flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

I have been doing a lot of thinking of late around building communities of practice. Although there has been a lot of discussion around purpose and intent of the community, the question that I have been wondering is how we build trust in a purely online environment so that people are willing to participate. My own experience of a community of practice with Teaching and Learning in the 21st Century started with a face-to-face session, however not every community of practice is afforded such luxury. This led me to reflect upon my involvement with various cMOOCs over the years and consider how each set out to create an environment which fosters sharing and collaboration. So here are my thoughts and reflections:

Rhizo Learning

I am not sure how to explain #Rhizo14, #Rhizo15 or Rhizo anything. I guess it could be considered as a radical attempt to facilitate a course where the community is the curriculum and being the expert is not necessarily the goal. Although each of the iterations has been facilitated by Dave Cormier, he always seems to make every attempt possible to get out of the way. Other than a weekly provocation and Hangout, there were very few explicit formalities. This worked (and failed?) in part because of the strength of the community. I cannot actually recall any explicit trust building activities and I must admit that it got a little unwieldy at times, which I imagine might have put some off.


Connected Courses was a collaborative community designed to develop networked learning in higher education. Each fortnight had a different focus, supported by a team of facilitate, as well as a range of makes, videos and resources. In the lead up, Howard Rheingold, Alan Levine and Jim Groom supported people in organising a space and connecting it to the syndicated blogs. This was done via social media, as well as through a Hangout. Beyond the act of getting going, the first unit involved responding to the provocation #WhyITeach.


Connected Learning MOOC is a yearly event designed to help people make sense of learning online through the act of making. In the first week of making, participants are invited to introduce themselves however they like, connect with other learners by commenting and reflect on the connections made. To support this creative process, a range of possibilities are listed in a ‘Make Bank’. Beyond the usual weekly challenges, there also daily connectors which allow people to maintain a sense of connection, even if they may have dropped out of the weekly tasks.


Digital Writing Month is an annual 30-day challenge that has been occurring since 2012. Similar to CLMOOC, it encourages people to be creative by providing a number tasks and challenges. This includes a mixture of daily activities and on-going projects. Each year is facilitated by a different team, adding a different twist. In regards to introductions, the 2015 iteration started with an invitation to create an alternative CV (#altcv).


Walk My World is an annual social media project in which people are encouraged to share and connect around a hashtag. The intent is to explore open research and open publishing. The weekly assignments are designed to help tell your story. In 2016, the first challenge involved sharing a selfie and reflecting on the story behind it.

What seems to stand out is the sharing of something personal. In order to make this more possible for people to participate, these activities often emphasis choice and creativity in a lighthearted manner.

What about you though? What experiences have you been a part of? Do you have any thoughts, ideas and experiences? As always, comments welcome.

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Building Trust in Online Communities by Aaron Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

18 thoughts on “Building Trust in Online Communities

  1. Thanks for this post – I’ve been thinking a lot about the similarities and differences between these events recently (as Maha, Kevin and I were presenting at ALT-C this week). What stands out for me is how much I trust all of you – and maybe you’re right that it’s because we share so much of ourselves that is personal. Authenticity? Not sure how to characterise all of this but I do know that it’s the richest set of experiences I’ve ever had.

    • I think that it was Rhizo14 that got me started. It was like jumping in the deep end with a flimsy piece of polystyrene to float. I learnt how to swim very quickly or else I would not have survived. I wonder how many others drowned? I feel that after that event I sort of take trust for granted. I am therefore wondering what supports and structures can be put in place for independence? Authenticity seems such an interesting concept as trust activities sometimes seem contrived.

  2. Interesting post, Aaron. Thanks for sharing!
    I have not taken part in any of the above online community-building activities, but I have come across some interesting articles on the #Rhizo courses by former participants. These articles could help answer the question what it takes to build a community and where major problems lie:
    Maha Bali, Sarah Honeychurch, Keith Hamon, Rebecca J. Hogue, Apostolos Koutropoulos (2016): What is it Like to Learn and Participate in Rhizomatic MOOCs? A Collaborative Autoethnography of #RHIZO14:
    Frances Bell, Jenny Mackness and Mariana Funes (2016): Participant association and emergent curriculum in a MOOC: can the community be the curriculum?
    David Harris (2016): Rhizomatic education and Deleuzian theory;

    Reading these articles and letting previous online learning experiences aside, its seems to me that building trust depends heavily on the connections we already have and bring to these online learning experiences. Some people act as ‘gatekeepers’ between the conversations on different platforms, and if these ‘gatekeepers’ are not there, people might struggle to make sense of the different aspects of a topic under discussion, and might get lost (i.e. drop out / disconnect) in the end.

    • I have followed Jenny Mackness’ work regards Rhizo Learning. However, it would seem that there are quite a few write ups out there Martina, so thank you.
      The idea of the ‘gatekeeper’ is interesting. Leaves me wondering about autonomy and support.

      • Thanks Martina for the link to our most recent paper. I would add two points.
        1. The operation of connections is a material as well a social matter – and algorithms may be influencing gatekeeper perceptions and practices.
        2. Gatekeepers can bring people in and (perhaps unkowingly) keep people out. Gatekeepers can be people and tech.

  3. “…how we build trust … so that people are willing to participate.” I wonder if the desire to participate has to be built on trust Aaron, or whether it’s possible to participate without it? I’m not sure I developed what I’d call trust, in all of the MOOCs I’ve participated in; some sure, but not all. But did those where trust wasn’t fostered provide me with less of a learning experience? I’m not all sure.
    Perhaps, as with all these things, it depends on the learner. Some will need to feel safe and secure before they are willing to contribute fully; others are happy to jump in from the outset. Rather than designing in trust-building activities, perhaps it’s more appropriate to create an environment within which trust can develop, in whatever ways those who need it might benefit?

    • Interesting point Ian. I must admit that trust has never been my concern, however I am wondering about those who are foreign to such spaces. I am thinking that maybe I need to worry more about developing the most compelling experience possible, whatever that might be.

      • I’m sure you’re right about lowering barriers to entry and reducing potential reasons for leaving. What people want or need (or find compelling) will be as varied as the number of learners in the room, virtual or otherwise. I wonder if choice and the capacity to personalise the experience to suit your own needs are crucial elements? Or do some people just like to be told what to do?

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