Talent Development

Online learning community: Fostering better learning outcomes through camaraderie

It’s a well-known fact that when communities band together they achieve far greater things than they would have individually. Building online learning communities is one way for corporate trainers and HR managers to motivate learners to accomplish much more than what traditional learning environments can achieve.

So, what is an online learning community, and why exactly should organizations give serious consideration to creating them?

What Are Online Learning Communities?

Professionals from all walks of life “belong” to like-minded groups. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, architects, engineers, they all belong to professional associations. Members come together to support one-another and to help each other further common goals of their professions.

Online learning communities should be seen as nothing that different. They are groups of learners that come together to further the cause of learning.

While corporate trainers and professional instructors organize and deliver training instructions in line with some formal methodology or process, online community learning should be seen as a means by which training occurs in a social setting that’s somewhat informal in nature.

Why Do You Need An Online Learning Community?

It takes a group of individuals, working together in a company, to accomplish the objectives of the organization. Individuals can’t accomplish what a community of employees can. In corporate learning, creating a community of learners achieves similar results.

1) For most learners, learning is a “group thing”

When someone in the group finds a particular concept or theory especially challenging to grasp, a fellow learner will quickly step in to lend their support.

2) Communities inspire

Individual participants often get inspiration from their colleagues, causing the individual to “up their own game”. Shared online learning community values provide opportunities to inspire and motivate even the weakest learners in the group to improve their performance.

3) Learning transcends learning hours

Most active learners continue the process of learning well beyond regular learning hours. As a social learning forum, an online learning community provides individuals opportunities to continue their learning beyond regulated business or learning schedules.

4) Learning needs stimulus and engagement

While scheduled classroom time, or formal online learning routines are great, many learners need to engage with fellow learners beyond those opportunities. Creating a like-minded community of learners online provides greater freedom to engage and further the cause of learning.

5) Learning lightened-up

For many learners, following a strictly regulated and disciplined learning regime might not work that well. By providing online communities for their learners, corporations can help “lighten up” the learning environment a bit, as community members often bring a sense of humor to social learning that takes place within the communities.

The ultimate goal of building an online community of learners is to ensure that learning continues to take place even beyond the official corporate learning environment.

How To Build An Online Community

Contrary to what you may have read or heard about online communities, they don’t “just run by themselves!”. To do it right requires thought, planning and managed execution. The more thought that goes into creating your community, the more effective it will be in meeting the learning objectives you set out for the community.

Here’s how you can build a truly effective corporate learning community online:

1) Understand learners’ needs

The internet is already filled with forums and platforms where people can come together to socialize. Creating yet another one – under the guise of “learning” – may not be such a great idea after all!

To be effective, your online learning community must cater to specific needs of your learners. Use online surveys or polling questions to find out what it is that your learners are looking for before planning and building the solution.

2) Choosing the right platform

Once you understand learner needs, you need to use that information to choose the right vehicle around which to build your community. For instance, a group of professionals that isn’t very active on Facebook may prefer learning via social platforms like LinkedIn. Others may lean towards blogs or chat forums.

3) Policing the community

Regardless of how mature or responsible your corporate learners may be, all it takes is a handful of “irresponsibles” to thwart the goals of the community.

Before launching the community, make sure you think about how you will monitor and administer your learners. Too much policing will discourage open debate and stifle creativity; too little will frustrate and discourage serious learners. Therefore, it is important to strike a balance when creating your “Terms of Use” and “Community Rules”.

4) Creating the environment

Good moderation is essential if your online learning community is to be a success. Moderators should aim to encourage full member participation. For instance, make new members feel welcome; encourage long-time members to lend their support (or voice) on specific matters; offer constructive thoughts or critique on topics being discussed.

5) Make it a learning resource

Successful online communities are those that members find useful as the “go to” place to further their learning. When individual members need access to specific information or resources to help with their learning challenges, your community should be where they turn to first!
As you build your community, think about creating repositories and archives of invaluable resources that members can access to learn more about a specific topic or subject being discussed. Where possible, arrange for Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to be available to the community to help them further their learning.

6) Be image conscious

While your online learning community is meant to serve as an “informal” gathering of like-minded learners, remember one essential point: It is still part of the corporate learning experience. As such, whatever transpires within those communities has a direct reflection on corporate values.

While fostering and encouraging healthy communication between members in such online communities of learning, always make sure that the company’s image and messaging isn’t tarnished or put in disrepute.

7) Be engaged

As has already been mentioned above, online communities don’t just run by themselves. To make them successful, you need to be engaged every step of the way. Know what your members need; understand how their expectations are changing; be available online frequently, so that members can raise their concerns about the community, discuss ideas about improving it, or simply ask for assistance when needed.

Success is a “community thing”

Some learning communities start out with a bang, but quickly fizzle out due to lack of membership response. The trick to making an online learning community survive and thrive is to create a formula where the membership – NOT the moderators – drives what the community looks like, and how it runs.

Communities that aren’t engaged will not stay together for too long. To keep the community involved, you could institute a system of merit badges (Expert, Guru, Novice, Rookie of the Month), points (5-stars, 3-stars etc.) or membership grades (Gold, Silver, Platinum) to recognize and encourage community participation. Schemes like “Post of the Week” or “Blog of the Month” will also foster greater community participation.

It is also essential that the online learning community you create does not evolve into a behemoth that becomes hard to manage or “tame”. To avoid this eventuality, experts recommend that you think about creating “communities within communities”.

Examples of online communities that successfully deal with this challenge are those where novice members might band together under one sub-community, while others with more complex learning needs could join sub-communities that specialize in those topics/subjects. This makes the broader community easier to manage, while, at the same time, allowing smaller communities to have a sense of belonging to the larger community.

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