Examples of Vibrant Online Communities – 100/100 Paddling Challenge and Back of the Pack Chattajack

I cannot express the depth of my gratitude to these tremendous ladies (Julia Nicholls and Dottie Hodges) for sharing their experiences with me. Their enthusiasm in and commitment to their communities is so genuine and inspiring. Listed below is only maybe 20% of what we discussed in our interviews. There is a lot more activity in these groups that could be compared with other community-related research and examined for potential usage in other fields (academia, marketing, etc). I continue to be a devoted and enthusiastic follower/onlooker/lurker in both online groups discussed below and am excited to see how they continue to grow into the future.


In September, I had the pleasure of speaking with Dottie Hodges and Julia Nicholls – two stand up paddlers who have created vibrant online communities that facilitate group asynchronous fitness training. These groups were discussed briefly in my earlier post, Using Facebook Groups to Promote Online Learning Communities. The success of these paddlers and groups is exciting for many reasons:

  • focus on online collaborative learning – that they are communities centered around learning and collectively building knowledge online
  • low participation costs – how easy it is to participate in these groups despite their monumental group challenges
  • they inspire action – how successful they are in inspiring continuous real world action when all community interaction exists online
  • strong group identity – how enthusiastic their members are about the online communities
  • steep growth – their phenomenal growth in membership and participation within a short time frame

In my post below, I share more about these communities and discuss reasons for their success based on current community-related theories.

100/100 Paddle Challenge

The 100/100 Paddle Challenge (100/100) is a Facebook group that unites a global community of paddlers in completing various distance related challenges. It is named after its first challenge – to paddle 100 miles in 100 days. The group was created by Julia Nicholls, a stand up paddler and former ultrarunner from Morehead City, North Carolina, as a way to encourage herself to train and paddle throughout the winter (personal communication, September 25, 2014).

 Nicholls 2014 - b

(Julia Nicholls, 2014)

To participate in 100/100, group members log their miles paddled through posting on the group’s Facebook wall. The challenge simply encourages members to complete the miles in the designated time frame. How, when, and where a participant paddles these miles is unimportant, making the challenge available to participants of all skill levels, ages, and geographic locations.

100/100 was created in January of 2014. In its first month, the group had 31 members. In 10 months, the group has grown dramatically and now includes 311 members (Nicholls, 2014).

Back of the Pack Chattajack

Back of the Pack Chattajack (BOP) is an online community of paddlers who are mostly geographically separated but use a Facebook group to train together asynchronously. Dottie Hodges, the group’s founder and a Hammer Nutrition sponsored athlete, created the group after registering for the Chattajack – a 32 mile stand up paddle race on the Chattanooga River. As a former triathlete, Hodges had trained for other endurance-testing events through group workouts. In my interview with her, she explained that this sense of community is what motivated her in the past to stay engaged in her training and to compete. Through BOP, Hodges wanted to leverage this same group accountability and motivation through connecting online with other paddlers training for the Chattajack. (personal communication, September 25, 2014).


(Dottie Hodges, 2014)

Like 100/100, paddlers can participate in BOP through logging their training progress on the group’s Facebook wall. Although BOP does not require participants to train using a specific format, members use the group as a forum to share and gather information on workouts, racing gear, and nutrition. Because of the length of the race (32 miles), group members need to push themselves to paddle longer distances (20+ miles) as part of their training. For many participants, paddling these long distances is a challenge and results in muscle fatigue, mental exhaustion, and sometimes injury. Members use the group to share these challenges to obtain needed encouragement and feedback.

BOP was created in March of 2014, with 2 original members. This has also grown tremendously for the past 7 months, and now includes 53 members (Hodges, 2014).

Reasons for Success

Low Participation Costs, High Reward

Butler et al. explain in their 2014 research article that there is cost – in terms of time and energy – to participate in online communities. Members participate in these groups to obtain a specific benefit as a result of reviewing the discussion posts of other members. If reviewing these posts is time intensive, the participation cost of the group is high and may deter future participation (p. 704).

Although both 100/100 and BOP require tremendous physical and real-life action, participation online is very simple. Posts to the groups’ Facebook walls can range in length and detail, from paragraphs to just a few words, and include pictures. Pictures and short posts are easily scanned by other members, keeping the online participation cost in these groups relatively low.

As posts are added to the groups’ walls, other group members respond by “liking” and/or comments on the posts with words of encouragement. This positive reinforcement gives the group a very high team moral and encourages further interaction. The more content a participant adds to the wall, the more positive reinforcement he or she receives. Nicholls also regularly features member photos shared on 100/100’s wall as the main photo for the group’s page (Nicholls, 2014). This spotlight opportunity encourages members to continue sharing pictures of their paddling adventures.

