If the Conditions Are Right, Build a Community

by Ian Roberts

I worked on the English Online project for close to four years. We started with a simple goal ‘to promote the learning and teaching of English in China’. With nearly 300 million active learners of English and 400,000 teachers of English, I didn’t think it would be a difficult sell. And it wasn’t. Users signed up in their tens of thousands and visits regularly topped 30 million a year.

But in my view, this kind of metric only tell part of the story. Whilst the numbers would certainly appease managers and their key performance indicators, I wasn’t so easily sold – I wanted real evidence that we were providing a community platform that promoted the English language.

And one day, I got what I wanted…

Let’s take a step back first – English Online was slightly different to other British Council language learning websites, instead of offering language practice in the form of Flash games, stories and quizzes as was the norm, we wanted to create opportunities for real communication between learners.

By the time they have left university most Chinese will have received around 8 years of compulsory English education, and whilst they may be able to pass a multiple choice exam, few actually reach a level that allows them to communicate at even the most basic of levels in English. It’s not surprising given the rote-style of learning and the focus on passing exams that actual communicative language practice is not deemed a necessary part of the school curriculum.

Slowly things are changing in Chinese education, but we saw an opportunity to give learners a place to forget about tenses and pronouns and prepositions and instead simply practise their English by participating in an online community. This community would consist of other users with a common interest to learn English – there would be no teachers, no native speakers to interact with and no right or wrong answers with which to be graded.

Rather than providing interactive activities that a learner could use autonomously, we chose instead to simply provide language input in the form of text, audio and video. This was sometimes accompanied by a simple task or a glossary/ transcript, but not always. We left the rest up to the learners – we let them decide their own journey. The only thing we did was to provide them with a means to communicate with their peers. As such, commenting was opened up on all content. If a user felt compelled to comment on a piece of content they could, if they had a language question they could ask that, if they wanted to help another learner, they could do that.

Each registered user had a profile area where they could post up a bio, add friends, post on their wall and blog. The final channel for communication was a simple threaded forum with a few basic starter topics. We sat back and waited – would real communication happen or not?

What we found was that sharing a story or expressing an opinion is not held back by language barriers. The prose might not be perfectly written, but the desire to communicate is clear to see.

And this brings me back to the moment that I knew we had done something right. Here is a post in the forum from a username Mixue:


Firstly, it’s a well-written post in terms of language – the message is clear and it calls for opinion. In total there were 19 responses to this post – you can see the full thread here – and as I read through each of them I saw signs that we had created a community.

The signs I saw…

We purposefully decentralised responsibility for topics. I would never have thought of this as a topic for discussion, but it clearly is. So first off, the user has taken the initiative to generate a topic of personal interest.

There were 19 replies to the original post, all from different users – all were on topic, written in English and all communicated clearly. We have a good participation rate and high engagement.

When there is a bond between community members, when the atmosphere is right, members will be happy to disclose thoughts and engage with one another. Looking at the responses you can see that other users are responding to the topic, giving an opinion, giving advice and telling related anecdotes. There is clearly a feeling of shared interest amongst the users and they are engaged in the subject matter.

I haven’t done any kind of linguistic analysis with this thread, but I can see that there is a rich vein of communication. Users haven’t responded with simple retorts, one-word replies or copycat responses – each comment is thought out with words carefully chosen.

This tells me that users are thinking about what they want to say, and crafting their response, choosing their vocabulary and grammar to best express themselves, perhaps even looking up a word in a dictionary, correcting a mistake and rereading their comment before posting. In short, it’s a perfect environment for learning, even though I would be surprised if any of the participants in this thread were consciously thinking about improving their English at the time they were communicating. And that is how we learn a language as a child – the message is the key, not linguistic accuracy.

Over the lifespan of the site, we observed the same thing through all the communication channels on the site, whether that be the forum, commenting or blogs. We were constantly surprised about how open and sincere much of the writing was and how supportive the community was both in terms of language learning and also on a personal level.

Since the end of the English Online project (it ran for 4 years before being absorbed into a global website) I have sat in on a few content strategy meetings where pedagogues have spent hours discussing more and more elaborate ways to engage users, before writing cheques to build the latest smartphone app or learning management system and each time my mind comes back to the ‘rabbit’. If the conditions are right to create a community, if there is a shared interest amongst users that grows into collaboration, discussion and trust then look no further.