July/August 2003 // Commentary
Selecting Tools for Online Communities:
Suggestions for Learning Technologists
by Eric Adams and Chris Freeman
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Eric Adams and Chris Freeman "Selecting Tools for Online Communities:
Suggestions for Learning Technologists" The Technology Source, July/August 2003. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Setting out to build an online community is very similar to planning a brick-and-mortar community. Consider the responsibilities of urban developers who have been asked to create a neighborhood. The first thing the developers must keep in mind is that this area is being built for a specific group of citizens. They want people to enjoy and appreciate the homes that are planned for construction. Building a community that does not meet the needs of its prospective inhabitants, that ends up sitting empty and abandoned, is the developers' worst nightmare.

To successfully build a neighborhood that people would want to join, the developers must determine their potential target market. They need answers to these basic questions: What kinds of jobs do these people have? Where do they work? Do they have cars or take mass transportation? What is the average number of people per household? Once these factors are better understood, the developers have a solid foundation for selecting the most appropriate homes and facilities.

Analogous considerations and questions apply when learning technologists initiate online projects. In this article, we address the fundamental issues that guide the planning of a habitable online learning community, as well as how certain technological tools can be used effectively to construct and maintain it.

Laying the Groundwork

Like a developer, the learning technologist must have reasons and goals for developing an online community. Are you setting out to build relationships between people with a common practice (profession, industry, task, etc.)? Are you attempting to bring together people who share a common interest (motherhood, diabetes, photography, etc.)? Or are you trying to build a space in which people can collaborate (topics, projects, teams, etc.)? You must clearly understand and express your intentions for soliciting membership in an online community before you go about trying to create one.

There is abundant literature on how clarity of purpose can be a primary determinant of successful online community cultivation (Armstrong & Hagel, 1997; Kim, 2000; Palloff & Pratt, 1999). Rather than address this topic further, we will focus on the subsequent selection and use of technological tools.

An understanding of how online tools help people gain knowledge by themselves and within a community may enable you to better utilize technology to meet the goals of the community. Selecting tools for an online community usually begins with fundamental questions of methodology. Some of the many questions that you, as a learning technologist, must ask include the following:

  • Does the online community membership ever physically meet?
  • How often do I need to be actively present online?
  • How often are community members expected to participate online?
  • How much bandwidth does most of the membership have access to?
  • Do I need to share information? How much/what size? What file format?
  • Is there a need for real-time interaction? Do these interactions need to be captured?
  • How do I want to track membership participation and interaction quality?

Depending on the specific goals and situation, many more questions might be appropriate. While the range of such questions can be extensive, methodological inquiry remains a crucial first step in the selection process.

The target membership is another important item that you must consider and understand before selecting any tools. Based on your understanding, you should develop a profile of the desired community member and then build the space accordingly. To be habitable, the space must be easy get to (in terms of bandwidth, URL, account set-up requirements, etc.) and participate in (i.e., it must be easy to navigate, have low technical barriers, etc.). It is really rather simple to make the target membership successful in your space, as long as you build it with the members in mind.

We turn now to some of the tools available for use within online communities. Due to the extensive number of technologies available and the space limitations of this article, we will focus on three of the most proven tools for community cultivation: message boards, virtual classrooms, and user profile Web pages. These technologies are pervasive, so we do not describe them at length; rather, we explain how each tool can facilitate an online community through its ability to help members negotiate meaning and personal identity within that space (Kim, 2000). We also provide pragmatic tips and techniques for leveraging these technologies to meet your community goals.

The Tools

Message Boards

Once you host a message board, you are very much like the mayor of your own town. You want to greet people when they first post a message to a topic, introduce people to one another if you are aware of any shared interests or backgrounds, refer people to particularly interesting threads of conversations, and encourage them to add their opinions. Just like the host of an open house, you want your message board guests to have good time, make new friends, share interesting stories, and have the desire to come back for more.

Message boards are an effective tool for supporting a learning community because they allow a group of people to engage in online conversations organized around interests, occupations, or anything else at their own discretion. The ability to maintain an asynchronous (not real-time) conversation is increasingly important when members of the community live in different time zones or are offline during different periods of the day. For all of these reasons, message boards are among the most popular tools used by online communities and are likely to be a mainstay of any community with an active membership. In many ways, message boards are like the front porches, sidewalks, and parks of your community: They are the public space where your members gather to spend time together.