Strong Group Identity

Ren et al. explain in their 2012 research article that “member participation and retention [in online communities] depends on member attachment” which is the “members’ affective connection to and caring for an online community” (p. 842). According to theories regarding group identity, a strong group identity can result in a strong member attachment. This group identity can be built through promoting common goals and group objects (like a flag or group symbol) (p. 844). Both 100/100 and BOP unite paddlers using both of these methods.

100/100 and BOP promote a specific challenge with milestones towards that goal that are easily tracked. Only participants who are commitment to completing these challenges (or enthusiastic onlookers like myself) are permitted to join the groups. This screening of potential members keeps the group focused and unified on its original goals and expectations.

Both groups also utilize a team logo and encourage members to display it with pride. Nicholls mails all 100/100 participants a sticker with the name of the group’s challenge. At the completion of their challenge, participants are encouraged to post and photograph this sticker in a prominent location. On the group’s Facebook wall are pictures of stickers stuck to paddles, boards, buoys, cars, computers, etc. (Nicholls, 2014).

100 sticker

(Williams, 2014)

Hodges designed a special logo for BOP to give the group a more professional and elite appearance (personal communication, September 25, 2014).


(Hodges, 2014)

This logo was featured as the main picture for the group’s Facebook page. Hodges later distributed t-shirts with this logo to group members at this year’s Chattajack (Hodges, 2014).

BOP tshirts

(Hodges, 2014)


Nicholls and Hodges have succeeded in building two impressive online communities organically through emphasizing group identity. Both 100/100 and BOP continue to be active communities because of the enthusiasm of their members in the content, and a structure that requires a low online participation cost. The success of these groups outlines research potential into the effects of peer encouragement on retention and participation in online communities.


Butler, B. S., Bateman, P. J., Gray, P. H., & Diamant, E. (2014). An attraction-selection-attrition theory of online community size and resilience. MIS Quarterly, 38(3), 699-728. Retrieved from http://www.misq.org/

Dottie Hodges [online photo]. (2014). Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/dottie.b.hodges

Hodges, D. (2014, March 6). Back of the Pack Chattajack [Facebook Group]. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/groups/1404314579830164/

Hodges, D. (2014). Back of the Pack Chattajack Logo [online image]. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/groups/1404314579830164/

Hodges, D. (2014). Back of the Pack Chattajack T-shirts [online image]. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/groups/1404314579830164/

Julia Nicholls [online photo]. (2014). Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/julia.nicholls

Nicholls, J. (2014, January 18). 100/100 Paddle Challenge [Facebook Group]. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/groups/682074028482292/

Ren, Y., Harper, F. M., Drenner, S., Terveen, L., Kiesler, S., Riedl, J., Kraut, R. (2012). Building member attachment in online communities: Applying theories of group identity and interpersonal bonds. MIS Quarterly, 36(3), 841-864. Retrieved from http://www.misq.org/

Williams, C. (2014). 100/100 Paddle Challenge Sticker [online photo]. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/cheryl.norcross


Using Social Media to Create a “Sense of Community”

Below is a blog post that I wrote as part of an assignment for UMUC’s class OMDE 603 Technology in Distance Education & E-learning.  See the original post here.

Merriam-webster.com defines community in three ways: as “a united body of individuals,” as “an interacting population…in a common location,” and as “a body of persons of common…interests scattered through a larger society.” Tom Adamski, former CEO of Rosetta, describes communities in his TEDx talk (2012) as “an organic construct” that is “built off of the elements of our human nature: our wants, our desires, our psyche.”

Communities are built naturally in a traditional education setting. Students interact face-to-face with other students in their classes and on campus. As they get to know their peers, they identify and connect with people with interests, challenges, and goals similar to themselves. Students can then turn to these connections for support and encouragement throughout the completion of their program and beyond.

These communities also serve as reminders that their studies should be a high priority. In a tight-knit class community, the absence of a student is not only noted by a professor but also by their peers. In classes where verbal discourse is encouraged or required, students must stay engaged in class conversation and up-to-date with the course materials or risk possible public humiliation.

Online education, unfortunately, does not offer students the same access to their peers as in traditional education. Communication is largely asynchronous. Students also do not have easy access to the personal characteristics of their classmates: their age, background, personality, interests, sense of humor, etc. This makes it incredibly difficult for students to connect and form communities in meaningful ways and that give them support (moral or otherwise) in their studies.

In cases where online classrooms fail to give students a sense of community, social media may be utilized to assist students with connecting with their classmates. Because communities are formed by individuals meeting in a common location, institutions can assist students in building communities by dictating the common ground where they will exist: Facebook, Google+, a university sponsored social media platform, etc. Profile features, similar to those found in Facebook, can be utilized to assist students with locating peers with similar interests and backgrounds (Ren et al, 2012). Centralized, free, and open discussion forums can be utilized to give students a common ground to meet and communicate.

