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Fosway 20

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Building Learning Communities

Learning communities have become increasingly popular in modern L&D, particularly as the technology has evolved to support a more social approach to learning. But in 2001, when CEO David Wilson published this article, learning communities were far from the norm. This insightful piece includes advice and examples that hold true today.

November 2001

The past twelve months has seen a steady growth in the use of e-learning as a key weapon in the IT training armoury. Whilst maybe not universal, adoption of e-learning for IT applications training is now common place. This growth has been fuelled by the potential to reach bigger audiences at reduced delivery costs, and the availability of relatively cheap generic content as the main e-learning content vendors aggressively transitioned from CD-based CBT content to web-based delivery.

Underneath this rapid increase in the adoption of e-learning has also been a shift in the approach provided by many of those same content vendors. Many products and projects based on a purely content-driven model to e-learning have started to include a more comprehensive educational approach involving online instructional support and learner collaboration. Behind this shift is the realisation that for all the discussion of content being king, content alone doesn’t hold all the answers. As we increasingly focus on the need for e-learning solutions to prove themselves educationally as well as financially, we need bigger educational solutions.

Learning solutions are becoming increasingly complex

Taking both SmartForce and NETg as examples of the major providers of IT training e-learning solutions, it is clear that what they offer today is a long way from their initial web-based delivery offerings a few years ago. Their content has changed with big investments in newer forms of web-based content development, but their overall solution approach has changed even more markedly. Whilst the core of their proposition may still be content, the solution you will buy today may have as much to do with their added value services and environment as it does from the content.

Learning time may be concentrated into completing the learning content, but there is now a much greater use of other pieces the learning process including online tutor-support, discussion forums, and resource areas. As content becomes complex, less directed and learner time may get spent as much in interacting with expert instruction and other learners in question and answer mode as it does on accessing core content.

Whether as a public learner, accessing content via the provider’s public website, or as a corporate learner behind the firewall, you are now being engaged into a bigger, less content-centric, more people-centric learning process. This is still very early days, but these kinds of solutions are about building communities of learners, and building content into learning communities.

So what is a learning community?

A learning community is an online environment supporting and facilitating a community of learners as they go through specific learning programmes, or as they connect and network thereafter. Although learning communities come in many shapes and sizes, in essence they are all based around the concepts of:

• Many people engaged in a learning process with some common underlying interests and subject matter
• An online environment that can facilitate interaction and sharing of information and discussion between members
• Access to relevant resources to support learners as they develop their understanding and experience
• Facilitation and moderation by ‘experts’ who can help direct discussion or provide answers
• Supported by news and other forms of learning events, maybe including face-to-face and live virtual learning opportunities
• Little or no fixed structure and direction on the part of the members. Basically they access and contribute as they see fit

This concept of interaction or networking between the members of the community is the key. Learners can access the community online and access resources or ask questions at any time. Later on we will look at what makes these things really work, but for the moment let’s assume there is already an active membership. Learners can search through resources and supporting information online, including frequently-asked questions and additional reference information. They can post questions in the forums, or join live chat sessions if they active. They can review through other members’ questions or they can try and find another learner with specific experience or expertise.

Using other members of the community to support them in the learning process, answering questions or to point to useful resources reduces their reliance on the fixed learning materials and increases their understanding of real application. Learning communities are about interacting with other practitioners rather than just theoretical material. That’s what makes them unique.

Learners have to login with a password so we can identify them and their activity once inside. The community will tend to be structured into a set of areas or zones with some form of overall web navigational interface to move around between the areas. The main areas will probably relate to resources, events, discussion, profiles, experts, and searching. Resources are controlled by the moderators of the community, who will also be responsible for managing discussions in the forums, and archiving out of date contributions or resources. Moderators may well have a separate administrative interface enabling them to see different views of activity within the community. Some communities also have ratings or a points system that is used to judge contribution levels from the members.

