Friday, 30 August 2013


My summer series, aiming to help people new to technology, social media  and internet supported learning understand, get involved and get some experience with the exciting new learning world…….. This post looks at some basics about online communities and discussion groups.

In a world of ever increasing choice, most of us do not enjoy the prospect of sitting down to a meal which has a fixed menu.  Even in many homes where a generation ago a fixed meal would have been served to all members of a family, different food is prepared to meet the tastes of individuals round the table. The same is true in every aspect of our lives. Increasing choice makes our lives more complex as we have to make decisions all the time where once we might have selected from a few options and lived with that choice for a long time. Energy, ISP and mobile devices, TV contracts, banking, insurance and many others are all examples of areas in our lives where switching has become almost a way of life as we seek for the best service at the lowest cost.

What is true in our personal lives  is also a feature of our professional lives, perhaps even accented by the ever increasing volume of information that is in the public domain and which our careers require us to assimilate, analyse and work from.

So how do we do it in a way that gives us efficiency and effectiveness and the assurance that we are accessing the best available information and good advice from trustworthy sources? As I am writing this post my friend and PLN member, Tom Spiglanin, is preparing a paper on exactly the same subject for the upcoming DevLearn Conference in Las Vegas in October. It is a hot topic!

In my last post I looked at the use of chat communities as a means of creating a PLN and of finding like-minded groups of professionals with whom to interact. The various chat communities provide the opportunity for direct interaction around specific topics on a periodic basis. 

Another means of interaction, again with like-minded professionals is through the use of the more passive media of platforms such as LinkedIn. For example, there are over 800 LinkedIn discussion groups relating to the energy industry.  All that is needed is to subscribe to the platform (free) and then to search it for groups of interest to you.  Most then require you to apply for group membership which is subject to approval by a group moderator (often the person who initiated the group in the first place). Within groups, members initiate and contribute to discussion topics to seek information, test ideas, form networks etc. Some groups have huge memberships and there is a need to be discriminating about both discussions and the people taking part in them.  Some are very active, others almost dormant.

For those of you reading this with a specific focus on learning, two really helpful places for online discussions are
·         The UK based learning and Skills Group which has over 50 000 global members and which hosts discussions on their behalf – you can join at Membership is free.

·         eLearning Guild (USA based) which is another membership organisation. There is a tiered membership cost structure, with basic membership being free. The Guild hosts a range of discussion groups built around specific topics.

The benefit of this kind of community is that it is available on a 24/7 basis – but of course the information flow is much slower than using the social media such as Twitter. Rather than functioning around a set “gathering” at a particular time, this kind of group relies on notifications of discussions and contributions to them being posted on subscribers emails and then on recipients taking the time to read and  respond.

Many professional organisations and other enterprises have smaller. More focussed communities which work on a similar basis. Marketers are increasingly using this mechanism as a means of creating customer loyalty, allying participation with a gamification element of incentive prizes. Suppliers of services frequently have discussion fora created for users of their services to ask questions, share experience and receive help, either from an internal “help” resource or from peers in the community.

If you can’t find communities that meet your need you can set up your own using Skype which has a group chat function, or platforms such as Yammer. Provided all the participants are subscribers to the platforms, these communities are free of charge. Yammer contains options to regulate who joins groups, providing control to the originator of the community. Skype groups are set up simply by adding selected contacts to the group – a task for the originator. Skype groups can function in text, audio or video mode (but there are restrictions for video discussions).

Something else to think about……

It is easy when first grappling with the technicalities of online communities to be so caught up in managing the mechanics of the platforms and learning the way people communicate in the various places that it is easy to forget that every member of every community is a human being – just like you! We all require respect and care from people with whom we interact. I have written a whole series of posts about the human aspects of communities at .

In my next post we will look at some of the many ways in which documents can be created and shared online.

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