Moderating social learning spaces: roles and activities

I’ve been curating a global social learning space for a large group of mentors and mentees. Over the last few weeks, something strange has happened: there’e been an explosion of interaction. It’s as though we’ve been cranking the engine for a couple of months and suddenly it’s caught. Indeed, there is so much discussion taking place, i can barely keep up with it. My role has changed.

In the early days of a new community, the role is often about trying to generate engagement, trying to pull people in and get them to talk. As the community takes off, that role changes. You’re still trying to draw people in, but not the active and talkative section. The role changes to one of nurturing the disengaged. It also becomes a role of shaping and supporting conversation rather than driving it.

The moderator is the ‘official‘ presence within a social learning space. They are the voice of authority, trying not to be authoritarian. Whilst the actual role of the moderator may include certain operational facets, such as helping people with technical issues, the stylistic approach they take is very much within your control. We can choose what stance we will take for moderation. It may be that our primary concern is ensuring no confidential data is shared, it may be that our main thought is about how to get lively conversation going, or to stop people swearing. It may be that our main business is to help keep lively conversation vaguely related to the subject at hand. It may be all or none of these things, but whatever it is, we need to carefully define it and work to uphold it.

The moderator starts out as a key facilitator: you will generally find that part of any population engages readily. These active adopters will be experienced web users, will have an axe to grind, will drive initial conversations. At this stage in the lifecycle of the community, our primary aim is to broaden the number of engaged individuals, to develop the breadth of the community.

This can be done not just in the forum space, but by speaking to people of-line: asking why they are not engaged. Sometimes the results can be obvious (‘it’s not relevant’), sometimes, less obvious (they may not realise what is being talked about, English may not be a first language, or they may have IT problems meaning the experience is slow or devalued). We need to reach out into the group to determine their reality.

When the forum is active, as the learning space matures, often the role of the moderator is to shape discussion. As with all good conversations, the topics can wander. How much wandering you want is part of the stance you take. We may decide that the whole point of a social learning community is to do exactly this: to explore wider realities, or we may want to pull conversation back towards core topics. In any event, the moderator is curating the dialogue and we may want to look at how we train them with these particular skills.

Steering the conversation without killing it is an art, especially when we add in the complexities of groups where English (or whatever language you are running it in) is not the primary language of all participants.

As conversation matures, we may want to harvest a story out of it, to capture the narrative of the learning. This is an often neglected part of moderation: threads tend to catch fire, become lively, but not be rounded off. With a mature conversation, the moderator can draw the threads together to help generate the collaborative story that the group has told.

I realise that this is not a definitive description of the role of the moderator, but the point i wanted to make is that the activities and approach will vary: between organisations, between topics and over the life of the group or conversation. Therefore, the skills we need in a moderator are broad.

It’s a nice challenge to face: huge volumes of conversations covering broad areas, high engagement and enthusiasm. Our challenge is to ensure that the conversations are adding value and that people are able to jump on (or off) the roller-coaster safely, and that we build a legacy out of the activity.

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About Julian Stodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
This entry was posted in Authority, Collaboration, Community, Community of Practice, Engagement, Inclusivity, Learning Culture, Moderator, Narrative, Sharing, Social Capital, Social Learning and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Moderating social learning spaces: roles and activities

  1. Paul says:

    It is cool to see that group formation dynamics work the same in the social media world.

    • julianstodd says:

      Hey Paul, yes, fascinating to see what works the same, although i’m also interested in what’s different. I’m trying to put together a piece of research at the moment to quantify whether relationships forged online are stronger, weaker, or just different from those groups or teams that are forged in the real world.

  2. For a year I worked with three groups: prospective students, current students and alumni. I started off with 0, 1,200 and 6,000 members in each. By the end this was 36, 3,200 and 8,200+ There was no way I could moderate alone, yet only I was charged with doing so. The answer came by a) opening the current student group to prospective students who after all wanted to ask direct questions and didn’t like to be kept out b) inviting key active ‘champions’ from the alumni group, some leading figures in business, into the student group. I was playing host with the spin off webinars, face to face interviews that went online, some into YouTube and greater attendance at events. Problems? The best time for me to be present was evenings. Academics would post a question but never follow the conversation. Some negative conversations and skewed polls were tricky to handle as people only read the question and the last couple of replies rather than seeing the arguements.

    • julianstodd says:

      I like the idea of including prospective students, running multiple cohorts within the same space, although i guess it may provide challenges in terms of whether you deviate from an actual learning curriculum?

      Building in a layer of ‘champions’ is certainly a good approach: i’m thinking about whether there is value in looking at what skills they need, almost a qualification in being a moderator or a champion?

      Your point about the length of posts is really important: i find this myself constantly. If you’re not in from the start, it can be very daunting to try and catch up! I guess this is why i favour having the moderator (or someone) as as a narrator for the learning, to draw out conclusions that may otherwise be lost. It’s not that they will create the only true story, but they will at least draw some common understanding out of it.

  3. The Open University constanly ameliorates its vital student and tutor forums – I even remember them as a bulletin board called ListServ in 2001. Several kinds of space are offered now: the closed tutor group forum, typically the tutor and his 12 or so students; a general or cafe forum for the entire cohort to mix and related to these, but providing very different affordances, the OU blog that is less than an individualised blog space, but more than a bulletin board – it is an odd hybrid that is quite restricted, but all the better for that – it is easier to get your head around, because every new post is stacked one on top of the other you are guaranteed a readership. I can offer several examples of when things work and when they do not. A change in layout of the VLE has sidelined all but your own tutor group so the other offerings are moribund – these worked best when we had a ‘big name’ from the OU’s Institute of Educational Technology chairing and seeding discussions.

    Lengthy posts were moderated, though not very well – an answer for a period was to write at length and provide a link to your OU Blog but this quickly fragmented as some people abandonded their OU blog for WordPress or Blogger. A fix has been to provide a prominent collapse ‘-’ button and ‘+’ expand.

    Like all new things it takes a few stabs at it to understand the ‘community rules’ and from personal experience recognise that as a learning experience it is effective – an early opportunity to apply what you pick up and for it to be useful would be an incentive to keep going back?

    • julianstodd says:

      A number of very interesting points there Jonathan: your observation about the ‘magnetic’ power of a ‘big name’ is something i’ve observed more widely, indeed, it’s one of the more straightforward ways for community managers to generate engagement, to give access to expertise. I’ve done this in a global pharmaceutical learning community by giving them access to world class experts (for short and defined periods of time).

      I also like your observation about how there are different types of spaces (cafe’s, niche groupings etc). Maybe we really should view our social learning spaces more like Westbourne, where i am sitting and writing now: there is a pub, for evening meetings with friends, a Starbucks, for every occasion, but without much character, and The Kitchen, a very quirky spot that i often use for meetings.

      I guess it takes time to understand the community ‘rules’, but also to recognise that those rules emerge and change again over time.

      Thanks for taking the time to share these thoughts (and i look forward to meeting next week where i’m sure there will be no shortage of things to talk about!)

  4. Pingback: Scaffolding pockets of social learning: ideas for practical implementation | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

  5. Pingback: The lifecycle of a social learning community and the shape of moderation | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

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