SmartForce*

Communities may come pre-built, provided by the education provider or third party organisation, or they may be custom developed. They might be provided on a public website or on a private basis for a single organisation, either hosted for you by the provider or built onto the corporate intranet. For example, SmartForce provides a public community interface via its mySmartForce website, but it can also create and host dedicated instances for specific corporate customers. Alternatively, custom versions can be developed or built on your corporate intranet, increasing the development cost but enabling closer integration with other internal systems and resources.

Looking more deeply at the SmartForce story. Having transitioned from a CBT-centric model in the mid-nineties, SmartForce invested massively in developing broader community elements to their core content. “We initially introduced these kinds of community support services in 1996” said Laura Overton, SmartForce’s global programmes manager. “Originally providing an environment to support students through their certification programme, the community environment has evolved to be an integrated part of the way programmes are delivered”.

SmartForce’s learning community environment has now evolved into an integrated environment called MySmartForce, used to support certification programmes, and individual and group-corporate learners. “We see the community as critical going forwards with learning being about much more than content online” said Overton. “The addition of live expert sessions using synchronous tools, expert mentoring online and theme-based discussion areas and meeting rooms is significantly enhancing the learning environment and providing more flexibility for individual learners to tailor their learning experience”. Individual learners are provided access to public community areas and resources as a basic facility, and corporate programmes may be supported through company-specific communities as well as the generic community areas.

DigitalThink**

Another e-learning vendor that has been aggressively pushing a collaborative and community-based approach is DigitalThink. Designed for the web from the beginning, DigitalThink’s whole approach has been about mixing content, instruction and collaborative working. Starting from IT training-based generic catalogue business, DigitalThink has been very active in pursuing large-scale custom corporate programmes using its learning community and management platform as an ASP (application service provider) solution to host the custom content, community environment and related resources. This has included high profile custom solutions for KPMG worldwide, Charles Schwab, EDS and others.

DigitalThink’s approach seems to place an even higher emphasis on the non-content elements of the solution. To paraphrase a recent discussion – it’s not possible to take the instruction and community out of the DigitalThink content, its fundamental to it. This locked-in role for learners interacting with other learners and instructors around the learning content, nicely illustrates just how far we have come from the initial e-learning content of CBT on the web.

Alumni and other kinds of learning communities

As well as programme-specific communities, we also find other types of community that are more general such as alumni networks, or post-programme communities. Good examples of this within an IT training context might be the Informatics Institute or QA Training’s Expert Exchange. The Institute is specifically targeted at IT staff who have completed their formal certification and provides an ongoing place for resources and discussion relating to the main certification programmes and technologies. This adds value for the IT professional by providing access to up-to-date resources, including information regarding their certification. It also provides a way for Informatics to keep engaged with learners. Face-to-face events are also provided for members of the Institute on specialist topics, creating a stronger basis for networking between members.

QA’s Expert Exchange is an even broader community environment for IT professionals at almost any stage of their development. Comprising a broad range of expert zones and with over 400,000 registered members and 70,000 registered experts covering almost every area of IT, the Expert Exchange is one of the largest of the IT learning communities. Whilst focusing mainly on discussion and questions and answers rather than resources and events, it exhibits many of the characteristics of an advanced learning community with a very high activity level as well as a high number of potential participants. The Exchange adopts a point-scoring system for recognising contribution levels, with tangible benefits for earning points as well as the non-insignificant peer kudos.

Outside IT training, and there are many other examples of public learning communities. These are mostly associated with public or industry bodies such as for accountancy, management development, marketing, HR issues, financial services and so on. Frequently they may be associated with a chartered institute, many of whom have been investing in developing online forums and services to support their existing activities. Where these online facilities are juxtaposed with an explicit educational objective is where they become more interesting for us as an explicit learning community. With increasing focus on issues like continuing professional development, learning communities can and will play an even stronger role longer term as learning time on the community becomes recognised.

The other type of non-programme-based community is that provided by third party community providers. A leading example of this in the UK is Sift plc, the organisation that runs TrainingZone, HRZone, AccountingWeb and a number of other community environments. TrainingZone is especially interesting because of its target being the training community. Receiving recurring visits from thirty plus thousand trainers every month, TrainingZone provides a whole range of resources, discussion areas, news services, and virtual sessions covering almost any aspect of training. It also provides specialist sub-zones for IT training and e-learning, and serves as a gateway to other external resources including provision of classroom training services and e-learning.

