Do you ever think about your association’s online learners and how they manage to fit your courses into their busy lives?
Imagine: after a long day of work, errands, and household chores and duties, they manage to find time to finish the week’s assignments for the online course they’re taking with your association. It’s a lonely life. Watching videos alone. Reading alone. Studying alone. If only they could talk with other students about their coursework, struggles, experiences, and ideas.
Lifelong learners don’t have to tolerate isolation and loneliness. A learning community makes courses more engaging and enjoyable. The associations using our TopClass LMS can offer their online students the benefits of a learning community thanks to our integration with the Higher Logic online community platform.
We’ve got Higher Logic on the mind this week because WBT Systems is a Silver Sponsor of the Higher Logic Super Forum from October 15 to October 17 in Arlington, Virginia. There is no better place than the Super Forum to meet other association professionals who manage online communities and to learn how to get improve the experience of your online community members.
Enhance the online learning experience with a learning community
You might wonder: what exactly goes on in an online course’s community? In a few words, it’s where learning sticks.
In an online learning community's discussion forums, students can:
- Discuss assignments.
- Ask questions.
- Share personal experiences.
- Reflect and think critically about someone’s opinion.
- Get exposed to new ideas.
- Share perspectives.
Why are these activities so significant?
Active learning helps information go from short-term to long-term memory. Information doesn’t stick when it’s received passively and nothing further is done to recall it. For information to become knowledge, learners must engage in activities that help them make meaning of the content they’ve digested.
A learning community helps put that information in context. In discussion forums, students recall information to answer the instructor’s or classmates’ questions, participate in discussions, help explain difficult concepts, go deeper into a subject, or pursue related topics.
Learning communities are an example of reciprocal, peer-to-peer learning in action. Sandra Milligan, director of the Assessment Research Centre at the University of Melbourne Graduate School of Education, analyzed data from more than 100,000 learners in the University of Melbourne’s MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). She identified five distinct levels of learning:
- Level 1: Reader – the online course serves as a textbook.
- Level 2: Consumer of instruction – the online course serves as a tutor.
- Level 3: Self-regulated producer of learning – the online course serves as a tutor with a user support group.
- Level 4: Collaborative learner – the online course serves as a collaborative learning environment.
- Level 5: Reciprocal teacher – the online course serves as a reciprocal, distributed learning environment.
Learning communities enter the picture at Level 3 and help learners progress to Level 5. Milligan suggests discussing these levels with learners and showing them what they can do to move to the next level of learning expertise. Feedback, she said, “can be the rocket fuel of learning.”
More benefits of an online learning community
A supportive and collaborative learning community helps students acquire and retain knowledge. Even though they’re alone while reading coursework and watching videos, they’re not working in isolation. The community helps to instill a sense of belonging and camaraderie which keeps students engaged and motivates them to persevere.
Because of the community's discussion forums, students have the opportunity to develop relationships with fellow students. They soon realize they’re all in it together and can rely on their mutual support system when having trouble. A learning community holds each other accountable. You don’t want to be the one who doesn’t show up to do the work.
An online course and community is a more comfortable environment for introverts than a traditional classroom setting. They have time to think about what they want to say before ‘raising their hand.’ They can refine their comments before clicking the ‘send’ button.
A learning community is a safe space where students can share ideas, take risks, and ask for help. At the start of the course, instructors should review community guidelines—the standard for all your online programs. Instructors and students share the responsibility for maintaining a safe and productive community space.
How instructors can improve the learning community
When a learning community is built into online course design, instructors go beyond their traditional role as the ‘sage on the stage’ in front of passive learners. They also become the ‘guide on the side’ who encourages students to become active learners.
In the learning community, instructors should pose questions that prompt discussion. They should regularly join in the discussion and model the behavior they seek. For example, show students how to follow up someone’s contribution with additional questions, point out insightful comments, and pose an alternative or dissenting opinion respectfully.
Some students will inevitably fall behind. If you don’t keep them engaged, they will likely abandon the course and perhaps never try an online course again. If they’re behind, they won’t be able to participate in discussions about the current week’s coursework, but you can engage them in more general discussions. Let them know they’re still part of the community even though life temporarily got in the way.
Everyone needs to be heard. Make sure students can contact you if they want to privately request help, complain, vent frustrations, or report unacceptable community behavior.
Hold weekly live ‘office hours’ so students can ‘visit’ and ask questions, clarify issues, or just hang out to chat.
Members join associations with the expectation of having opportunities to develop relationships—do what you can to make that happen. Dedicate a section of the community to personal, off-topic discussions. This place for everyday conversation helps students relax, blow off steam, and bond with each other.
A learning community makes a huge and memorable impact on a student’s experience with your online educational programs. It facilitates a more effective and enjoyable learning experience by helping students apply what they’ve learned, retain knowledge, and develop relationships.
At the Higher Logic Super Forum next week, we’ll demonstrate our award-winning LMS for associations, TopClass, which is fully integrated with the Higher Logic online community platform. If you have questions about integrating a learning community into your e-learning programs, we’d love to talk with you.