Communities are a natural tenet of human life. With the growth of technology and the breakdown of geographic barriers through the internet, online communities are the new hub for innovation and learning. Like “real-life” communities, online communities have their operating norms, formal and informal roles, shared interests, and trust, which creates the foundation for effective interactions. Most important is the onus on online communities to engage people in a learning process over time.

While there are many benefits of creating online learning communities, here are the ones that most successful learning managers swear by:

  • Even if there is an established platform for formal learning within an organization, most employees learn outside the realm of formal training while chatting with other employees, seeing them work, gaining hand-on experience, and obtaining advice from their peers or supervisors. By formalizing these communities, we can extend and strengthen learning through informal interactions.
  • Practical knowledge about how to perform a job is often difficult to capture and deliver through traditional training programs. Communities are a way to encourage employees to share practical know-how that otherwise remains untapped.
  • Online learning communities can create an organic repository of knowledge and relationships that can increase the learner’s effectiveness and the company’s overall competitive advantage.

While the benefits of online learning communities are clear, developers should consider more than just the technology when creating such a community. There are several approaches that help engage learners in collaborative online learning environments; it’s best to employ a mix of techniques to suit the learner profile you have in mind.

Strategies for People Management in an Online Learning Community

  • Clearly define roles within the group, including the instructors, peer instructors, group leaders and individual learners. Establish each role’s responsibilities and interdependencies.
  • Make smaller groups to create space for collaborative activities and group projects. A mix of advanced and new learners will make sure that group members can support and complement each other.
  • Provide a way for learners to create personal profiles that include photos and salient information on the topic at hand. These profiles can serve as an ice-breaker and a foundation for social learning to flourish.
  • Include guidelines for online and offline etiquette. All the participants should agree to follow the prescribed norms for successful group and individual learning outcomes.
  • To counter boredom and monotony, foster a buddy system by making two or more learners responsible for joint participation and contribution. Encourage activities such as developing case studies or posting in the discussion area to kindle the spirit of peer learning.

Online Learning Community Tools

In the end, choosing the right technology to support online communities is of prime importance and can mean the success or failure of the community. The collaborative environment should be easy to use and hassle-free. The goal of the technology should be to serve the community, and the community should spend more time learning about a topic than about how to use the technology. The technology should be transparent to the instructor and the learner; no technical knowledge should be required to customize or manage the environment.

You can employ a number of tools to create an effective online learning community, including synchronous tools (audio-, web-, and video-conferencing; chat; and instant messaging), asynchronous tools (discussion boards, links, group announcements, group emails, and surveys and polls) and content creation tools (courseware, streaming media, narrated slideshows and e-books).

With the increasing interest in knowledge management and evolving learning technologies, the success of online communities is evident. Taking into consideration the learners and their learning needs, you can use technology to create effective learning.