With a global Edtech market estimated to reach $127 billion in 2022 (as reported by Grand View Research, n.d.), learning is included in the wider societal tendency to move more and more of our daily lives online. However, learning is an inherently social act – we learn through being in contact with one another, observing and analysing each other. A huge, and often overlooked aspect of learning, is being part of a community.
Building an effective online learning community requires a deep understanding of the learners, planning and focused effort in order to succeed. We hope this step-by-step guide will help achieve that.
What is an online learning community?
In the context of online learning, a community is a group of learners who attend the same course or training programme and each member contributes comments, feedback and resources relevant to the successful completion of the course that others can use. Furthermore, those contributions could remain indefinitely and improve the learning experience for future cohorts.
Online learning communities complement online training because they facilitate social learning, peer-to-peer and peer-to-tutor support and more.
Thus, an online community’s major benefit is support in achieving better educational outcomes.
Other benefits for your learners
The effort members invest in the discussion and development of a learning community creates a sense of belonging and camaraderie.
Observing active members in your learning community could motivate you to “up your own game.”
Time spent engaging with fellow learners encourages learning beyond formal learning hours and can make studying more fun. New interests may be developed and enthusiasm for topics that didn’t at first seem appealing.
Benefits for your business
If you establish an online learning community, you can become a leader in your field. Being a leader will help you expand your network.
A well-functioning online learning community around your business can also add business development value and elevate brand recognition.
Having an online learning community means that you have a platform where you can promote your future endeavours and gather stakeholder feedback, such as through training courses and events.
However, it can be challenging for instructors to account for individual learners’ needs in discussions if they are taking the course in their own time. Creating opportunities for collaboration can help. We will dive into those in Part 3 of this series.
How to build an online learning community?
It’s worth noting that online communities don’t just “run by themselves.” Building one takes planning and a focused effort in launching and managing it.
Despite the challenges, you can implement a number of strategies to design, support and strengthen your community. Here is what you can do.
Designate an online community manager
An online community manager is a person or a group of people responsible for:
- Setting up the strategy
- Picking the right online platform
- Developing the experience
- Moderating the tone and content
In smaller organisations, the online community manager may do everything themselves, while in larger organisations they may only oversee the strategy and planning side (more on that in Part 2 of the series).
Define the purpose of your online learning community
Knowing what purpose and whose needs the community is serving will help you structure it more precisely, moderate it more effectively and promote it with more success.
Ask yourself what your learners will specifically do or achieve in the community. Is it:
- To gain knowledge in a specific area. For example, to learn English as a foreign language. These communities are usually associated with a long-term commitment.
- To practice specific skills. They are usually based on voluntary participation.
- To complete a common task, such as to produce a product or group project. These are generally temporary groups.
(Riel et al., 2004)
Get to know your online learners
Your learners are more likely to participate if they feel their needs are being met by the group. The purpose of the community should be knowledge deepening and skill building. So you need to do your research and find out who your learners are, the extent of their preexisting subject knowledge and what curriculum challenges they may face.
To gather all the information, you may use:
- One-to-one interviews
- Online surveys
- Polling questions
Set ground rules and make sure you monitor them
Make sure everyone who enters the community is made aware of the proper code of conduct for the group, including:
- How the platform should be used,
- What kind of tone and behaviour is appropriate,
- How inappropriate content or conflicts are settled, etc.
Before launching the community, you need to establish the roles and responsibilities of admins and/or moderators. Be mindful that too much policing could disrupt an open debate but too little could frustrate and discourage serious learners.
A way to communicate the ground rules to everyone is to make them clearly and easily accessible or to discuss them during a live call or webinar as part of the launch session.
Build personal relationships
One of the foundations of an effective online learning community is the personal contact moderators cultivate with members and members cultivate with one another.
It’s always good to appreciate the time participants invest in your community and to reciprocate it by getting to know them better. You could set up an introduction board where everyone is encouraged to introduce themselves and share facts about themselves, such as personal interests and reasons for joining the community. You could also invite learners to reply to comments and interact with their peers in meaningful ways.
