In Part 1 of this series, Getting started, we established that participating in a well-functioning online learning community centred around your business can create a sense of belonging and camaraderie in your learners, motivate them to “up their game” and could encourage learning beyond the formal learning hours.

Part 2, Facilitation and moderation, was all about uncovering those benefits by establishing your authority within the community, directing learners’ efforts and working towards the minimisation of conflict.

In this post, we will focus on practical techniques and activities you can introduce to ensure learner participation.


First, ensure proper learner segmentation

Once your community is up and running, you want to give the members a reason not only to join but, most importantly, give them the motivation to stay and be active. To do this, you need to develop a learner segmentation process to make sure they are assigned to the communities/sub-communities that best serve their needs. Based on the results, you can split users into smaller groups with a more precisely targeted message.

Some popular segmentation types include:

  • Geographical segmentation: As different regions have different needs, you need to take into account where the learners live. Variables you may wish to consider: countries, regions, cities, postcode areas, climate, geographical structure, physical properties, population density, etc.
  • Demographic segmentation: People from different backgrounds have different motivations and face different barriers that shape their educational requirements. Variables you may wish to consider: age, size of family, gender, income, profession, educational level, religion, nationality, social class, etc.
  • Psychographic segmentation: The most powerful type of segmentation, but also the most difficult to apply, this helps you understand the user in a more detailed way. A learner’s psychographic profile is based on: psychological-personality characteristics, socioeconomic status, lifestyle, motives, values, learning styles, etc.

(Öztürk et al., 2015)


Have a content calendar

Knowing what types of content resonate best with your learners is crucial. The content you publish should depend on the learners’ needs and their segment. Before launching the community, you should have at least 4 weeks worth of content ready to release in case anything goes wrong and you are unable to produce new content for a while.

In your content calendar, you should also find room for group events and live online or face-to-face sessions so the learners can get additional value through participation and discussion.

Consider having regular webinars and ask-me-anything sessions with experts from your organisation or wider network.

Make note of the data as you go, to see which content and topics perform best and which underperform so that you can adjust your planning accordingly.


Start with an introductory week

Use the first days of the community to onboard the members. During the first week, you can:

  • Introduce yourself, your team and the hierarchy structure
  • Encourage members to complete their profiles
  • Hold an introductory online or face-to-face discussion where you can ask the user to share a bit about themselves and their goals for the course
  • Explain how the community and the supporting tools work
  • Set clear expectations from the participants
  • Discuss the code of conduct
  • Play ice-breaking activities

Learners should not be expected to engage with content during the first week. Rather, this is a chance for them to learn how to navigate the environment.


Ask thought-provoking profile questions

Depending on the topic, ask your users content-specific questions such as “what is your level of confidence with the concept of _____” or “Rate on a scale of novice to expert your knowledge about _____” (Remiker, n.d.). Not only will this provoke your learners to reflect on their capabilities but you can also use this information in the segmentation process.


Keep the tone human

You should avoid using promotions, marketing jargon or chatbots whenever possible. Instead, consider what would make the discussions more human and approachable. Try giving your users a feeling of happiness and satisfaction. This way they will develop a much deeper relationship with your brand.


Share with the community

Don’t be afraid to share personal facts and stories with the members of your community. This will help them to stop seeing you simply as a moderator or a tutor and will give them a reason to connect with you on a more human level.


Create a “go-to” library

Make the resources that you’ve shared with the community easily accessible so everyone can use them “on the go.” One way to do it is by adding them to a shared library, preferably within the same platform.

You can also encourage the participants to publish their own resources. To ensure the quality of what’s shared, there needs to be either a curation process in place or the community members must vote on the helpfulness of that resource.

If you take this approach, remember to tell learners about the shared library and prompt them to use it.


Make use of the chat features

Along with the group dashboard, every community and sub-community should offer a group chat where members can invite tutors to join, discuss issues, express opinions, share files and generally support each other.

To give easier access to tutors and moderators, along with their email, your community management platform should also be able to accommodate person-to-person chats. A person-to-person chat should also be available for peer-to-peer communication.

Something to remember: resolving personal conflicts between members should happen in a private chat between the community leader/moderator and the members involved, and not in the group chat.


Foster open discussions

Some users can be hesitant to participate in discussions because they’re not sure what to say or don’t feel comfortable with their voice. However, the fact of the matter is that learners who use discussion forums do find them helpful.

