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Community Managers in Online Education

My previous post on using MOOC technology to Support Educators to Support Students generated quite a bit of interest, and I realized there was more to be said on the topic of using Community Managers in online education.  That post analyzes what MOOC providers like Udacity and Coursera are doing well, while pointing out their glaring shortcomings and providing solutions. It outlines my vision for how a school could use MOOC technology to deliver instruction while employing human community managers and instructors to meet students’ need for personalized interaction and guidance towards mastery of outcomes. Apparently it was a new idea for many people to employ community managers in online courses. I wanted to discuss the rationale for such an idea in greater depth and try to point the way forward towards using paraprofessional community managers in large courses.

 

Community

Community (Photo credit: niallkennedy)

The Importance of Communication Skills in Education

I earned my BA in Interpersonal Communication at Arizona State, which gave me a deep understanding of effective communication practice. I then taught for several years in charter high schools with predominantly underserved students who needed a high degree of support, counseling, and engagement before they could even focus on learning the content. My students fit the new profile of a 21st Century college student—first in their family to go to college, English language learners, low socioeconomic class, behind grade level in critical skills, “acting out” behaviors, expectation of personalized attention—in short, bearing the many challenges that poverty brings into the classroom. Teachers were asked to wear many hats, being content experts, tech-savvy educators, and fitting the role of a “warm demander” as a way of meeting students’ needs for emotional connection and redirecting them into learning tasks. Often teachers had uneven success in one or more of these distinct roles and had to “make do” with the strengths they had. 

 

Working with those students for so long convinced me that modern students need a “high touch” approach, requiring a high degree of interaction between the student, the instructor, the technology, and the classroom community.

(For more on classroom interaction, please see this post).  

What MOOCs are Getting Wrong

As MOOCs from Udacity, Coursera, and EdX grabbed the headlines, I recognized that one teacher in classes of thousands could not allow for high-quality interaction and assessment of content mastery. Sure, you could offer some multiple choice exams, but few would argue that that’s an accurate assessment of student learning. (Now they’re even talking about robo-grading essays!).

Course interaction tasks that once were solely the job of a highly trained instructor (grading student work, giving feedback, and leading discussion) are now “outsourced” to untrained peer graders with little concern for the quality control of those interactions. Headlines like Peer Grading Can’t Work emerged as MOOC students received less-than-helpful comments on their work from peers. MOOCs, which grew up at elite universities where students do not bear the yoke of poverty, have been a spectacular failure with students like mine, as in a Udacity pilot program at San Jose State University.

“These were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives. … It’s a group for which this medium is not a good fit.” –Sebastian Thrun, CEO of Udacity.

 

Around this time, I was trying to envision what a MOOC would need to be able to sufficiently meet the needs of today’s learner. I saw a talk by Sarah Dopp, a community manager working on a forum site facilitating discussions between queer and questioning teens. In this type of site, it’s critical to create a safe and productive environment for engagement to flourish. My experience with online education (and social media) is that robust interactions need to be actively nurtured if they are to become self-sustaining, and I realized what a community manager could bring to a large online course.

 What are Community Managers and How Can They Help?

Community managers are a growing job title, focused on promoting engagement around websites, brands, open source projects—anywhere that online communities form around a common purpose. They use digital analytics to monitor levels of engagement on websites, email, social media, and forums, and they actively intervene in online discussions to promote engagement, solve problems and miscommunications, mediate debates, exhibit “presence behaviors”, and enforce community norms. They have the power to ban users and delete comments, but they prefer to positively educate, mentor, and engage rather than negatively punish or exclude. They function as a “social lubricant” (pardon the expression), using effective communication techniques to transform unproductive conflicts into opportunities for greater understanding and more effective collaboration. They are often the first line of contact between the public and the company, and can effectively direct users to the resources they need across the organization to resolve problems and keep the community satisfied.

Right now, community managers are most often employed in fields where community activity translates directly into real measurable value. Open source software projects build valuable software through the health and cohesion of their community interactions. Commercial brands make money by promoting interest in their products, understanding their customers, and engaging dissatisfied customers to transform them into brand advocates. I believe that education is most effective when there is a high level of productive interaction between students, classmates, instructors, content, and the technology itself, and that high levels of interaction create real educational value in terms of better educational outcomes and course satisfaction. 


The question, of course, is how to demonstrate the value of para-professional workers whose whole job is to optimize interactions between course stakeholders? For administrators of cash-strapped school districts, the thought of adding more paychecks to the budget per student may look like a non-starter. However, if you look at paychecks per student while also measuring the change in student performance, attendance, retention, and course satisfaction, the numbers may improve. (I have not yet run these type of tests but would be happy to collaborate with anyone interested in a pilot project). 

Anyone in a 12-step program will tell you that “the first step towards change is admitting you have a problem”. Our job is understanding which elements of our current education system need to change and which should be preserved to produce better outcomes in the future. I believe that, even in regular physical classrooms, there is too little high-quality, personalized interaction between students and caring adults. I believe that adding technology into the educational setting should all be focused on increasing the frequency and quality of interactions between students, teachers, and the content. 

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