distributing cards requesting others to register online. In fact, the whole database maintenance task could be converted to "audience participation", freeing up administrator's time for other tasks.

Circulars could then be sent out calling for volunteers to put up some initial micro-sites. Those with something like a concert, charity project or club to promote should be amenable to this. Once content appears in the system it will breed more content. An initial high-profile activity would be useful in building momentum.

A "project manager" (preferably an enthusiastic volunteer) should be recruited to create guidelines for system use, keep everything moving along and report back to the appropriate body, probably the governors, on progress, success stories and system usage.

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