Here are some ideas on how to foster a better discussion:

  • Be clear about the purpose: Have a specific call to action, such as ‘Share the most interesting article you’ve read on today’s topic. Discuss what makes it interesting,’ ‘Describe a real-world application of what we learned about today,’ or ‘In what direction do you think today’s topic will evolve in the next 5, 10 or 50 years?’
  • Provide opportunities: Start discussions around various topics and encourage users to start their own forums. It’s likely that the more forums there are, the more learners will participate in at least one.
  • Pay attention to what the learners are saying: An occasional reply to learners’ messages, monitoring the forums for potential pieces of feedback and implementing some suggestions will make the learners feel heard.


Urge (or mandate) participation

Make certain aspects of community life obligatory. For example, you can tell your users that meaningful resource-sharing or peer-to-peer feedback is part of their assessment or that if they don’t fully complete their member profiles on time, they risk suspension from the community.


Put the emphasis on social learning

As we established in Part 1 of the series, learning is an inherently social act – we learn through being in contact with one another, observing and analysing each other. If you want your community to take advantage of those benefits, you need to create opportunities for social learning. Below are 2 ways you can achieve this:


Promote peer-to-peer learning

Create opportunities for peers to learn from each other. You can:

  • In smaller groups, ask members to share with the rest of the group how they solved a certain problem. This could take text form or even an audio or video recording. The rest of the group is then encouraged to share their own experience.
  • Pair up peers and ask them to review each other’s work.


Introduce collaborative learning opportunities

If your course includes an assignment or a project of some sort, instead of assigning these individually, you can form groups or ask learners to self-organise into working groups.

For best results, facilitate your course on a platform that supports collaborative learning features, such as group chat, collaboration on documents, file-sharing and video presentation. A couple examples of these community platforms are Communities and Microsoft Teams.


Gamify the experience

Consider introducing game elements to the community experience to encourage engagement. For example, you can award badges, such as ‘Super user’, or give awards such as ‘Best communicator’ or ‘Top resource’ the community can vote for.

To keep the learners motivated, you can display the achievements on a scoreboard or a leaderboard.


Use announcements

Pushing news and announcements makes you seem active. From Day 1, you should make the users aware of what types of notifications they can expect, how often and where they can find them.

Below are some examples of announcements:

  • Reminders about due dates
  • Reminders about upcoming events
  • New releases (new courses, shared library entries, blog posts and so on)
  • Congratulation messages after reaching a milestone, encouragements to submit projects with due-dates
  • Internal news, e.g., change in community structure (new tutors, admins or moderators, new community leaders and so on)
  • Relevant news from the outside world, e.g. a new piece of legislation that may affect the industry
  • Promotional offers


Build recurring content ideas

Having Tip Tuesdays or member spotlights could give members a reason to come back on those days (Speyer, 2021).


Measure success

One of the best things about online communities is that they are rich in data you can utilise. Monitor the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) but also pay attention to the big picture: how the users are doing, what types of content they engage most with, what their learning and emotional needs are and how your business can accommodate those. Data patterns are likely to emerge that will direct you to where you need to be and what you need to change to get to where you want to go.

If you are not sure where to start, Leader Networks illustrates what categories of community analytics you can measure in their Community Impact Framework. The first three metrics showcase engagement metrics, while the last four showcase business metrics:

(Source: Leader Networks, 2022)


In summary…

Let’s summarise what practical techniques and activities you could introduce to ensure learner participation:

  1. Ensure proper learner segmentation
  2. Have a content calendar
  3. Start with an introductory week
  4. Ask thought-provoking profile questions
  5. Keep the tone human
  6. Share with the community
  7. Create a “go-to” library
  8. Make use of the chat features
  9. Foster open discussions
  10. Urge (or mandate) participation
  11. Put the emphasis on social learning
  12. Promote peer-to-peer learning
  13. Introduce collaborative learning opportunities
  14. Gamify the experience
  15. Use announcements and notifications
  16. Build recurring content ideas
  17. Measure success

It may not always be possible to include all of these techniques in every case but including at least a few of these strategies can hugely support your effort.


This is the final part of the series

This piece is the third and final 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 1 – Getting started

Part 2 – Facilitation and moderation


Thank you for reading and until next time!