Community has always been the lifeblood of humanity from prehistoric times to today, but our sense of community faces new challenges. As a recent example, the COVID pandemic has made in-person collaboration dangerous. On the other hand, Internet access has grown globally, presenting an opportunity for cosmopolitan learning communities.

People—even introverts—work best in groups. People working together bring their unique mindsets, inspirations, and ideas to the group. All those things mingle, merge, mutate, and refine, fostering serendipity, and creating new insights and inventions.

Communities over the last ten years have bundled together. We’ve gone from interest-based (such as old Internet forums) or geography-based communities being the norm to large, all-in-one communities like Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter. These are so large and unfocused that it’s difficult or even impossible for smaller voices to be heard.

What if we took this conglomeration to the opposite extreme? What if we radically reduced the community’s size, focused it on some target or outcome, and let the community learn and build from the bottom up?

Are you looking for a way to excite your students and improve learning outcomes? To better collaborate with your peers on projects? To embark on a decentralized research project? Create a long-lasting community of builders, learners, and thinkers?

RoamLab, a community laboratory, can help you do all of these things.

  • A community laboratory is a generic term for collaborative learning, research, or building spaces. 
  • RoamLab is an open-source framework for organizing an online community lab with an emphasis on your community.

The RoamLab Community Laboratory

Montessori education, projects like Wikipedia, and physical academic and hacker/maker labs all inspired RoamLab. Like its physical predecessors, the RoamLab community laboratory is the hub of a community of students, tinkerers, and researchers where members can collaborate or independently pursue their research or project interests with light guidance or moderation.

This is as opposed to typical classroom instruction, which is often highly regimented and mostly one-way, from teacher to student. There are a few conceptual metaphors (or meta-frameworks) for different applications of the RoamLab framework:

  • The Community Garden: Focused on growing evergreen knowledge for sharing. A collaborative mind garden.
  • The Networked School: Focused on self-directed learning outcomes, either tightly focused on a single course or broader-based like an entire school. People pick topics to explore, learn about, share and connect their knowledge to others.
  • The Hackerspace: Focused on ideating on and building projects.

The goals of the community laboratory form the basis of meta-frameworks. The base components of the community laboratory, however, remain the same and are focused on communication:

  • A synchronous communicator facilitates real-time conversations. Examples include Zoom, Slack, and Discord.
  • An asynchronous communicator facilitates time-insensitive conversations, including announcements. Examples include Circle and Discourse.
  • A seed pack consists of pre-made networked knowledge that gets installed in the lab. Installed seed packs allow users to link pre-existing knowledge back to their work.
  • The lab bench is where all the work happens. Since this is the RoamLab, Roam is what we will use.

Now that you’ve seen meta-frameworks and components for your community lab, let’s explore how to facilitate one with Roam. Since this is version 0.1, the following work is purely theoretical based on my gut feelings and experiences working in group settings both with and without Roam.

Cultivating Your RoamLab Community

For a facilitator or facilitating organization, the first step in setting up a RoamLab instance is to decide on the defining meta-framework. If your community lab will complement a live course, the Networked School is probably the best meta-framework to use. Are you setting up a group to explore a book or research topic? The Community Garden is perhaps the meta-framework to choose.

This process is essential because–once communicated to members–the meta-framework helps define a shared purpose, easing collaboration.

Next, the facilitator will need to onboard members. They should become familiar with the two main communication tools used as well as the lab bench. The lab bench will be the most important tool to teach to members, and this phase will have the most hands-on involvement from facilitators.

Roam is notorious for its learning curve, but once the community understands a few concepts, the work begins to organize itself, and users can experiment with more advanced features:

  • Backlinking and its importance
  • Block references and embeds
  • Page embeds
  • Querying and indentation

The mechanics of these features aren’t the only important things to teach: teaching when to employ each of these features is even more critical. Additionally, agreeing on some structures and outcomes is necessary so that all members speak a common language. To that end, meta-frameworks will come with their own guidebooks with suggestions for conventions and light onboarding.

When members get to work, they should have the option of leading a project or research topic they are interested in or joining an existing group. Depending on the community, everyone may begin their own projects, then eventually join up with others or occasionally collaborate, or perhaps only a few groups will join with multiple contributors.

These groups can be initially organized in the synchronous communication tool but will primarily work within Roam (or another similar tool for the lab bench).

At this point, the facilitator should be more hands-off, only stepping in to enforce an adopted code of conduct, resolve disputes, help users with the tooling, and encourage inter-group communication and collaboration.

The ideal environment is one in which users work collaboratively in fluid groups, while interest is available. If interest wanes in a project or research topic, then collaboration can begin in others. The artifacts of that work will remain in Roam for someone else to pick up or remix as needed.

Working this way will require a special kind of person who is okay with sharing projects in a non-hierarchical way: even the project’s progenitor or topic doesn’t get to own it.

This style of working also requires trust. For this reason, smaller labs are probably best, even if not always doable. Typical community management practices will be best in those cases, focusing on building a positive, inclusive, collaborative, non-hierarchical community structure.

Future directions

So what’s next?

This article was just an introduction to the RoamLab, but this is just the beginning of the story. Today I am also launching the home of the RoamLab: All things RoamLab will live there as they’re published.

Some items you’ll see at will include:

  • The RoamLab whitepaper and how-to
  • Meta-framework guides
  • Case studies
  • Roam onboarding cheatsheet
  • 1:1 onboarding and setup
  • RoamLab tools