Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, who was a student in the planning class a couple of years ago, has been putting together some extremely valuable posts on her blog. (I loved the news reel clip on progressive education from her post on John Dewey.) This essay on building virtual communities pulls together a variety of different frameworks and checklists to stimulate thinking about what might work for creating interest and sustaining it over time. The central question is precisely the one we need be addressing in each site we build.
The burning question for many of us trying to establish educational CoPs is how to design a VLC that is compelling enough that it will compete successfully for the attention of busy educators? Because communities of practice are voluntary, to be successful over time they need the ability to generate enough excitement, relevance, and value to attract and engage members.
There’s no definitive answer, but two ideas seem to flow through the various models Sheryl outlines. First, the navigation and design of the site need to encourage visitors to move through the various roles at their own rates. Site designers should clearly define what the benefits are to each group of users at each level and make it easy for folks to participate at their own comfort level. Secondly, identifying leadership that will commit time and energy to sustaining the community probably should be a requirement before launching the site. The likelihood of success without enough leadership is pretty slim.