If is often easier to build a public space than to get people to frequent it. Accordingly, you may need to raise enough interest to get the community members out walking in the neighborhood and saying hello (Exhibit 1). A common message board feature that can effectively encourage participation is the ability to "push" new posts, or entire digests of posts, to subscribers without their having to go to the actual message board. These e-mail "reminders" act as periodic invitations from the community, and they lower barriers to participation by making it easier to be an active member.

Virtual Classrooms

Interactions within synchronous virtual classrooms, in addition to allowing for the exchange of information, provide participants with a shared feeling of presence or immediacy that reinforces their membership in the community. The synchronous nature of virtual classrooms—be it via teleconference, voiceover IP (VOIP), or chat—is a highly effective means of establishing personal identity and developing relationships within an online community. For that reason, these types of technologies are often a key component of communities that have minimal or no face-to-face contact.

Chat technologies foster not only event-orientated exchanges but also impromptu forums in which community members can reach out to one another. Chat tools can be used to hold office hours, question-and-answer sessions, group discussions, and the like, or to provide technical support to members of an online learning community. Whatever their purpose, these communicative meeting spaces are the virtual counterparts of traditional physical structures (e.g., brick-and-mortar campuses, community centers, and conference rooms).

Another clear benefit of selecting a chat tool for your community is that the log from any session usually can be exported, saved, and then edited and archived. Logs can eliminate the need to author content from a blank computer screen; when archived, they add to the social history of your community. Many virtual classroom platforms now allow for the entire classroom exchange, including VOIP sessions and screens, to be recorded and archived; these recordings are an invaluable artifact for students who are unable to attend a class or who need to review any of the material covered.

User Profile Pages

Online community Web pages generally consist of content that is shared globally: course description pages, community guidelines, a calendar of events, and other resources. The role of such content in the online learning community is pretty much limited to information dissemination. A specific type of Web page that is often overlooked, but that can be vital to community participation, is the user profile page.

User profile pages provide community members with an opportunity to share information about their interests, education, skills, and other aspects of their personal backgrounds (Exhibit 2). The information that is requested from and shared among members via these profile pages is largely dictated by community needs and preferences. Regardless of specifics, being able to perform searches—or browse through the user profiles to find members who share an alma mater or are knowledgeable enough to answer a specific question—goes a long way toward providing community members with a means to network socially. The additional benefits are numerous. User profile pages can, for example:

  • help students and instructors prepare for classes by previewing member background and experience with a topic;
  • help community members locate needed expertise and knowledge;
  • encourage communication among community members (not just between members and the host);
  • enrich e-mail, online, and telephone communication by associating a "face" with a screen name; and
  • assist in the negotiation of meaning by providing credentials, experiences, and background on any individual who contributes community content.


It is important to recognize the system that these technologies can create and how they can compliment one another. For example, when a community member wants to gauge the legitimacy of content in a message board, a link to the user profile page of the post's author is helpful. A profile page affords this same "contextualization" to comments made in a synchronous chat session. Building on that, when a community member's participation distinguishes him or her as an expert on a given topic, the most expedient way to learn more may be to browse through recent posts on the expert's profile page or search a chat log for an instance of the expert's name.

Another extension of this system is the blending of message board, virtual classroom, and e-mail interactions. For example, when a message board thread becomes irrelevant to all but a few community members, a "back channel" discussion—off the message boards and onto e-mail—becomes the most appropriate means to manage the exchange. This keeps the message boards less cluttered and of more mainstream interest to the larger community. Conversely, if a thread raises a significant amount of community interest, it may be appropriate to hold a live "event" in a virtual classroom to generate further discussion on the topic. Synchronous "events" are also a great way to kick off a new message board topic, as instructors can use comments captured in the live session to seed the discussion of the new topic (see Exhibit 3 for tips on holding a virtual event).

A final issue to consider when looking at the system is how transparent the tools are to the community host and members. In this case, transparency refers to ease of use and assimilation of the tools into the online learning experience. The more transparent the tools, the more they will be used. For example, if user profile pages automatically include links to all message board posts (instead of requiring the user to manually add them), the likelihood that members will access the posts is much greater.

Using community tools systemically, instead of viewing them individually, adds to the "stickiness" of your community and to its lasting appeal. Online community hosts desire site stickiness because it speaks to how often and for how long members come back. It also speaks to what we, as learning technologists, must provide by way of content and tools to attract members to the online community, help them move in, and convince them to stay.


Armstrong, A., & Hagel, J. (1997). Net gain: Expanding markets through virtual communities. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Kim, A. J. (2000). Community building on the web: Secret strategies for successful online communities. Berkeley, CA: Peachpit Press.

Palloff, R., & Pratt, K. (1999). Building learning communities in cyberspace: Effective strategies for the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

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