Five online community tools (and what to use them for)

Oneblackbird via flickr

Tools of the Trade

There are endless possibilities for online learning and interaction. Here’s a list of five tools, and what you can use them for:

Blogs

A blog usually consists of a list of articles on defined topics, sorted chronologically and updated periodically. Most blogs allow readers to subscribe to new articles and to comment on existing ones. In this sense, blogs can be similar to webfora – there’s someone who opens the discussion, and many, many who reply.

But, unlike a forum, a blog is also a useful resource if it doesn’t attract lots of comments. It can be used to reflect on learning and progress over time, and update the ones that are watching the process (see for example our blog on developing an ISEAL Impacts Code). Over time, a blog builds an incredibly useful resource of links, stories, documents and ideas (see my attempts to collect notes about voluntary standards systems). As readers follow along, they get to know you and your organisation. This process builds trust.

Microblogs

Microblogs can be just like blogs, just shorter. Popular examples are Twitter (which restricts the length of a post to 140 characters) or Delicious (which is all about sharing links). Others are more sophisticated and allow for mixed media (e.g. Tumblr). These tools don’t allow for comments, but encourage following and reposting. This can give rise to an active conversation and a community sharing to and fro. In any case, posting is a lot quicker and easier than with a blog, and can be used as a quick shout-out to the group of followers. Most microblogging tools will also support republication in the sidebar of a blog or the like.

Webinars

Webinars provide real-time interaction of a group of people via audio and usually a shared screen. The organiser can restrict the ability of the participants to contribute, and switch between a more frontal presentation + Q&A format and an open discussion. Most webinars can be recorded and offered to others as a video. Having tried a number of tools, ISEAL is currently using Gotomeeting, though we’re not always happy with the audio quality. Asking participants to be muted when not speaking helps.

Webinars allow teaching to a limited group of participants that can ask questions in real-time. They create a much deeper learning experience than text or slides only. Various delivery mechanisms are possible: With a closed group of participants; as a series of trainings; or just as a tool to create a wealth of knowledge in video presentations.

Wikis

Wikis are different. These tools allow for collaborative authorship of one or a group of documents. Every visitor can make changes to the text, but all changes are logged and can be reverted by a facilitator. They are great for the creation of a collaborative source of knowledge (eg. a company intranet, or an encyclopedia). They can also be used to jointly author a document (eg. ISEAL Standard-Setting Code, party platforms). If used by a group of people, Google Docs can offer the same functionality as a wiki page.

Chat

Chats can be useful supplements to webinars, or used on their own. They can be scheduled and synchronous, or take place over a long period of time, with participants logging on and off in between. Chat seems most useful for quick and easy questions.

Which online community tools do you use and for what?

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