Building an online community - Tier 2, Presence

Four different group discussion activities to help learners establish a presence in an online community.

Caitlin Foran avatar
Written by Caitlin Foran
Updated over a week ago

This article is one in a series about how to build an online community. For a description of online communities and tiers of involvement and interaction, see the first article in the series: Building an online community.

What happens at tier 2?

The focus of the second tier is having a presence. Being seen. What's great about online discussions is that all types of learners can have a voice and be seen.  If learners feel like they can make their mark on the space, they will be more likely to contribute. 

Part of encouraging learners to have a presence is showing them we value their knowledge, experiences, and contribution to learning. A lesson from intercultural interactions is that tolerance and effectiveness emerge from greater understanding of multiple perspectives and points of view. So activities at this tier should focus on surfacing and exploring backgrounds and experiences. New understanding arises from exploring different perspectives. What you’re aiming for is to expose differences enough to result in the recognition that each individual or group has something unique and special to offer. This contributes to learners’ sense of relevance, identity, and centrality in the learning environment.

At this tier, we also need to help learners understand the value of learning together online and enable them to get to know how they might do this - in particular, how they might contribute to the group. 

Learners are… contributing and sharing. They’re asking: Do I feel safe to share? What can I contribute? Do I feel valued?

Facilitators are… modelling what constitutes a good contribution, making the value that learners are/could be getting obvious to learners, and correcting/guiding if contributions don’t meet expectations or principles set up in tier 1.

For tier 2 we’ve got four different activities you might like to try:

  • Introductions where learners introduce themselves and let the community know who they are.

  • Share a resource where we turn to learners to help curate resources relating to the course.

  • Share a story where learners share a tip or story of their experiences, that others might learn from.

  • Muddiest point where learners share a particular topic they need clarification on.

Introductions

Now that learners have had a chance to explore the space, it’s time for them to make their first real impressions on the space by introducing themselves. For learners to buy in to the community, it needs to feel like their space. Getting them to introduce themselves is the first step in personalising the space. Learners can share what is important to them, where their feet are grounded and what they’re working towards.

They say that people are generally comfortable talking about themselves, so we also use this to our advantage. Sharing your opinions on a course topic can feel really daunting. Especially early on in the course. “What if I’m wrong?” “What if I come across stupid?” But luckily we’re all experts on ourselves, so we can share on that topic much more safely. We can also help learners feel more safe by modelling through adding our own introduction. Then giving them some guidance on what they might like to say in theirs.

Message from facilitator
Hello,

I’m [Name], your facilitator for this course. I’m here to help you learn and succeed. As we start this course, I'd like to share a bit about myself so we can get to know one another.

In terms of my professional background... [Short description of your journey to becoming a facilitator for this course. This could also include why you're so passionate about the job and topic.]

In my personal life...[hobbies/interests, important people/places/things in your life.]

Now it's your turn, reply to this post with your introduction. You might like to share: 

  • your background or interest in the subject

  • your hobbies/interests

  • important people/places/things in your life.

If you’d like some more on why and how you can do introductions see Show the human - using introductions.

We'll be covering how you could encourage participation and responses between learners in tier 3, connection.

Share a resource

In this activity we want learners to a) feel useful by contributing and b) get value from resources shared from others. Both a) and b) should help motivate learners - not just in terms of this activity, but also motivation for the course in general.

One added bonus of this activity, is that a learner might find a really valuable resource that you’d like to reference or incorporate into your next iteration of the course.

Message from facilitator
To begin this topic, we're going to do a bit of crowdsourcing-curation. That is, we'll use the power of this group to find some great resources to share with one another to kick start our learning. 

Your task: 

  1. Spend 30 minutes searching for articles/videos/podcasts on [specific topic]. 

  2. Then choose the one you think best [summarises, captures etc. the topic]. 

  3. Post your resource in this thread with one sentence describing the resource and one sentence on why you thought it was good.

Alternatives
For more experienced learners, you could also get them to do some ‘compare and contrast’ research. You could develop a set of criteria for good or bad articles, sites, apps etc. . Then, using the criteria, learners find a number of resources, select one, and say how they would evaluate it.

Share a story

From sharing about themselves in introductions, we build on sharing other things they’re expert in - their tips or experiences. 

By acknowledging what learners already know about a topic and encouraging them to share their stories, we recognise that they are not blank slates. We give them a chance to see they can teach as well as learn from others. This:

  • shows learners that we value what they bring to the table in terms of learning

  • incorporates the learner’s voice into the learning pathway

  • shows learners the value of the group (and value of engaging). 

We can also continue to encourage making connections through our suggestions of how to respond at the end of our discussion prompt. For more on this see Tier 3.

Message from facilitator
Some of you are just starting your study, while others are well on their way. I thought it might be a good time to share our “lessons learned” about studying online. Because studying can be really hard! Especially when, like many of you, you’ve got other work and family commitments.

So, tell us, what’s your best study tip? 

  • What do you do to make time for your study?

  • How do you keep up the motivation?

Alternatives

Many of you are (or have previously been) working in some capacity. And, I know from experience, that a whole lot of learning also happens there! So tell us, what’s the best thing you’ve learned from work that has helped you with understanding or applying the ideas in this course? 

As with earlier discussions, get in early and acknowledge at least one contribution, even if it’s only a “That's awesome [name], I do that in my work too. Glad it works as well for you as it does for me!”

Muddiest point

By now hopefully your learners have had a chance to see that the community is caring (making connections in introductions) and useful (share a resource and story). We can build on both of these by asking learners to share with the group their muddiest point. This can also save you as a facilitator time as learners answer each others' questions. This activity often slots in well at the end of the first topic.

Message from facilitator
Now that we’re coming to the end of [topic] it’s time to take stock. Have you been able to get through this topic no trouble, or are there a few points that still feel unclear or muddy?

Spend a few minutes reflecting on what you have been learning in [topic]. Then, reply to this post with your muddiest point.

If someone has already posted your muddiest point, give them a thumbs up. This way we can see the most common muddy points and try clear these up.

Did you know?

Taking the time to reflect increases retention. And... thinking about your muddiest point makes you a better learner because you become more reflective and you begin to self-assess. This helps you use study time effectively and pinpoint what you don't yet understand fully. And therefore, what your next steps should be.

If there are a number of muddy points and your group is large, you can sort the muddiest points into themes and start a new thread for each theme. Then, you can put the themes back to the wider group and see if other learners can clear up the muddy points. Of course, for those that the wider group can't answer, you'll need to help with some pointers, resources, or further explanations.

An added benefit of this activity is it gives you a snapshot diagnosis of what learners are finding difficult to learn. This means you'll have a better idea of next steps for this group and also a good starting point for improving the course content for the next iteration.

Alternatives

You could also ask:

  • What was the most important point in the lecture? (also called One Minute Paper) 

  • What would you like to hear more about?

  • What are your lingering thoughts, questions and epiphanies?

  • Complete the sentence "I was surprised to learn..."

  • What does _______ mean to you?

  • Share an example of _______ from your context.

Summary

We can support learners into connecting (tier 3) by first asking them just to contribute. Keeping these activities focused on learners' experiences and opinions (that relate to course ideas) keeps things low stakes and lowers the barrier for engaging. This also shows them their experiences and opinions are valued and so they'll be more likely to share when you're ready to start discussing the course content.

Once you and the group have achieved tier 2, presence you can begin to move into tier 3 where learners start connecting with one another.

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