4 min read

Building Learning Community Online

Building Learning Community Online

Part of InSync Training's Thriving as a Learning Professional Series

Teaching and learning are relational activities. People learn from and with one another, through teaching, observation, collaboration, interaction (synchronous or asynchronous), or reading or viewing materials published by other people.

A frequent complaint about online learning and webinars is that people miss the relational aspect, the interaction with other people. There’s a sense that online learning feels passive and solitary. In truth, some online learning is designed as if it’s guided self-study and some webinars are primarily one-way communication. But it doesn’t need to be that way.

The academic community has researched online learning for decades and has, in some ways, deconstructed what works. One of the pieces of guidance you may have seen if you work in academic contexts is the community of inquiry model, a research-supported framework about promoting learning in online environments. While devised and tested in higher education, the advice can be ported to online learning in a corporate environment–to facilitating webinars, running community discussions, designing a learning path with digital elements, etc.

A community of inquiry is an environment in which learning is more active and collaborative, where teachers and learners are jointly committed to the success of the learning effort. To cultivate that kind of community, the framework suggests that designers and facilitators of online learning should heighten three kinds of “presence”: social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence.

  • Social presence refers to the degree to which all the people involved can bring their authentic selves and their personality into the online learning environment.
  • Teaching presence refers to ensuring that the course or session design has an effective flow, robust activities, and opportunities for deep interaction.
  • Cognitive presence encompasses the activities and interactions that generate learning.

Applying Community of Inquiry Ideas to Webinars and Online Learning Strategies

The core of good design and facilitation is universal–you want to actively engage learners, vary techniques and delivery modes, maintain a respectful environment, and challenge people to think more deeply and strengthen their skills. In an online environment, here’s some advice for designers and facilitators that is supported by the community of inquiry model:

Social Elements

When designers and facilitators want to strengthen the social element of learning, they introduce activities and practices that help people to get to know one another beyond surface facts and to actively engage with one another in learning processes and discussion. They ensure that people are respected and heard, even when they need to be redirected or corrected. Courses and communities high in social presence promote two-way and all-way conversation and contribution from everyone rather than focusing on a teacher alone directing the activities.

Too often, time-bound webinars and asynchronous online courses don’t have enough peer-to-peer interaction to activate social learning. There is a lot of value to be gained by inviting learners to talk to one another, to share their experiences, to support one another’s learning.

To raise social presence

  • Give people a chance to introduce themselves and gain a sense of being connected to other learners. Encourage learners to show their unique personalities. Facilitators should model this.

  • Provide opportunities for direct interaction–in chat, discussion boards, breakout rooms, and other ways. Don’t worry too much about “side conversations” in chat and discussions unless they are truly disruptive.

  • Invite quiet people to contribute in subtle, non-threatening ways. Pay attention to maintaining a welcoming learning environment by redirecting and disrupting interactions that are likely to shut people down or be hurtful in some way.

  • Encourage active participation by reinforcing contributions, connecting ideas together, using people’s names and ideas, etc.

  • Promote learners’ commitment to each other’s learning; build a sense of camaraderie and mutual support.

Teaching Elements    

Teaching elements are those practices that are intended to promote learning, and these are not solely the purview of the titular “teacher” in the situation. Some of these elements are structural design decisions and some are facilitation practices. While many of these elements are provided or initiated by the teacher/leader/facilitator, people engaged in the learning context can also inject teaching elements (e.g. by sharing relevant content, suggesting activities) and it’s often beneficial to create the conditions in which they can do so.

Thoughtful design of courses and webinars is intended to establish a flow of activities that generates learning. The trick is to organize a flow that gets learners to go deep, to challenge their assumptions and prior approaches, to expand their understanding, and to stretch their skills.

To raise teaching presence:

  • Invite participants to share their experiences and knowledge; actively facilitate conversations – draw people in and keep them talking.

  • Where possible, include expanded group discussion, practice exercises, and application activities. Consider group projects to scaffold initial efforts at applying concepts and skills. You may need to be creative to facilitate this in an online environment, but it’s worth the effort.

  • Ensure that people get the feedback they need to confirm knowledge, shape skills, and gain confidence. Design peer-to-peer feedback, self-assessment, and involvement of others outside the learning community (e.g. managers, coaches) to ensure learning is solidified and applied well.

  • Allow learners to make suggestions and decisions regarding content, techniques, and tools, and encourage them interact with one another in ways that are comfortable for them (e.g. using social media, choosing to meet together outside of structured class time, etc.)

Cognitive Elements

Cognitive elements produce the visible and visceral evidence of learning, they are those behaviors and activities that generate a change in knowledge or skill. These are often introduced and modeled by the designer/teacher, but some of the most impactful learning occurs when learners themselves drive these kinds of elements.

The temptation may be to keep the learning goals simple, to cover basics quickly and hope that learners take that foundation into the workplace where it can be expanded and applied. But there are online techniques that take advantage of the power of many minds and that engage generative learning. Webinars and courses can be more powerful when they engage these elements.

To raise cognitive presence:

  • Ensure that materials and activities are appropriately robust and challenging (which may mean longer reading materials and videos that effectively communicate deep content).

  • Engage learners in joint activities, problem-solving, and collaborative projects.

  • Ask challenging reflection questions, including questions that promote critical thinking, and help learners to consider assumptions and make comparisons to what they have known and done before. Leave room to wrestle with and discuss these questions.

  • Enable collaborative reflection where possible (from pair-and-share activities to group discussion), and value multiple perspectives.

  • Help learners to consolidate and integrate learning, and promote action planning or deep thinking about implications for future work and identification of next steps.

  • Nurture curiosity and motivation to learn by encouraging learners to explore relevant digressions. And encourage extra-curricular exploration by providing curated resources for deeper learning (or for foundations if people feel out of their depth).

Truth be told, these ideas will go a long way in ensuring the success of your classroom-based efforts as well, but some of these points can be a bit more difficult to achieve in an online or asynchronous environment. It takes real work to translate our best ideas for promoting learning into technology-enabled contexts. But if you keep in mind what you know about how people learn, you can challenge yourself to step up the design and facilitation of your online courses and modules.

Want to learn more? Download InSync Training's 54-page guide: Thriving As A Learning Professional.

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For more advice on the community of inquiry framework, explore these resources:

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