Barriers to Getting Educators Online, by Denise Ethier and Jennifer Gold
Barriers to Sustaining Community: Inexperience with the MediumIn "Cyberspace Innkeeping: Building Online Community," John Coates (former conference manager for the WELL), suggests strategies for ensuring that users feel welcome to a conferencing system. Promoting a sense of place, making new users welcome, having facilitators who keep the dialogue going, and allowing for visitors to have input creates an inviting environment akin to hosting a guest house or inn (Coates, 1993).
Since it was felt that most users would be first-time telecommunications users, NCIP chose FirstClass® as its platform, because of its easy-to-use and flexible interface. Besides personal mailboxes and discussion folders, FirstClass(r) is able to give its users special features such as real-time chats, a resumefunction that allows participants to access the bio of the poster of a message, and message histories that indicate who has read a message and when. In this kind of environment, both contributors and readers have recognizable names.
NCIP has taken further steps to ensure that participants do not feel isolated or confused. Staff welcome each new participant by sending an initial message to their mailbox that encourages them to share their ideas or post questions to the group and to offer helpful tips about where to find interesting items on the network. Furthermore, NCIP employs "discussion leaders" to facilitate the discussion in each topical discussion folder. Discussion leaders integrate new users into the discussion and monitor all messages to help new users build trust in the medium. We chose these facilitators because of their expertise in an area related to special education technology, their past experience on NCIPnet, and their ability to be an effective discussant.
Finally, a key component to providing a supportive environment for conversation is the size of the online community. One participant, a teacher, noted that the discussions on NCIPnet felt more "cozy" than listservs where one gets "casts of thousands " and sharing information with many strangers is often intimidating. In contrast, NCIPnet's small size--400 users--was a contributing factor to this participant's feeling of intimacy. Overall it was the combination of the FirstClass(r) features and NCIP strategies described above contributed to the supportive environment that helped educators new to the medium.