After reading @loarie’s excellent analysis on iNat users, observers, and identifiers last month, I had a few incomplete thoughts about our questions on user recruitment, retention, and engagement. My thoughts center on one new program (or platform) that is ripe for iNat expansion:
iNaturalist should host or coordinate nature education courses.
Take a moment to let it settle in before you make a judgment on this suggestion. Let me lay out both the reason why this makes sense, and a quick summary of the challenges and questions that would need to be solved.
- iNaturalist is an education and science organization. It has a user base is rich in smart, altruistic nature nerds. Many of the most engaged users are educators in some capacity.
- iNaturalist has global reach in natural sciences. It’s target audience are those curious about nature, especially those wanting to improve their familiarity of organisms in their community, and sharpen their identification skills.
- iNaturalist has global reach, and has an opportunity to set up workflows, templates, standards, and feedback mechanisms that could facilitate courses around the world.
- iNaturalist gives a “lab” experience for students to see observations and practice skills regardless of the season or location. Instruction from course material is amplified through application.
- A course through iNaturalist, whether hosted locally or online as a MooC, would align with recruitment and engagement goals. My hypothesis is that course students would advance along the engagement spectrum, whether by joining as new users, or increasing observation and identification activity of existing users, and help systematically transmit the iNaturalist culture one currently only learns by being active on the site and forum.
Now, I don’t think it’s feasible or even preferable for iNat to staff up and teach a bunch of courses. (Unless there are any donors out there who want to grant something to support that!) I envision iNaturalist partnering with educators by providing some course templates and a standard platform where people could find iNat-based courses. A few example scenarios:
Jim is a master naturalist in Denver. He specializes in bugs. He must perform some amount of hours of community service/outreach each year to renew his master naturalist certification. He goes to the iNaturalist course site and picks a template for a local class, which gives him a broad and customizable set of goals and methods. He makes it a Denver Entomology class, makes the goals and curriculum fit that scope, picks out a book and/or online resources, learns how to sort and filter observations on iNaturalist to support practical class activities, and gets some documents he can post online and/or print to advertise the class. Some people come and spend some time learning about bugs, and how to use iNaturalist to continue learning together. When they leave, they know they aren’t alone in their weird hobby. Maybe they join or make a club, or just help identify each other’s iNat observations.
Kathy loves plants. She wants to see more botanical literacy in the world, so she wants to teach a botany class. She goes to the iNaturalist course site and picks a template for a MooC class, which gives her a platform to set up the digital logistics, a broad and customizable set of goals and methods. Mostly same as Jim’s scenario here, except she does it all digitally. They learn all about pedicels and achenes and caudices, and use iNaturalist to look at plants around the world. They don’t learn how to identify every species everywhere, but they learn what to look for and how to describe plant characteristics, and how to find and use guidebooks and online resources. A bunch of plant observation maybe, instead of getting identified, get a bunch of awesome comments all about “tomentose to villous leaves” and “apical tips” and “nutlets”.
Sophie, Bob, and Carol helping lead their local City Nature Challenge. In the 12 weeks leading up to it, they each take their specialty and host a class for local plants, birds, and mushrooms. CNC is the “graduation” of their class, and the students are ambassadors, ready to observe, identify, and welcome new users as they practice what they learned.
Something like this could be used by every Audubon chapter, Native Plant Societies, natural history center, etc. to help support their missions and link to iNaturalist. Wherever these get listed could also list less formal meetups, field trips, and nature walks that intend to use iNaturalist as a platform to share observations.
Questions and issues:
- These would be volunteer classes rather than accredited course that generate “duress” students, but we may want a way for people to interact with the site behind a “student wall” at first. I acknowledge it because I know it is probably the first thing on some people’s minds, but has been discussed at length elsewhere.
- What platform would iNat use? A custom MooC interface to make it really easy to host a class and use the site as a tool? Or one of the other many MooC platforms?
- This would be a branch from iNat’s core platform. What would it take to execute something like this?
- Would anyone on the forum be interested in taking or teaching a course like this?
Ok, that’s probably enough words.