Learning is not just about knowledge transfer, and in most cases of successful learning it involves the building of a community of learners. Nowadays, online communities are becoming commonplace but at the turn of the millenium they were few and far between. This practical piece from the ‘Recipes for E-learning Success’ series provides high level advice that remains applicable in 2016 (and beyond).
Learning is not just about knowledge transfer, and in most cases of successful learning it involves the building of a community of learners. That community may be created in a face-to-face situation or, more often, has to be developed online. The process of creating a community is in fact no different for these two situations. A group of people is not a community, much as a collection of residents in a housing estate or a village is not necessarily a community. That group of people must have a common purpose, outlook and approach to their environment. Whether it is a desire to fight a local bypass proposal or to learn about e-commerce, they must work together.
In e-learning, though, it is often more difficult to develop that community because of the impact of the difference in time and space between the members. Based on our experience, there are two key areas which have the greatest impact on successful community-building in an e-learning environment: Culture and Activity.
Culture operates at many levels. Each individual is part of a global culture, based on his or her background and upbringing. To generalise, in asking a group of individuals based in the Far East to form a community, you may need to consider different approaches to those when establishing one consisting of people from America. A mixed community of individuals may need a more varied approach, such as combining private work with discussions, small group activities with large group efforts, verbal communication with written communication and so on.
At the next level there is the corporate or institution-level culture, which often may override the global culture. A corporate culture which encourages knowledge-retention and interdepartmental competitiveness may take precedence over an individual’s basic upbringing as a knowledge-sharing and supportive person. If the reward system is also based on this corporate culture, then the behaviour of the individuals will reflect that culture. Introducing e-learning to an organisation which does not openly encourage knowledge-sharing will often take longer and have to be taken more slowly. The pioneering participants will need to be selected carefully in order to act as role models and advocates for the future.
And finally there is the personal culture, which is of course influenced by the other two levels, and measured by a wide variety of psychometric tests, but demonstrates itself in ways such as a tendency to dominate discussions or to be a ‘lurker’.
Actually, there is one more cultural influence, but this one evolves as a result of the interaction between all the participants. In developing a learning community, the best ‘community’ behavioural attributes of each of the participants should be encouraged. With effort and some good luck an appropriate ‘learning culture’ should develop that will make the learning a positive experience for all. Look at a good quality set of competencies for a typical facilitator role, and those ideal cultural attributes for community participants will become clear – sharing, supporting, creativity, summarising and weaving discussions, a sense of group ownership and responsibility, enthusiasm and drive. A sense of humour and ability to be self-critical are also useful!
The activities need to be matched to the participants, and those activities as well as the form and level of support often needs to change over time. A group which has come together to re-examine a corporate global strategy following a major reorganisation is going to require more discussion-orientated and plan-building activities in addition to a considerable amount of coaching. In contrast, a team of people learning about a new corporate IT application, may need a drill-and-practice approach, with the ability to ask closed questions of an expert.
And activities don’t just happen by themselves. An outline plan can be designed in advance, but the nature of the participants and their level of participation will often determine its success. So it is important not to abandon the learners, as so often is seen, by asking a question of them and then disappearing. They need encouragement and support – scaffolding and hand-holding, especially at the beginning when the community spirit has not yet developed. Initially, look to create highly motivating activities with clear end goals. Let the learners take on natural roles at the beginning, so their comfort level grows. For learners new to e-learning, form smaller sub-communities so that the participants can bond quickly within the group, and only gradually mix and match team members.
Keep the energy going by mixing the form of the activities, or changing topics. Invite guest speakers who come from outside the learning group. Encourage those participants who are by their nature lively, to seed conversations or act as devil’s advocates. In any community the members want to feel part of the team and not left out. The trick is to have a level of activity and interest that encourages each individual to want to be one of us rather than them. Rapidly changing announcements, a competitive element between teams, or a lively debate all encourage regular participation. Especially at the beginning, you may have to go outside the learning environment and use the telephone or a face-to-face meeting to be able to achieve this participation objective. Just because it is e-learning it doesn’t mean that additional encouragement can’t occur outside the learning environment medium, or privately within it. We find it surprising that many new community facilitators see the e-learning environment as the only communication mechanism, an all-or-nothing alternative to the classroom.
The activity level of any community is based on the needs of the community members and on any external commitments. A community can rapidly break down if the activity level is too high for the members to cope or too low to generate any energy. Be mindful of people’s schedules and don’t try to cram so many activities in that they become overwhelmed, or allow out-of-date information to clutter the view. Most people participating in e-learning do so for a limited number of hours per week, often at awkward times of day. It is a clear case of quality time. On the other hand, don’t make the environment so static that someone who logs on three times a week sees no change. It soon becomes demotivating and people drop out. And don’t expect all people to participate to the same level in all activities. Their culture, background knowledge, and the nature of the activity may dictate their participation level.
A life of its own
The good news is that despite the fact it takes effort to create a community, whether learning or not, once it exists it takes on an energy of its own. The first few days or weeks may be a real struggle, but friendships and communication develops. Lurkers eventually get up the courage to participate more. Gradually there is a collective responsibility to share knowledge and develop common solutions. Participants rely less on the ‘experts’ and realise that they are themselves experts in the subject, have their own opinions, and can both give and receive assistance to other participants. They determine and direct their own activities. The moment when the majority convert to self-managed learning is a real joy.
Managing e-learning is a challenge in the most positive sense, and is very exciting. You do see progress and you will get positive feedback. It just takes the right environment, culture and activities.
Success in e-learning involves three key areas. Firstly, a broad understanding of all the various components – from Learning Management Systems to content development techniques, from IT infrastructure to learning design and management of organisational change. Next, since e-learning programmes are rarely inexpensive, it is critical to get a high return on your initial investment, so making use of the most experienced resources possible is vital for success. The value of those who have ‘done it before’ cannot be underestimated. And finally, it is essential to co-ordinate and manage these components, business functions and resources. E-learning crosses many boundaries and should be viewed as a strategic endeavour, and managed as a truly cross-functional programme.
We hope that the articles in the ‘Recipes for E-learning Success’ series help you to understand some of the current issues surrounding this topic and have stimulated you to review your ideas on e-learning. Fosway is continually researching and developing e-learning best practice, and is focused on sharing its knowledge and experience with its customers and e-learning practitioners.
Recommended Fosway Reading
The other articles in this series are as follows:
• Recipes for E-learning Success
• The Volume Vs. Value Equation
• Blended or Integrated E-learning?
• Design Dynamics For E-learning
• Synchronous Vs. Asynchronous
• E-learning Standards
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