What makes an online community explode during snow days?
In a small Local Authority in Scotland, thousands of students, parents and teachers have been getting together to learn and share their snow-day experiences on an open source blogging platform. 25,000 visits a day, 1827 posts and 2477 comments were left throughout the three or four days of closed school this week on eduBuzz.org in East Lothian, Scotland.
Disclosures: Throughout 2005-6 David Gilmour, me and a growing bunch of enthusiastic teachers throughout East Lothian set about planning and launching eduBuzz. It's a WordPress MultiUser platform where students, teachers and parents can share their learning as often as they want. In 2005, I ran a project for LTS to look at how to best engage teachers nationally online (each semester we engaged at least two thirds of our demographic: languages teachers). Learning and Teaching Scotland (LTS), the organisation behind the national schools intranet Glow, then funded me part-time for eduBuzz.org's development throughout 2006.
Glow has also been hailed as successful during the snow-bound period in one or two Local Authorities, but it's not really clear how successful - there are no national statistics yet for last week (the only usage information we have are 32 pdfs of rather vague, annualised, local data [how many are unique visits, returning visitors? What's the bounce rate?). From a couple of press stories and tweets it seems to have had about 700 daily clickthroughs on its shortened links, and 900 visits a day in one of its two most active Local Authority areas.
If we were to extrapolate the East Lothian success over these snow days in engaging people online (25,000 visits a day for 15,000 students) then we might have expected at least 415,000 visits from the 250,000 students off school this week. Glow hasn't performed this well, though, so what lessons might be out there for us to learn from the likes of eduBuzz and similar platforms in schools around the world?
What lessons on community has the snow-driven use of online communities shown us?
I was asked in November at a Scottish Government policy consultation:
"If you don't think Glow in its current form is what Glow should be, what would you do differently?"
I don't now know the whole recipe I'd have, but the one we mixed up in East Lothian five years ago has worked better and better over that time, with continued growth. I'd argue that the spike in traffic when snow somes to the country shows that it has a high local or at least Scottish audience. What are the elements I see in eduBuzz that have not been designed into Glow?
- Make it work as a place where people choose to go. It's not obligatory to go to eduBuzz on a snow day, but a large minority or small majority choose to. It needs to feel like an online microcosm of that one kid's classroom, where the teacher has curated materials and resources and the students make up the vast majority of discussion, more often than not leading it.
- Make it a place that's easy to get into: we chose eduBuzz.org as a web address and 'brand' because we needed something that a five year old (or a sixty-year-old looking after their grandchild) could remember. It's unique, not a common noun or verb, so it shows up top on Google, even when you misspell it. There is no log in required until the point where you want to write your own personal site post.
- Make it open, presenting the path of least resistance to engage:
- read, view or listen to content without having to log on anywhere;
- leave a comment without logging on (we made the decision to trust people, believing most folk are generally pleasant online when given the trust to be so).
- Make your management open.
David Gilmour, the community manager, almost daily updates the community on its usage, the highs and lows of traffic, how people are using it. He also helps makes 'manual connections' between schools who he spots are doing similar things. Because David, as a person, is so strongly tied to the initiative it means that educators and other users feel they're reaching out to a real person, not a Government body. The Glow team have harnessed tools like Twitter and their blogs to make that connect, too, but the challenge now is finding a way for this to scale without having to pile on more employees.
As for statistics on usage and openness of leadership, there is huge room for improvement on Glow. Traditionally, Government has seen itself as a corporation: we will not release statistics of how our sites are being used lest they be held against us at a later date. However, showing the community what's working and what's not helps engage them even further in developing better content, better forms of online discussion and, when you're on the up, it makes people feel part of something large and exciting when they can see they're part of a throbbing community.
East Lothian's then Director of Education, Don Ledingham, stretched to making the management meetings of the eduBuzz network totally open. Our fortnightly meetings were open to anyone, including those outside the Local Authority, meaning we often had a mix of parents, student teachers, visiting teachers and managers from around the Department coming along to offer their ideas and advice.
- Provide a social-network-like 'wall' of latest activity so that it's easy to see what's going on elsewhere (we made a mistake in the early days of eduBuzz [my fault ;-) ] of going for a clean, Google (or GlowScotland.org.uk) look - the bounce rate reduced by half the moment we started displaying most recent content on the front page. People tend to rely more and more on these streams of information (you take what you get when you stop off by, and don't worry too much about what you missed from hours/days before) that are well-placed throughout communities (you don't have to go to a homepage to see these streams; they're visible on individual sites, too).
- Remember the two audiences you have: for teachers you can make this feel about learning, but for students it's about providing a place they can easily connect to their class community (most students in schools are still too young to engage in 'real' social networks, or the ones they do engage in do not unite them together as a class cohort).
If the idea behind your community is to upload lesson plans and content for learning, then your community will feel like a classroom storage cupboard: dark and slightly threatening.
If the idea, as it is with eduBuzz, is to provide a hub for the relationships of the individuals within each classroom and each school, then the whole atmosphere changes. It's not about being there to suck down content or to pick up homework that teachers have dropped off for you. It's about seeing your mates. And to take these communities from out behind a password protection, to put the communities out in public, means that these communities can naturally form into networks.
There are a ton of other things that have been 'done' to increase engagement, but the hat tip has to go to the teachers throughout East Lothian who, over the past five years, have come to believe in the benefit of sharing what goes on in their classroom day in, day out. That one principle is the hardest thing for people to 'get', and in East Lothian a significant and increasing numbers of teachers, the gatekeepers of a successful online learning community for schools, have certainly got it loud and clear. Nationally, there needs to be more of a campaign to help educators get to grips with the questions around sharing, issues that stretch beyond education and schools, and issues that too many have not yet understood. As well as being a tools issue, it's a media literacy one above all.
You can read more about the eduBuzz journey and how it grew in the early days to what it is now in my 2008 presentation, We're Adopting - A Social Media Strategy for Schools.