Make yourself available
Managing a community is a full-time job. The participants should have a way to contact you or a member of your team individually in case of questions, suggestions, concerns or complaints. Such a channel of communication could be an email or better yet, a direct live chat.
Create smaller groups
Rather than having one community for everyone, it can be useful to create separate groups around courses or cohorts.
You can narrow these down even further and create sub-communities based on common interests or projects. For example, if your community centres around learning English as a foreign language, there can be different groups for learning business English, English for the translation of non-fiction literature, and so on.
Splitting your community members into sub-communities will allow you to provide a more personalised approach to teaching.
A smaller group could also be the right environment for online learners who would usually feel hesitant to participate in larger groups of strangers.
Furthermore, a sub-community would allow you to adapt your marketing efforts to better suit a smaller, more targeted audience.
Keep it on-brand
You should not overlook the fact that your online learning community is an extension of your brand experience. You should ensure that your community looks and feels like an integral part of your corporate/organisational brand. That means using your company colours and logos, bearing in mind that any peer-to-peer or peer-to-mentor interaction happening in the community reflects on your company’s image. So, from day 1, every participant needs to be familiar with the code of conduct and the community needs to be consistently monitored.
Choose the right platform
You now have a better understanding of your users and their needs, which is crucial for selecting the right online platform to host your community. For example, personal social media platforms might not suit a group of professionals used to using LinkedIn.
You should consider what collaboration capabilities the platform has because meaningful interaction with peers over a joint project is the basis for social learning.
Another major aspect that should impact your choice of the platform is its security settings. Consider who defines access control, privacy settings, group creation and moderation capabilities.
The platform’s brandability should not be overlooked either. As your aim is to turn this platform into a recognisable home for your community, you need to make sure you can change its look and feel to match your organisation.
You might also want to consider that other tools that your organisation uses internally can connect seamlessly to your community platform. In other words, making sure the platform offers the right integration capabilities.
The platform you choose should also have a mobile version to enable learning “on the go”.
There are a variety of learning platforms that offer community and collaboration features, and increasingly platforms specifically for community management are emerging. For example, Communities is a private social network with webinar delivery. With Communities, you can create networks and communities with push notifications, create resource folders, allow learners to connect with each other, exchange ideas, opinions and resources, collaborate on projects and offer them monitored training and paid or free webinars.
Other popular examples of learning platforms with community capabilities include:
Plan the launch
Now you have the platform to host your community, it’s time to prepare for launch.
- Think about what your initial launch messaging will look like
- Develop an onboarding strategy to include: (a) basics of using the platform, (b) learning outcomes and assessments/projects, (c) code of conduct, and (d) introduction to moderators or onboarding buddies.
- Consider what content you need to post to keep your audience engaged
- Plan out your posting schedule for at least a month ahead
- Ask yourself at which point you should collect learner feedback that may help further develop the course. After the first month? Mid-course? At the end? Or every 2 weeks?
- Schedule live online/face-to-face sessions so learners can plan their availability ahead of time
- Before launch, recruit users to beta-test the experience
To be continued…
This piece is the first part of an extended series of blog posts in which we are discussing how to create an effective and engaging online learning community.
The series includes:
Part 2 – Facilitation and moderation
Part 3 – Driving engagement
Thank you for reading and until next time!
- Grand View Research, n.d. Education Technology Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report, By Sector (Preschool, K-12, Higher Education), By End-user (Business, Consumer), By Type, By Deployment, By Region, And Segment Forecasts, 2022 – 2030. Grand View Research. Available at: <https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/education-technology-market#:~:text=The%20global%20EdTech%20market%20size,USD%20127.0%20billion%20in%202022> [Accessed August 2, 2022].
- Riel, M. and Polin, L., 2004. Online Learning communities: common ground and critical differences in designing technical environments. In J. Gray, R. King, & S. A. Barab, eds. Designing for Virtual Communities in the Service of Learning. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press, pp. 16–52.
- Speyer, A., 2021. The Definitive Guide to Online Community Management. Higher Logic. Available at: <https://www.higherlogic.com/blog/online-community-management-guide/> [Accessed April 1, 2022].