Not all online students are comfortable with or have experience using social media. Instructors can further assist with institution-wide endeavors to build online student community through helping students to construct online communication literacy and social media skills. OnlineUniversities.com’s 2010 blog post 100 Inspiring Ways to Use Social Media In the Classroom contains a detailed list of activities instructors can add to their curriculum/coursework to assist students in building these skills.

Online communities have the potential to encourage student engagement and prevent attrition in online distance education programs. However, in order to take advantage of this potential, institutions must commit to offering students a virtual common ground to meet, as well as encourage students to use it. At the same time, because communities are built organically, institutions must allow students the personal space to use the virtual common ground and to make it their own. If institutions force students to participate in communities that they (the institution) feels is most necessary and beneficial, they risk low student engagement.


Adamski, T. (2012, December 26). Community – Making an old concept new [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9AKfvRF_Mh8

Community. 2014. In Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved October 23, 2014, Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/community

OnlineUniversities.com. (2010, May 4). 100 Inspiring Ways to Use Social Media In the Classroom [Blog Post]. Retrieved from http://www.onlineuniversities.com/blog/2010/05/100-inspiring-ways-to-use-social-media-in-the-classroom/

Ren, Y. et al. (2012). Building member attachment in online communities: applying theories of group identity and interpersonal bonds. MIS Quarterly, 36(3), 841-864. Retrieved from http://www.misq.org/

Using Facebook Groups to Promote Online Learning Communities

Below is a paper that I wrote for UMUC’s class OMDE 603 Technology in Distance Education & E-learning.  It includes a brief account of the use of Facebook groups to unite stand up paddlers as they train and complete paddle-related challenges asynchronously.  


Using Facebook Groups to Promote Online Learning Communities


Throughout distance education’s history, much research has been devoted to investigating the causes of and possible solutions for student drop out in asynchronous courses (Brindley, 1995, p. 23).  In distance education, the geographical separation between students and the instructor, as well as the asynchronous interaction, causes some students to feel isolated and alone (LaPadula, 2003, p. 120).  This isolation may cause students to feel unsupported or to deprioritize their learning for face-to-face community responsibilities (family, work, church, etc) that seem more immediately pressing.  A sense of community in needed in online classes to help students feel more connected to their classmates, instructors, and academic program (Moore, 2014, p. 20). Students may find that a tangible connection to their learning community is necessary to provide them with the accountability framework they need to keep them motivated and engaged.

This paper examines the use of Facebook’s group feature to support asynchronous learning communities.  It discusses the advantages and disadvantages of using Facebook groups for formal distance learning, as well as the success of two non-academic learning communities.


Advantages of Using Facebook Groups for Distance Learning

Some distance education institutions have already begun to experiment with using Facebook groups in various capacities, including using them to create student communities (Poellhuber & Anderson, 2011, p. 103) and as the online platform for distance learning.  In a case study by Wang et al (as cited in Meishar-Tal et al, 2012), a Facebook group was used to host an online class.  Wang et al found that student discussion in Facebook was significantly higher (400%) than in the control formal online classroom (p. 39).

Social media, particularly Facebook, is uniquely able to provide students with an insight into their community.  Through using Facebook’s profile features, students can review and compare themselves with the backgrounds and circumstances of their classmates.  Sharing common interests and goals can make students feel more comfortable with, and eager to participate in, their learning community (Poellhuber & Anderson, 2011, p. 105).

The Facebook group feature is designed to encourage participation.  Content on the group’s “wall” is organized at first chronologically, and then may be moved to the top of the list (a more visible location) if members comment on or like it.  This unique page organization encourages further discussion of topics that have proven popular with other members, thus seeking to stimulate and boost member participation in the group.

Other benefits of using Facebook include that it is relatively easy to use and widely available to the public.  At this time, there is no cost for learners or administrators to use the group feature.  Facebook also requires little to no maintenance on behalf of the distance education institution (Meishar-Tal et al, 2012, p. 36-39).

Challenges Regarding Facebook

Unfortunately, because Facebook was initially designed for networking as opposed to collaboration, the collaborative tools found in its group feature are rudimentary.  Only a small space for user instructions is available, thus making it difficult to educate users on how to use the group’s page.  In a study conducted by Meishar-Tal et al (2012), the number one struggle reported by students while using Facebook groups was “difficulty in locating old items and orientation problems (39%)” (p. 43).  Additionally, Facebook groups do not offer any assessment or learner analytic tools, making collecting student participation data a challenge for instructors and distance education institutions (Meishar-Tal et al, 2012, p. 37).

