In a recent article for this very blog, I wrote about the importance of cohort-based learning as a way to motivate and empower learners. Cohort-based learning programs usually combine instructor-led live sessions and learning resources, with a significant focus on social learning. In other words, interacting with your peers via debate and discussion online. Learning together as part of this social network is a fundamental foundation of these programmes.
For theorists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, learning is an act of social participation and is not just about having knowledge given to us. They came up with the concept of ‘Communities of Practice’, in which the participants can co-create a “shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems” (Lave and Wenger, 1991). This idea of a shared set of resources and stories is where an online, social learning community can really come into its own, particularly in teams spread out across different countries around the world.
So, how do we facilitate a successful social learning community online?
Use the right facilitator – Being the facilitator of an online community is all about fostering relationships between people. It’s not about traditional knowledge transfer, or teaching. In cohort-based learning, that is what your live sessions are for. Having said that, this doesn’t mean you aren’t learning in your interactions with the online social community. A good facilitator will create a plan of content to post, which might include commenting on further reading from your live sessions or asking a question to generate debate. You might include a poll, reflection prompts or hold a Q&A session. You’ll set clear expectations regarding participation and post regularly, to keep the community going, but not so much that it becomes overwhelming. You’ll have a plan if the debate gets heated or goes off topic. The role of the facilitator is to give the community the best start possible, so that the learners themselves can ultimately take greater ownership.
Get the basics right – Making sure that the tech works, people can access any links or documents and understand what is expected of them is vital. This starts with deciding which channel to use; in the workplace, perhaps a familiar internal communications channel, such as Yammer or Teams, is the most logical, as it’s easy for people to access and they are more likely to engage with it. If someone posts a question to a facilitator, how long should they expect to wait for a reply? What is your ‘netiquette’ for this chat in terms of how people address each other? Are emojis ok?! Make sure that there is a mix of content on the channel so that people want to engage with it.
Foster and nurture the culture you want to create – We recently worked with a pharmaceutical client running a two-year sales leadership programme. While we created a talking point schedule for the online community, topics for discussion and ensured the content was varied, we helped our client facilitators to set the foundations for an effective online forum. We encouraged them to create a psychological safe space where people felt able to discuss their own experiences without fear of judgement. This can be challenging, but encouraging people to discuss projects or initiatives that haven’t gone so well is key to unlocking improvements for the future. We also encouraged our client facilitators to be active members of the community and display the kind of quality interactions they wanted to see from team members. It is critical that someone is responsible for this and has the time to engage fully with the learning community.
Help people network – Consultant Serenity Gibbons points out that another benefit of these online communities is the opportunity for networking. Inviting in guest facilitators can help with this and give learners the opportunity to interact with senior leaders in a way they might not have previously had the opportunity to do. In a recent project with paper-based packaging manufacturer Smurfit Kappa, we created a six-week online learning experience for their site and plant managers. The feedback told us that participants left with a newly expanded network within the company to help them move forward with their careers. Along with masterclass workshops, we recorded videos and a podcast series with senior company leaders, so several leaders could share their own experiences and learning moments. All of these, plus other content, provided discussion points for the community and allowed learners to engage with and reflect on their learning.
Monitor your network – Just as the culture of your network must be nurtured, you need to monitor levels of interaction and identify posts which get the best responses, so that you can maintain engagement. If there are issues, you can make changes as the programme progresses. For the Smurfit Kappa team, we gathered feedback during the programme, which helped us adapt the content and engagement timeline as it continued. On completion, we provided a detailed insights report with survey data, levels of interaction, feedback and other learnings, which the client used to plan and deliver further online programmes.
To return to Serenity Gibbons’ article, she argues that cohort-based courses can “bridge the gap between mainstream online education, which is typically solitary, and that of traditional in-person classes.” This reinforces the idea that it is the social, online network which provides that balance and point of difference between a self-study MOOC and a face-to-face course. By using the right facilitators, nurturing your online culture and creating an effective and engaging space for networking, you can help participants get the most out of their programme. And who knows, perhaps your learners will become the facilitators who keep your online community going, long after the programme has ended.
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