Digital learning communities are fast on the rise. The number of undergraduate students enrolled in distance learning courses in the US stood at 7 million in 2020, an astonishing 186 percent higher than the 2.4 million in 2019. The renewed focus on digital learning brought about by the pandemic has given the e-learning industry a giant impetus, helping it reach more students and filling gaps left by institutions of formal education. As a result, the demand for online learning communities that engage and support individual learners is steadily increasing. 

Some of the key contributions online learning communities make include creating a healthy and supportive learning environment and fostering interactions between groups or learners. Achieving this requires an innovative approach focused on improving the efficacy and reach of these communities. Here are a few strategies you can leverage to build and sustain a successful online learning community

Tips For Building An Online Learning Community 

Identify What’s Missing In Online Education Today

The first aspect that needs understanding is that online learning communities are inherently different from those active on campuses and other in-person learning environments. The absence of the “human element”, physical interactions, and a sense of friendship are some of the vital factors missing in online learning scenarios. That can lead to students feeling distant and disengaged, potentially affecting their ability to make the most out of their online programmes. This makes it important for you to take active measures to encourage participation and productive peer-to-peer communication within your online learning community. 

Special chat forums can be set up to help students network and interact within the community. These forums can further be divided into ‘rooms’ meant for general networking and dedicated subject discussions, a few of which can be monitored by mentors who help clear students’ doubts. The goal here is to allow students to interact and break the ice with each other and with the educators on a common platform instead of having them personally reach out to strangers. Discussion forums also allow students to network freely without having to scramble online to find peers with the same academic and extra-curricular interests as them. 

Try To Emulate The Social Cues Of Physical Classrooms 

Social cues are all the subtle verbal and non-verbal signals that characterise all human interaction. The absence of these cues in an online learning community can make students feel removed and isolated, making it challenging for them to interact with their peers and mentors. Let’s understand the dynamics of social cues better with the help of a scenario. 

Students in online learning community X are asked to watch a short, pre-recorded lecture series to help prepare for an upcoming assessment. Within the series, the instructors ask students a few questions to help make the lectures more engaging and interactive. However, the students have no obligation to respond to the given questions, nor can they see how others are responding. This seems to defeat the entire purpose of asking questions in a recorded mode. The lack of motivation to register their opinions and receive timely feedback in this scenario can discourage students from actively participating in online classes. A better solution would be to have students type out their responses in an online forum or participate in a poll that everyone can view.   

Therefore, it becomes necessary for online learning communities to introduce tools and methods that can even out some of the disparities between online and in-person learning environments. For instance, the lecture series example mentioned above could use an embedded poll where each student has to select an answer for a multiple-choice question for the video lecture to move forward. Once selected, the screen displays the aggregate results of the poll, showing what percentage of students choose which answer. This will encourage students to actively engage in the learning process while also finding out more about the thoughts and opinions of their peers on a given topic. The introduction of social cues can help create a better online learning community where students have the incentive to voice their opinions and exchange valuable feedback

Enforce A Set Course Structure 

According to the Child Mind Institute, students rely on the structure and support of in-person learning to stay on track with coursework. Being physically present in the classroom compels students to keep up with learning and assignment schedules. Educators are also better equipped to enforce a set course structure in physical classrooms than in distance learning settings. These factors can make it difficult for both students and educators to track progress or stick to time-bound milestones in online learning programmes. Further, the fact that many students often have to juggle multiple classes can affect their ability to keep up with deadlines in any one of them. 

Online learning community administrators and educators need to deal with this challenge creatively. One way of enforcing programme schedules effectively is by being upfront with the students about grading policies and how missed work can affect their scores. Incentives like extra credits for the timely submission of assignments and projects can also help reinforce programme schedules. 

You can also conduct regular feedback sessions to assess student workloads for the coming week or month. The goal here should be to come up with an acceptable but reasonably strict course structure to help students stay on track with their work. 

Identify Who Your Audience Is

Identifying your target audience or student base is critical in building a sustainable online learning community. High school students, post-graduates, or PhD candidates will all have varying needs and expectations from an online learning environment. For instance, high school students might prefer a more theoretical learning-based online community that allows them to strengthen their basic knowledge and fundamentals of a subject. On the other hand, PhD students would prefer a more research-based approach where relevant studies and scholarly reports are made available to them. Thoroughly understanding the different priorities and aspirations of your student base will help you build an effective learning community.

Once the basic requirements of an online programme have been met, you can add features that make the day-to-day coursework easier for students. These can include specialised discussion forums or one-on-one sessions between students and mentors where important feedback and suggestions can be shared. Every feature of your online learning community should be aligned toward making learning easier for your target student base. 

Which Platforms Can You Use To Build An Online Learning Community?

When most people think of an online learning community, they think of a customised platform like Coursera or Udemy where students can participate in different activities – like accessing course material, attending video lectures, and submitting coursework – all in one place. While this online learning model has proved to be successful so far, it isn’t the only kind of digital learning community. You can make use of multiple platforms to help students interact with each other and access course materials. A distributed online learning model is where students use multiple tools like Slack, Google Workspaces, and Google Meet or Zoom to attend lectures, submit coursework, and receive feedback and grades. While some of these tools like Google Meet and Zoom can be used to relay video lectures to students, others like OneNote are used to share reference materials and coursework.

What tools you use as part of your online learning community will depend on the complexity of the course material and the level of seniority of your student base. For instance, if you’re teaching IT and software development-related courses, you can use platforms like HackerEarth, Github, and W3Schools to help students create and share code files. For research-heavy courses like post-graduate psychology or sociology, you can make use of tools like Google Scholar and ResearchGate, which allow students to access research papers published across the world. Your choice of digital tools should also take factors like ease of use and accessibility into consideration. Here are a few questions to ask yourself while choosing a platform for your community:

  • Are all these tools readily available in all the geographical locations where your students reside?
  • Can your students learn how to use these tools efficiently within a reasonable amount of time?
  • Will these tools make it easier for your students to progress in a given programme?
  • Can these tools successfully engage students and allow them to actively interact with their course content?

An online learning community can be a great resource for students anywhere on the globe to learn about subjects of their interest through a holistic, peer-based learning method. Your choice of tools, educators, and resources should all work in tandem to facilitate this. Social media platforms can also be used to engage students in a way that feels familiar to them and promote a warm and comfortable learning environment within your community. 

How Learnium Makes A Difference 

We at Learnium believe every online learning community should have all the necessary tools needed to cater to its students in the best way possible. Our products are specially designed to help make your digital community more accessible and inclusive. Complete with fully customisable platforms and individual resource and lecture-sharing modules, Learnium is the digital learning solution that your online learning community needs to grow and thrive.