Establishing an Online Learning Community
Establishing an Online Learning Community
by Paul Harris
My teaching career began in the 1990s at the language centres of London’s Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road. I then moved to the north of Spain, working in different academies for seven years before setting up on my own. I’ve been doing that ever since. But teaching in the traditional sense is not my only interest - I have also invested much time and energy in building online learning communities on Facebook, and it is this latter interest that I will be discussing in this article.
Facebook introduced Groups, small collectives of people who shared an interest, in 2010, but it wasn’t until the idea of these groups had matured that I started participating. That was in 2012. I was interested to see how this side of social media could help students to improve their skills, and how the knowledge and abilities I had developed over the preceding decades would translate into the online realm.
There was also probably a part of me that thought that these groups represented a good opportunity for a sort of self-promotion - by offering a venue for students to develop and by offering my time for free, there were likely to be long-term benefits even if I couldn’t see them at the start. When the pandemic hit and teaching moved online, I definitely saw the benefit of the work I had been doing - but that is moving rather far ahead of this story’s genesis.
The first group
The first group with which I participated in 2012 was specifically set up to help students preparing for the Cambridge C1 Advanced. Once created, the group rapidly expanded, filling up with students from around the world, teachers who either wished to learn more about the exam or needed to take their own skills further, and a number of ‘experts’ who could add their own opinions to the posts that were shared. These experts were Cambridge Speaking Examiners, experienced teachers of ESL and EFL exams, and Cambridge English Assessment Specialists.
Typical content and posts in the group would include grammatical queries and keyword transformation exercises, and sometimes writing would be posted so that feedback could be provided. Members would then comment with answers or suggested improvements or would suggest how a piece of writing would score.
What was quickly apparent from the posts and comments on the group was the number of misconceptions and erroneous ideas that members of the group had about the exam, especially with regard to the writing paper - whether idioms and phrasal verbs are appropriate for an essay; excessive use of synonyms instead of appropriate pronouns; lack of knowledge about collocations of words; the idea that just by using linking words they would score well in “organisation”; failure to adhere to the word limit; not providing justification or even answering the questions - to name but a few of the more egregious.
And because there were often a number of experts commenting with the same opinion, clarification and objectivity was provided.
As the years passed the membership of the group grew to over 10,000. Unfortunately, the downfall of the group was not long in coming. The administrators allowed people to post whatever they wanted, which included screenshots from Cambridge exam books and other textbooks, audio files, and other copyright-infringing material, eventually leading to the group being shut down. This was a shame because there was a healthy community spirit and I am sure the group was responsible for helping its members to be better prepared for the exam.
C1 Advanced Preparation Group - Version Two
The first group had grown quickly, and had proved its worth as far as I was concerned. Though seeing it shut down was certainly disheartening, I decided to follow the same advice that had so often been given to students who had submitted their writing only to see their failing grade in the feedback - pick yourself up, learn from your mistakes, and try again.
So I decided to set up a new group along the same lines, exam preparation for C1 Advanced.
Right from the beginning it was important not to let members of the group post whatever they wanted. Without appropriate moderation, dross and nuisance posts would proliferate, diminishing the integrity and value of the group. It was necessary to set up post approval - but more than that, it was also necessary to check follow-up comments within the posts - it is here that the scammers can circumnavigate the approval structure and post responses of such dubious reliability as “Get you [sic] IELTS certificate here, phone …”. To help you with this Facebook allows you to ban users, preventing future membership requests while also having their existing posts removed.
The new group needed rules and regulations to be set up so that people could see what was, and was not acceptable - much as most teachers will establish a class contract in the first lesson of the school term. At the same time, I decided to make it so that all posts needed to be approved before they were published - which added more work to running the group, but making another shut-down far less likely. Reminders of copyright laws were included in the group rules, and approval for advertising of teachers or services was required to prevent the group becoming just another marketplace of no use to those who did not want or could not afford a tutor or classes.
As well as learning how to set up and run a successful group, I had also become au fait with the ways in which students could be attracted to this new venture. Facebook, after all, is social media - and word of mouth rules supreme, alongside the notorious algorithm which, it must be said, worked in the group’s favour here. As the group grew, posts about or from the group were more likely to appear in the feeds of non-members who had otherwise expressed an interest in the C1 Advanced exam. The members of the group themselves also proved invaluable in spreading the word - and this, I think, is something that can be counted on for those looking to set up groups of their own. Students appreciate sincere effort, and reward it with both their own attention, and their recommendation to peers and colleagues.
Little by little the new group grew, and though we have yet to reach the heights that the first group had climbed, our present count of six thousand members, of whom nearly half are listed as active users, is cause for celebration.
Weighing the outcomes
It might seem a cliché but I really do get a kick out of helping the members of this group. One reason that we become teachers in the first place is out of a desire to see those in our care improve their skills and achieve their ambitions - and doing this online feels just as rewarding as it does offline.
A more personal positive outcome of the group has been my increased exposure in the online learning space, and as online tutoring has grown in popularity the usefulness of having my name attached to the group has grown in tandem.
For those reading this who are tempted to set up their own group, there are many other positive outcomes that might help you make the decision. Besides expanding your student base as I have done, I can imagine groups like this would be ideal for anyone with a monetisable presence elsewhere online, such as on YouTube. I often direct my students to videos hosted on such channels - though I am careful to vet the video first - and this will surely drive viewing numbers on the channel. Likewise, those who are looking to boost their passive income through sales of teaching and learning resources would do well to invest their time in helping their target market in a Facebook group.
There are challenges. The day-to-day running of the group requires both time and effort, and while the members are I presume happy that the group exists, they might not all understand the demands of the group administrator in the real world. In other words, if there’s a problem in the group that requires immediate attention, but you are in the middle of writing the midyear reports for your offline students, you will want to have appointed at least one capable administrator or moderator who could deal with the problem in your absence. Finding such reliable figures is no easy task.
Another of the challenges has to do with the kinds of interactions you find in online groups. Most students are supportive and, at least to an extent, independent - but some are only one of these, and others are neither. There will be members for whom help is a thankless act, and there will be a whole host of follow-up questions that sometimes beggar one’s belief in the age of Googling. Remaining patient and polite, though difficult, is necessary.
The decision to set up and run a specialist group on Facebook is not one I regret. Maintaining the group has become a kind of job all of its own, but the rewards clearly outweigh the costs. While there is no guaranteed recipe for success, including some of the ingredients that I have discussed in this article will help to get you started - and beyond that, I am sure that there are groups on Facebook ready to advise group administrators on best practice. And if there aren’t - perhaps someone reading this will open one!
Paul Harris is a teacher and owner of the academy The English School, La Fresneda, Spain. He has been teaching for 30 years. Since 2017 he has been managing the Facebook Group - C1 Advanced (CAE) Preparation group and has been actively teaching students online for C1 Advanced and C2 Proficiency since 2019. His interests include Cambridge Exam preparation and online teaching.