Paying It Forward Online: 5 Ways to Help


“She wants to learn. She wants to get an education.

She goes to school five days a week. She does her homework.”

Malala Yousafzai, the young girl shot by Taliban extremists in 2012, is now 17 and a well-known advocate for girls’ education, made the above comments about her mother—Tor Pekai Yousafzai—in a recent interview with Jodi Kantor at the New York Times.  Malala’s mother is learning to read and write and her life is changing for the better as a result.

Malala and Tor Pekai Yousafzai

Malala and Tor Pekai Yousafzai

Malala’s revealing this information both intrigued and troubled me. It interested me to know that such stark literacy divisions could exist in the same family from one generation to the next, and from one gender to the next. Malala’s father had administered a school for girls in Pakistan. He fostered the education of girls yet his wife—Tor Pekai—did not know how to read or write. This disparity perplexed me. Why had Tor Pekai’s illiteracy not been addressed?  I also worried about how Malala’s mother felt to have her emerging literacy status announced to the world. And how many women there are who aren’t getting the learning opportunities that I and many others have had, and still have via the internet.

Two other things of note happened in quick succession leading up to this post. A local newspaper published an article titled “A Long Line of Java Generosity.” It explained how a woman at 7:00 AM in the Starbucks drive-through started a chain of 378 customers offering to pay for the next customer’s drink. From 7:00 AM until 6:00 PM, customers continued their “random acts of kindness” for people they didn’t know until one woman wanted only to pay for her $2.25 drink and no one else’s. Coincidentally, this picture appeared on a friend’s Facebook page:

Kevin Spacey says...

Kevin Spacey says…

This picture on top of Kevin Spacey’s role in Pay It Forward, kept colliding in my mind with the story of Malala’s mother learning to read and write, and the random acts of kindness at Starbucks. Out came the notion that we have early adopters of information technology and online processes followed by everyone else at different levels of ability and skill. How can we encourage random acts of kindness and assistance to others online? What might that look like? How might we share our skills and abilities with others who wish to become more adept and effective online?

SEARCH One thing we can do that has a huge payoff is help each other use online search engines more effectively. If you know how to phrase inquiries in search engines, which search engines might yield better results for different kinds of searches, and you value Wikipedia as a “gateway site” that can expedite finding other in-depth, accurate information, then you are on your way to successful knowledge work in the 21st century. (Howard Rheingold, Net Smart) If you do these things rote, and are toned in other search techniques and tools, consider helping someone else acquire these skills. And worthy projects to volunteer your search skills in would be a lovely act of kindness, too.

CRAP DETECTION Another key online skill, and talent to share is how to separate “good from bad stuff” on the web. (Rheingold, Net Smart)  Rheingold recommends all to “think skeptically, look for an author, and then see what others say about the author.” He cites journalist John McManus who advises to “think like a detective.” McManus further advocates multiple search queries, using more than one search engine, and looking beyond the first page of results to heighten one’s “critical information consumption skills.” With millions of dollars being spent by special interests to persuade voters to cast their votes one way or another, being able to keep an open mind and verify the facts will continue to be vital whether it’s reviewing newspaper articles or blog posts on the web. When you see someone falling for a scam or disinformation (which has been manufactured to deliberately distort or mislead), pull them back with questions to probe the veracity of sources before real harm ensues. Better yet, gradually familiarize them with different techniques and tools to protect themselves.

MEETING ONLINE EFFECTIVELY and PURPOSEFULLY Occasionally, groups need to use the power of the internet to talk and strategize with each other across various boundaries. Offering to host interactive meetings online can be of great value in helping small community groups work with key stakeholders and allies. It’s true that there are many free or low cost applications hosting sessions on the web. These include Skype, Zoom, Gotomeeting, and many more. However, just like in real life, a poorly planned meeting can fail miserably online, too. Also, to use these environments well—that is supporting participants to engage with new tools involving visual, audio, and text chat exchanges, sequentially and sometimes simultaneously, can take skill to manage effectively. People should identify why they need to meet, and what they want to accomplish, and then focus on building competence with these communication tools to use them confidently.

DISTRIBUTING LEADERSHIP ONLINE Although many people belong to communities of practice, few seem to understand how to grow their own leader skills in online groups.  The seeds of leadership could start with small assists and can expand as individual curiosity, courage, and opportunity converge. For instance, Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner have identified assisting roles for everyone to help steward the “learning process of the whole group.”   They view leadership “as an act of service, that is, not leadership in terms of telling others what to do, but helping the group develop itself as a learning partnership.” They recognize that stewarding roles permit and obligate participants to give to the group in unique ways. Some of the roles they have named are agenda activists, social reporters, critical friends, and community keepers. These are examples of leadership roles; you might be equally creative in naming the work to be led by participants in your communities and helping others carry out these roles. Many believe that distributing leadership in online groups enables faster learning and relationship building; I know I do. It’s worth trying out!

FIFTH HAND-UP TO ONLINE NEWCOMERS What critical skills might you support others to master online through your actions? What have you tried? What are you thinking that we should try? What can we all do to pay for the next person’s “virtual” coffee?


Photo credit on coins to PublicDomainPictures at Pixabay

Photo credit on Malala and her mother to Stan Honda via Getty Images

Photo credit on Kevin Spacey image with quote to

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