As well as being a useful resource for trainers, TrainingZone provides some interesting experience on how to make learning communities work. “Communities need critical mass, expertise, active participation and willingness to share”, says Tim Pickles, Managing Director of TrainingZone. “They also need respect and trust. If they’re not seen as valuable and you if you go to the community only to get rather give, they won’t succeed longer term”.

This highlights a very important area of discussion. All this is full well and good, but does it work? After all, there are plenty examples of discussion forums out there on the web or on corporate intranets which get visited every blue moon, but not much in between! In order to work longer term, communities need to maintain and grow contribution and members. For programme-specific communities such as for a specific certification programme, their purpose may be clear, as may be the individual’s incentive to use it. For non-programme-specific communities such as alumni networks, or an expert exchange, the purpose develops out of the community itself. Your incentive to keep coming back has to be based on its recurring use and value.

What are the mandatory components of a learning community to make it work? According to Pickles they are “quality, guidelines and rules, resource areas, and interaction tools including chat, message boards, surveys, discussion lists. Newer, more sophisticated tools such as contact-me-now buttons and instant messaging offer some interesting options, and longer term audio and video will offer closer to a face-to-face experience. Text may convey words but it is not good at conveying texture.”

The tools you need to succeed

Building learning communities is more than building technology. Developing communities is a mix of building a set of technology facilities, together with provision of resources and content, and active facilitation and moderation services to make it run. From a technical perspective, the community will be built using a combination of technologies and tools.

This will include:
• Member administration
• Password-controlled access and security
• Resource and content management tools
• Search technology
• Discussion forums
• Synchronous interaction tools including chat or virtual classroom
• Member profiles (and rating if applicable)
• Archiving capabilities
• Tools for moderators
• Activity tracking and reporting tools

If provided on a hosted or ASP basis, all of these technologies will be supported by a hosted infrastructure, and a capability to generate multiple instances of the community environment for different learning needs or customers.
Most commonly, communities are created as custom-integrated technology components although are starting to see a new generation of community-based learning tools. Longer term, expect to see increasing use of virtual meeting room tools with more sophisticated live interaction tools including audio and video conferencing, application sharing, shared whiteboards and break-out rooms.

What about communities of practice?

Is there a distinction between a learning community and a normal web community associated with a community of interest or practice? In the case of the programme-based communities the answer is clearly yes. Programme-based communities have a clear learning agenda, and will be actively used to manage work activities and assignments between formal learning events. Their focus is on supporting the programme structure and providing a long-term support and work environment for the programme. Such an environment is an integral part of the learning process and material and is structured as such.
For a post-programme learning community the answer is less clear but I would still answer yes, assuming we are implementing some form of continuous learning model or professional development. Whether formal or informal, as soon as we say that an individual may have completed one programme but becomes a candidate for others, we reintroduce a learning agenda, and therefore the potential for my learning context to overlay the environment. But the difference between this kind of environment and a standard web community of interest may be thin. Maybe all online communities are in essence a learning community, we just haven’t put that emphasis on them before.

Learning communities are starting to come of age. As the e-learning industry increasingly realises that learning is more than content online, and the traditional training providers increasingly recognise the value of blended learning, the need for collaborative, people-centric support environments increases.

Communities provide a rich set of integrated capabilities; collaboration, mentoring, resources and people networking that can add value to any long term learning scenario. Communities tend to share very similar functional requirements but the way the functionality will be used depends significantly on the specific context. Is this for a specific programme or a general community of learners? How collaborative is the core learning process? Whether to support specific programmes or just a body of learners who have a common interest, learning communities will increasingly figure in the overall solution. In many ways, these communities may become the umbrella environment supporting the learner and the programme from cradle to grave.

This article, written by Fosway’s CEO, David Wilson, first appeared in IT Training in November 2001

*SmartForce merged with SkillSoft in September 2002

**DigitalThink was acquired by Convergys Corporation in March 2004

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