Crash Course Q&As: Dr. Jen Golbeck

Dr. Jen Golbeck's best tips for bringing your district together—online.

In the wake of COVID-19, it’s not just your classrooms that are moving online—it’s your entire school community. Over the past few months, you might have found yourself wondering: How do I connect with my students, parents, and community members virtually, outside of school? How do I build a strong online community for my district?

That’s just what we asked Dr. Jen Golbeck, an associate professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies. A computer scientist, Golbeck works at the intersection of people and technology. Having studied social networks since before the advent of Facebook, she’s in tune with both the algorithmic side of the equation and “the whole universe of how people interact—what platforms they are using, what they are sharing, what their concerns are.” We invited Dr. Golbeck to share her insights into online communities: how to set them up effectively and keep them going strong.

What are the elements of a strong online community?

When you see a community come together online, it could go one of three ways. For one, it could thrive. But if it’s not going to thrive, it could either fall prey to trolling, or—the third option—it could fizzle out because no one is interested. A thriving community is a safe place where you feel like you can talk about things—which means trolling is controlled. One aggressive person can come in and destroy an online community, because people feel like they can’t talk about issues and they’re going to be attacked; everything is going to be derailed or misinterpreted. To have a good online community, you need to make sure that presence isn’t there.

If you’re the administrator of a community, that means having a really strong set of guidelines and rules about appropriate ways of interacting, and then aggressively stopping things if they start to go bad. It doesn’t mean that everyone will get along all the time; there might be debates and vigorous arguments. But you want to keep that level of civility there, make sure people aren’t bringing personal attacks. Those things need to be shut down right away—otherwise you’ll lose all the good actors, the people who are going to contribute. Having a good set of policies, strictly enforcing them, moderating things, being willing to take stuff down, delete it, kick people out if they’re not behaving—that’s all critical to building trust in that community and making people feel safe.

That’s avoiding bad outcome number one. Number two is nobody engages; it just sits there and nothing happens. To avoid that, you need to be responsive. People want to feel like somebody is in charge, like there’s somebody at this school who is listening—it’s not just parents talking to one another. You really need to be in there frequently, engaged. It’s not that you’re going to give in to every demand for information or response, but they need to know you’re hearing it, you’re listening, and that you’re following along. Then people will feel like it’s a place where they can get something done.

How do you recommend setting up those guidelines?

It’s worth starting with the scope of your community: Here’s what we talk about here, and we’ll remove posts that are off-topic. You don’t want people bringing in something like an unrelated political discussion. Then, come up with a set of behavior guidelines. No personal attacks, for one. You might also set rules against self promotion—that’s pretty common.

Basically, you’re laying out the tone of your community, and what will happen if you violate the guidelines. For example, If we feel like there’s a personal attack, or something has become unnecessarily aggressive, we’re going to take this down. If you are taken down three times for that, you’re going to be blocked from the community. When people sign up, those guidelines should be pinned at the top of the page.

When we talk online, how can we build genuine connections from behind our screens?

You’re going to make a lot of money if you ever solve that problem, because that’s one of the core issues of all of these communities. One, we know anonymity makes it worse. People need to be signed in with their real names. That’s important. Generally, to avoid the problems created by that screen barrier, you need to humanize the person on the other end. People need to be able to show their personal sides. If I were to click on your profile, I’d see something about you that makes you seem real and human.

I would say that photos can really help, but you want to be careful about the right way to do that. If I’m a bullied 13-year-old, and the parents of the kid who is harassing me are logged in and they’re able to see potentially embarrassing pictures my parents uploaded, it creates a problematic space. It’s worth it for administrators to consider student privacy in their guidelines. You don’t want to create those sorts of difficulties of parents oversharing about their kids without student consent.

How do you draw people into your online community in the first place?

There’s a couple of different stages to think about. One of those is onboarding. How do you get people in there to sign up in the first place? That’s a huge barrier. Think about how to make that as easy as possible.

You won’t have control over some of this on some platforms, but ideally, you want the setup process for accounts to have as few steps as possible. Otherwise, you lose people. Talk with the platform you’re using. If it’s smaller than Facebook, for example, see if you can pre-create those profiles using email addresses and contact information you already have for parents.

You also want to think about what people’s concerns might be about signing up for a new service. A lot of people build their online communities on Facebook, and that could be great, but you probably have people in your community who are 100% against Facebook. If you ask people to come to Facebook, you’re asking them to give up a huge amount of personal information.

If you’re creating your community on a different platform, it’s absolutely worth reviewing what they’re going to do with that data. Are they going to give it to Facebook? Are they going to link it to other profiles? What sort of protections do you have?

Then, once you get everyone signed up for the community, how do you get them to use it? Well, you’ve got a little bit of power; you can enforce that. Make that the place where all of the announcements are, whether you’re going to have a snow day or you’re sending out information about school events. Then you can force people to come in there occasionally and check in. Then, you can create posts, discussions, and interactions that they find really valuable. Once you’ve brought them in, make it a good experience.

Many superintendents manage incredibly diverse districts. How can you make an online community accessible and equitable?

That’s a really hard question. One practical step: make it very mobile-friendly. A lot of families who may not have a computer or internet access at home still have smartphone access, especially in lower income brackets. That’s how a lot of people get online. So make sure they can reach your community on their phones, that it looks really nice on a little screen, without ads or other garbage that clutters it up. That will make it a better experience for people.

If you have a well-supported community platform, they’ll usually have internationalization options. Those will allow the interface—links and text, the discussion forum, all of the buttons, everything except the actual posts—to be in different languages. Some bigger platforms even have options to translate the content of the posts for you. When the school district posts, you’ll want to have that in multiple languages, and if you’re serving a diverse community, you’ll tend to do that anyway. Just think about what technical resources out there can make your community more accessible.

Do you have any advice for creating an engaging online enviroment?

I think a great way to do that in any community is to have prompts, have things to draw people in. Make a poll, allow for discussions, engage with people. Then follow up on it. If someone has a great idea and you’re able to implement it, do it. When you do that work, people know there’s impact from them engaging. They’re talking, you’re hearing it, and they’re seeing the follow-up.

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