With all the information available at our fingertips through the internet, connecting us globally with people who share our interests, society is progressively interacting more and more online. Just think of the last time you did a Google search for information. I bet one or more of the top results came from a message board or discussion forum for an online community, where someone else was seeking answers from their peers on a similar topic?
Just as we are seeing more organizations delivering education and certification programs through online Learning Management Systems, there is a growing expectation for organizations to be able to communicate and share knowledge with their customers, members, or employees efficiently and expertly online. They do this through a variety of platforms including websites, social media, email, and increasingly through online communities.
“Online communities are quickly becoming a critical part of the digital strategy for many organizations as a platform to establish ongoing conversations, trust relationships, and meaningful engagement with customers, employees, partners, and suppliers.”
- International Data Corporation (IDC)
What is an Online Community?
Jane Hart, a leading workplace learning adviser, offers this definition: “An online community is a public or private destination on the internet that addresses the learning needs of its members by facilitating peer-to-peer learning … people work as a community to achieve a shared learning objective.”
For associations in particular, finding ways to help members engage with each other and the organization is always important in order to maintain the vitality of the association membership community. We know that education programs provide one successful way to increase member engagement, whether through the annual conference, webinars, or online education and certification programs. These education programs help to bring members together from all over the region, country, or globe, and offer opportunities for networking, conversation and sharing knowledge. However, the success of these education programs can be further increased when combined with an online community to extend, support, and motivate opportunities for further learning and sharing of experience.
An online community can:
- Break down geographical borders to reach a wider audience and facilitate distance learning
- Support knowledge sharing and learning outside the classroom (physical or virtual), introducing different perspectives from peers
- Enhance the social and collaborative learning experience by providing a safe and comfortable space to facilitate discussion
Higher Logic, provider of a leading online community platform, highlights the reason why online communities are becoming more important to organizations:
“Many executives and organizations understand that building online communities for their constituents to learn, share and collaborate is critical for growth and relevancy. They know that successful online communities can help them engage and inspire everyone -- customers, partners, members and prospects.”
So, how do online communities enhance learning?
Extend the Conversation
An online community provides a safe place for members to interact with each other, and share their knowledge and experience on a specific shared interest. Similar to the association’s annual conference or a virtual classroom, it is a space that is monitored, has rules to regulate behavior, and yet enables participants to network with each other and have open discussions on topics of shared interest. Many associations, especially those with members that are dispersed geographically, are increasingly using hashtags for their events to enable attendees and others to follow the conversations online through social media. However, for some people participating in open online conversations on social media can be intimidating.
Inviting attendees of conferences or online courses to join an online community provides an opportunity to extend the conversation after the conference is over, or the online course session is completed. The online community provides a supportive environment in which participants can ask questions of their peers, knowing that every person participating is there for the same reason and will be willing to share their knowledge and experience. eLearning Industry has some good tips to facilitate meaningful online discussions.
Peer pressure may sound counterintuitive, but research has shown that accountability to one’s peers can help to increase the achievement of set goals by 33%. Whether the online community is set up to facilitate informal peer-to-peer learning, or more formalized learning activities, such as group projects, the online community itself can ensure that those participating in online discussions or collaborative learning are accountable to their peers. Deadlines, promises, and goals are shared, witnessed between participants in the online discussions, ensuring that members are motivated to keep their word, meet their deadlines, and achieve their learning goals. On the other side, if conflict arises within the online community, often participants can successfully resolve the conflict themselves and build teamwork skills, by pressuring each other to adhere to the community rules.
Instructors can also provide guidance on expectations for the community, monitor online discussions to track student progress and provide feedback on collaborative group work, see who is participating, and address student concerns or queries. Though the instructor may not regularly participate in the discussions, the awareness that they are monitoring activity and may step in to resolve conflict if required encourages students to remain focused. These five essential skills will help instructors to facilitate online group work for collaborative learning.
Motivate and Reward
Many online communities incorporate an element of gamification to encourage participation. Just as we may strive to achieve the All-Star status for completing our professional LinkedIn profiles, online communities may reward their Top Contributors for making positive contributions that are helpful to other participants. This is often in the form of a digital badge or ribbon that is displayed on the member’s profile, broadcasting their enhanced status to other members of the online community. This article in Associations Now magazine suggests that “digital badging can strengthen an association’s community by making its members’ accomplishments more visible”. Prospective and less-experienced members of the community will be able to recognize these members as trustworthy and helpful resources, and value their experience in responses to queries.
Rewarding participation in this way helps to motivate members to engage more in the online community, providing an incentive to contribute. Increased engagement among members helps to ensure the vitality and value of the online community to its members. If the online community is attached to a conference or online course, it can help learners to engage more with the material and encourage social learning, as they begin to incorporate the perspectives and understandings of other members with the course content. Instructors can also use feedback from the online community to address gaps in the curriculum, or to update references and examples based on members’ contributions, enhancing the original material and increasing its relevancy.
It’s easy to see from the above points that incorporating an online community in your education programs can significantly enhance the learning experience for your members. As Higher Logic note in their blog, “What is an Online Community?”:
"When you’re able to tap into people's unique perspectives and invite them to share their expertise and knowledge with others, you inspire engagement and connections that are relevant and meaningful."
TopClass Learning Management System is integrated with Higher Logic Online Community Platform to help you connect and engage with your learners. Together TopClass and Higher Logic:
- Enhance Engagement with Social Learning
- Increase Member Retention with Integrated Learning Communities
- Seamlessly Track Activity to Increase eLearning Revenue
WBT Systems will sponsor and exhibit at the 7th Annual Higher Logic Super Forum, taking place in Arlington, VA, November 14-15. The 2016 Higher Logic Super Forum is an exclusive two-day training, educational, and social event for Higher Logic clients, partners and community enthusiasts. To learn more about enhancing social and collaborative learning with online communities, visit us at Booth #5, or visit our event page.