Think Like an Urban Planner to Create Successful Online Learning Communities

In education, we understand the power of relationships in driving our work. But often, when we try to create community online through discussion forums or social media, our efforts fall flat. To avoid this, start thinking of your online community as a mega-city and yourself as an urban planner.

In a large city, like New York, London or Sydney, urban planners work to design infrastructure to support a large population. But their work is not just focused on scale; urban planners know that in order for a large city to thrive, local neighborhoods have to flourish. You need both city-wide and neighborhood-level community strategies in order to succeed.

Start thinking of your online community as a mega-city and yourself as an urban planner.

Think of it this way; if you live in New York City, you might hail from any number of diverse ethnic or social backgrounds, but you identify as a New Yorker. Whether or not you have an accent, you can always connect with anyone else from New York to cheer for the Yankees or to complain about the subway. You share certain core values with other New Yorkers — like your love of a good bagel. And you observe norms of behavior, both spoken and implicit — like letting the exiting passengers off the train before you try to get on — that seem like second nature. Most importantly, in times of crisis you come together to support the city you love, just as New Yorkers did during Hurricane Sandy or on 9/11.

Anyone who’s spent any time in a mega-city knows that everyone who lives there also identifies closely with their neighborhood. When I first moved to New York, I lived in Astoria. It’s a primarily Greek neighborhood full of tavernas, cafes, and old ladies wearing all black regardless of the weather. Astoria is where I slept, where I bought my groceries, where I hung out with my friends, and where I eventually met my husband. I worked in the South Bronx, and sometimes I’d go to Brooklyn or Manhattan for dinner, but Astoria was my home base, the place where I felt the most comfortable and where I felt at home.

Online communities work best when they are approached in the same way as a mega-city. It’s crucial that you establish these two levels of belonging at the same time:

1. The City Level

This is your community as a whole (all 30 members in your PLC or all 3,000 participants in your MOOC). At this level, you establish norms and values. You build momentum, celebrate successes and triage crises. As a community manager, you create and launch infrastructure such as communications plans, forums and events that bring your entire community together.

2. The Neighborhood Level

These are your smaller sub-groups in which your participants can come together to build those deeper relationships that will sustain them over time. As a community manager, you get out of the way and allow your groups to develop their own culture, so long as their work ladders up to the larger community’s values.

Here’s an example. When I launched the Teacher Community last year, we planned for two levels of community right from the start. First, we articulated the city-wide community as one focused on teaching computer science to all kids, everywhere. We used Twitter, Tumblr and an email newsletter to communicate across the entire community at the city-level.

Once our broader shared goals and norms were established, we supported the development of neighborhoods for key subsets of the larger community: teacher trainers, teachers in our partner districts, and teachers who were piloting our new Computer Science Principles course. We used Google+ Communities, Discourse forums and monthly live webinars as a means to allow neighborhoods to communicate with one another. We tapped leaders from within each neighborhood to serve as organizers and moderators, and empowered them to use the tools we provided to engage with their neighbors.

If you’re looking to build a successful online learning community, think like an urban planner and start creating a city-wide identity while also cultivating thriving neighborhoods. Your members will be more engaged if they feel like they are part of the broader community, while at the same time feeling at home in a smaller, more intimate group of like-minded peers.


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, 2nified.

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