Building a successful online learning community

Online collaborative learning has been a hot topic for over a decade.  Since the advent of modern social networks organisations have grappled with how to best make use of these tools to support and enhance the learning experience.

Early attempts usually involved the deployment of a relatively simple set of online ‘tools’ in isolation or as an add-on to a CMS (Content Management System) in the hope (and it was little more than hope) that employees would grasp the ‘opportunity’ to interact and share in the same way they were doing with Facebook and MySpace (remember them?).

The number of tools available, their capability and sophistication, and the understanding of users has increased enormously in the intervening years, but the challenge of maintaining consistent, meaningful interaction within a group of learners remains.

Having deployed a significant number of online learning environments, we have seen that their success is a function of 4 key factors:

Purpose

All too often, the purpose of the online learning environment is rather vague, being little more than an ill-considered ‘bolt-on’ to an otherwise unchanged learning process.  When building an online environment, consider 3 questions:

  • Are the goals of the online environment clearly understood and articulated?
  • Are the interconnects and handoffs between the online and offline environments built in to your learning approach?
  • Are the measures of success documented and tracked on a regular basis?

People

The users of your online environment are the most important consideration factor, and the one that will ultimately determine whether it is successful and valued.  Without a critical mass of participating people, online collaboration will fail.  More important than the number of users is the construction of the online population.

In addition to the learners themselves, many other stakeholders can add, and derive significant value from a collaborative learning environment.  Consider including:

  • The learning faculty – those involved in delivering the offline learning elements can use the online environment as a place to support and encourage ongoing development
  • Programme sponsors – those ultimately responsible and accountable for the business outcomes of the learning can provide valuable insight to keep learning on track
  • Learners’ line managers – using online tools is sometimes perceived as a waste of time by line managers and supervisors – inviting line managers to be part of the collaborative process can be a valuable engagement tool and help keeps learning focussed and relevant

Platform

There are many different online platforms available with varying degrees of sophistication and integration with existing systems.  Some will require significant capital investment, whilst others can be deployed in very little time at little-to-no-cost.  It’s all too easy to be bowled over with high levels of functionality, that in practice never get fully utilised.

When choosing your platform, consider:

  • Does it have the functionality to support your overall purpose?  Separate out the must-haves from the nice-to-haves.
  • Does it offer a familiar environment?  Familiarity is critical in removing barriers to use and in reducing the cost of deploying a system.  For example, most of your users will already use Facebook, so a system that uses similar terminology will make usage easier.
  • Where does it need to be ‘housed’?  Cloud-based systems often provide good value options, but the data is outside of your secure corporate network.  Is this acceptable?  Can you make it secure enough to satisfy your IT department?  If the discussions taking place were to ‘leak’ how much of an issue would this be?

Pied-Pipers

Perhaps the most important element of success are your ‘Pied-Pipers’ – those who engage regularly with the system and create the compelling content that drags others in.  Our experience suggests that these will typically make up around 1% of your online learning population.

If you have a large learning population upwards of several hundred users, then 1% of these may be all you need for successful take-up.  Smaller environments with only a handful of users can work just as well, but the Pied-Pipers will need additional attention and encouragement, or you may need to adopt this role yourself.

Consider:

  • Creating schedules for contribution that ‘force’ content onto your system and create reasons for people to keep visiting.
  • Having a clear policy that learning-based communications must use the online environment and ONLY the online environment
  • Create exercises in the offline environment to be completed online, such as writing a blog or producing a video.
  • Celebrate all types of contribution.  Some people will naturally want to publish, whilst others are more comfortable reacting to what is published.  Both are essential to the long-term success of the online environment.

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