An Interview with Jim Burke

A talk with the creator of the English Companion Ning to learn how it all started and what insights he gained along the way.

Q: What was your original inspiration for ECN? Once you decided to create it, what was your process like to go from idea to launch?  What do you think were the key decisions you made along the way?

My original inspiration for creating the EC Ning came from attending the National Council of Teachers of English conference, where I realized that young teachers were not participating in the professional conversation at the national level. Either because they could not afford to go or because they did not know about it, or because they did not subscribe to the journals, newer and younger teachers simply were present. Also, while at the convention, I heard that membership in the organization itself was rapidly declining. So I decided to try to create an online community initially for new or younger teachers.

Within a day of creating it, however, I realized that you just do not tell the Internet what to do. People from New Zealand who may not be new teachers, who may not even be teachers but nonetheless want to belong to your community, should be allowed to join. So my first realization was that if you create an online community for new teachers and then find a lot of experienced and otherwise brilliant teachers want to be a part of it, you must be sure it will meet their needs, too.

Several early decisions that I made proved crucial: sending personal invitations to key people within my professional community such as leaders within the National Writing Project, and those in charge of state English councils; making access free and open to everyone was an important decision, as was the decision to not allow anybody to sell or promote products and services; and realizing early on that I could not accept responsibility for maintaining or micromanaging a site of that scale if I was to continue being a teacher and writer also.

It might not seem like a very big deal, but I put a great deal of thought into the name and the tagline: “where English teachers come to help each other.” That simple line has proven to be something akin to a mission statement that is very clear to all on the site. Two other decisions were especially important:

1. As the community grew, I began to enlist the support of those members who showed a sustainable commitment to the community, asking them to help me improve things for the members and do other small housekeeping tasks as well as keep an eye on things;

2. I send out weekly e-newsletters––though admittedly I have not done so recently––to the community at large, something only I can do. Through these letters, I promote the good contributions people have recently made, highlight upcoming events, and try to send people off into the week ahead feeling good about their work as teachers and our community as a place that can help them with their work. I bring up my weekly letters because this is something that people consistently comment on as a factor in creating and maintaining a sense of community. As social media expert Chris Brogan writes, “community only means something if you keep it warm.”

Q: What did ECN “look like” when it launched?  What features and functions did it have?  What are the key ways it has changed since (and why)?

The ECN looked largely like what it looks like now when I first created it. The Ning interface was drag-and-drop, very intuitive, very easy-to-use. Though later I added a logo and changed colors, this look has remained reasonably consistent from the beginning, due in part to the constraints of the Ning software.

I would say the main changes that have happened over the course of the three years since I created it have to do with the way people use it. It would be best if people would post into the designated groups, but as the community has grown, it appears that users find it easiest to just post on to the main page of the site and ask people for help on certain projects. My sense is that they find this most immediately responsive, and as the population of younger teachers continues to grow, my sense is that the online habits of that generation will tend to dominate how the site is used.

Q: What do you think causes ECN members to become more active, visible participants (starting/contributing to discussions, making blog posts, etc.)? Are there strategies you’ve pursued that you think have been particularly successful in getting/motivating this to happen?

I think the extent to which we have emphasized from the earliest days that it is our community, not my community contributes significantly to the willingness of others to help create the community. The best example of this would be the professional development or webstitutes that have been put on by members themselves. These are not projects that I came up with or that I was directly involved in; rather, these are projects they came to me with and said they wanted to do and asked if I would help, if I would support their efforts.

In addition to the professional development projects like the Institute, we initiated online book groups, which of been very successful due to my ability as an author to recruit and promote other authors through their publishers. One final example of this strategy that helped to grow the community and extend our outreach was the partnership with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, which sought me out in order to create a venue for their excellent work so that they could get their ideas into more classes around the country. A link to that Institute is included here.

Q: We’ve noticed that very few posts on ECN go un-responded to (a lower percentage than many communities with more members); what do you think are the reasons for that?

To some extent, I think I’ve addressed this question in various places above, but I will say that the extent to which people turn to this as a community makes them feel more responsive as members of that community. My sense from people’s comments is that because they respond to others’ comments or questions, those people feel a sense of reciprocity and are thus more inclined to respond later on themselves. I have also learned that a respectable number of ECN members get together in person outside of work and thereby extend the network and connections. These connections include using other platforms like Skype or iChat to allow for face-to-face collaborations or conversations that are a more private but no less vital part of the English Companion Ning community.

Q: What’s next for English Companion Ning? Are there features, functions, content types you’re looking to add or expand on?

As for what’s next with the ECN, the most honest answer would be that it it depends on my time and energy and the initiative of others. As it is, though there are people who help me, I have strived to create a community that is self-sustaining and self-monitoring. My primary time has to be spent teaching my own classes, since I remain a classroom teacher, and writing my books, which led to the creation of the English Companion Ning in the first place.

It has always been clear to me that the English Companion Ning was a long-term investment of time and energy for me, so this year, for example, when family commitments and obligations to publishers dominate my life more, I feel okay about not being as active on the ECN because I know I will return to it in the future. I should say just to clarify, that I’m on the Ning every day, monitoring what is being posted and approving all applicants who try to join the ECN.

Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing communities in education today? What do you think needs to be happening that isn’t (yet)?

The question of challenges for online communities is a very important one, because even though people appreciate the ECN, they are only loyal to it to the extent that it continues to help them solve their problems. Once something like Google+ comes online, offering new capabilities and is free, the opportunity arises for someone to create some new service that teachers would find it easier to use and so more helpful. Because I have no financial incentive to double my time on the Ning, it would make no sense for me to try to compete with such a network, so although it would make me sad I would have to accept but someone else had created a better service and let the ECN fade away if people do not want to use it. Of course, I am confident that the 30,000 and growing members will continue to make the ECN a community people just have to be a part of.

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Added on Oct 14, 2011

About Jim Burke

Jim Burke, the creator of the English Companion Ning, has been an English teacher at Burlingame High School (CA) for the past sixteen years, and is the author of numerous highly-regarded books for educators, including The English Teachers Companion and What's the Big Idea. He is an elected member of the College Board’s Advanced Placement Course and Exam Review Commission for the English Literature and Language courses. He was the recipient of the National Council of English’s Conference on English Leadership Award.

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