Students, faculty, and institutions may also have privacy concerns regarding utilizing Facebook.  Facebook requires users to have a Facebook account to participate in a Facebook group.  Some students and faculty may already be using Facebook privately to connect with friends and family.  Therefore, it is possible that institutions may receive some opposition from students and faculty who do not want to join Faceboook or “prefer a separation between learning space and social space” (Meishar-Tal et al, 2012, pp. 36-38).  All content posted in Facebook is owned by Facebook, and it may share or archive data according to its policies (Meishar-Tal et al, 2012, p. 36).  If an institution decides to implement a student community using Facebook, it may be advisable for them to periodically take snap shots or downloads to preserve the interaction for their own record keeping purposes.

Examples of Success Outside of Academia

The 100/100 Paddle Challenge and Back of the Pack Chattajack (BOP) are online stand up paddling communities that unite their members by directing them to complete a monumental challenge. In the 100/100 Paddle Challenge, members have committed themselves to paddling 100 miles in 100 consecutive days.  BOP is an online community for ordinary paddlers to train and compete in a 31 mile race along the Chattanooga River called the Chattajack 31.  As participants work towards completing their challenge, they post their progress on the Facebook wall of their group.  Other group members will then enthusiastically respond to their posts with words of encouragement and congratulations.

This virtual cheerleading is effective in motivating participants in two ways.  First, the comments confirm to participants that the group members are paying attention to their progress, thus giving them a feeling of accountability that the community wants them to finish their goal.  Second, the comments give the participants positive reinforcement and a feeling of belonging to a larger paddling community.  Both groups have enjoyed significant increases in membership and participation since their founding this year (Nicholls, 2014)(Hodges, 2014).  The success of these groups suggests that there is potential for using Facebook groups to create community among learners in other distance education scenarios.


There is great potential for using Facebook groups to give distance learners a sense of community.  Facebook’s features are built to encourage interaction.  This continual interaction is critical for the survival of online communities (Butler et al, 2014, p 700).  Instructors may also consider encouraging virtual cheerleading among students in Facebook groups as a way to further encourage student engagement and motivation.



Brindley, J. E. (1995). Learner services: Theory and practice, Distansutbildning i itveckling, Rapport nr. 11 (pp. 23-34). Umea, Sweden: University of Umea.

Butler, B. S., Bateman, P. J., Gray, P. H., & Diamant, E. (2014). An attraction-selection-attrition theory of online community size and resilience. MIS Quarterly, 38(3), 699-728. Retrieved from http://www.misq.org/

Hodges, D. (2014, March 6). Back of the Pack Chattajack [Facebook Group].  Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/groups/1404314579830164/

LaPadula, M. (2003). A comprehensive look at online student support services. American Journal of Distance Education, 17(2), 119-128.  Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/hajd20#.VDmOAvmzF1Y

Meishar-Tal, H., Kurtz, G., & Pieterse, E. (2012). Facebook groups as LMS: A case study. International Review Of Research In Open And Distance Learning, 13(4), 33-48.  Retrieved from http://www.eric.ed.gov/contentdelivery/servlet/ERICServlet?accno=EJ1001705

Moore, R. (2014). Importance of developing community in distance education courses. Techtrends: Linking Research & Practice To Improve Learning, 58(2), 20-24. doi: 10.1007/s11528-014-0733-x

Nicholls, J. (2014, January 18). 100/100 Paddle Challenge [Facebook Group]. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/groups/682074028482292/

Poellhuber, B., & Anderson, T. (2011). Distance students’ readiness for social media and collaboration. International Review Of Research In Open And Distance Learning, 12(6), 102-125.  Retrieved through http://www.eric.ed.gov/contentdelivery/servlet/ERICServlet?accno=EJ963934

Wang Q, Lit Woo H, Lang Quek C, Yang Y, Liu M. Using the Facebook group as a learning management system: An exploratory study. British Journal Of Educational Technology [serial online]. May 2012;43(3):428-438. Available from: Education Research Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed September 29, 2014.  doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8535.2011.01195.x


Distance education is a powerful branch of formalized learning that utilizes technology to connect students and instructors who are geographically separated.  This technology includes readily accessible communication tools, as well as resourceful and innovative strategies to integrate lessons into students’ daily lives.

The success of distance education is reliant upon student retention and engagement.  Programs are designed to share information with students, and the transfer and building of knowledge requires student participation.

My name is Cheryl Williams and I am studying distance education at University of Maryland University College (UMUC).  While researching into student attrition, I was reminded of my experiences in traditional education where peer and community support helped me to succeed in my classwork.  The purpose of this blog is explore the use of communities to unite learners and encourage retention.