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How to build online communities that support e-learning

“Birds of a feather flock together” goes an old and wise saying. People with the same beliefs and interests have always found ways to get together, share ideas (or sometimes just validate the same, sometimes not so bright ones) and simply spend time with others who ‘get it’. This human trait of seeking one’s peers is so much in our nature that it has become the stuff of legend.

Take The Fellowship of the Ring for example – they met in Elvish territory (for lack of cyberspace and need of fantastic adventures) and they were animated by the common goal to deliver Middle Earth from evil by melting a piece of jewelry in the one place it was almost impossible to get to. They had a handsome and determined leader and liked each other… eventually.

With internet and mobile devices in almost every household and office, communicating is easier and no longer geographically or time-zone determined. Just like real-life communities or clubs, the online ones have specific set of rules, various roles and what is most important, a high degree of liking and understanding between members which leads to very smooth and effective interactions.

Online learning communities – the modern twist

It all sounds just fairly simple but when trying to build an online community to support e-learning the situation gets a little bit tricky. If we are talking about an online community of Lord of The Rings fans it is clear that they are all there by their own accord, have all read the books repeatedly, have seen the extended version of all movies on several occasions and will buy tickets any time the promise of added ten seconds never seen before is made.

Nobody is ever that passionate about the subject of a corporate e-learning session. So building an online community to support e-learning may be simple but getting people to join and return is almost as difficult as taking the one ring into Mordor to be destroyed in the heart of Mount Doom.

The benefits of having such communities that work and support learning within the company are far greater than the effort so here are some tips for getting things rolling.

Leaders and rules are highly needed

First of all, make sure everybody knows who is running things. Group leaders are very important and it is paramount that they are accepted by most members. Online learning community leaders are the ones in charge with keeping the order and motivating everyone else in the group.

In order to be able to do so, they must be at least interested if not downright passionate about the subjects being discussed and have an ability and willingness to help, support and motivate others. They act as administrators, monitoring the online debates in order to make sure everything runs smoothly. To give one example, they can take it upon themselves to resolve conflictual situations by acting like private mediators between the arguing parties.

Becoming in charge of such a group should be taken on voluntarily, as it is time consuming and also requires all the energy and diplomacy one can spare. Whenever there is a group of people in the same place – even if it’s a virtual one, difference of opinion is unavoidable. But this doesn't mean that such differences have to escalate into conflicts, especially if there are rules of netiquette everyone is aware of and agrees to respect.

It’s also a good idea to indicate the repercussions of disruptive behavior or flaming – basically let the members know how many strikes they get until they are out.

Knowing the audience is a must

Since members of online communities supporting e-learning are not necessarily immersed into the subjects they need to learn, it is essential that they see how putting in the extra effort will lead them to gaining something of importance. Learners are a lot more likely to participate in an online learning community if it offers them real value. If they have already joined, they want to get correct information, sharpen their skills and build valuable competencies.

So if you are the one building the online community, audience research is a crucial part of your job. Before you can establish an online learning community that responds and adapts to their needs, you have to figure out what those needs are. The best way to deal with this is to conduct polls, interviews, surveys and training needs assessments to identify what the common goals and expectations are. You have to take into account the fact that people will be at different levels of knowledge and expertise.

Smaller is more effective

This is why, once you get enough members, it is easier for all involved if some sub-communities are created. Getting many people on board is fantastic but since we are talking about learning and constructive sharing and discussions, too many people talking might turn into a major set-back.

Smaller groups allow people who have similar ideas and ways of learning to get in touch and have a much more personalized experience than they would in the main group.

It is also a lot easier for group leaders to follow, manage and animate smaller communities. Sharing important content on the main group and making sure everyone can check the various streams of conversation will ensure that each member can find the information and support that he needs with a simple search.

Just like in Tolkien’s story, out of all the many things going on, each learner will manage to get a personally fulfilling learning experience in a collective environment.

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