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Building effective learning communities

by | May 12, 2008 | Articles

The e-learning network event on ‘Building learning Communities’ on the 18th of April provided a fascinating insight into the practicalities of using technology to bring communities of adults together to learn.  The day provided useful advice for all types  of programmes and in all walks of life.

It was a day packed full of case studies from all sectors and the discussion tables were crammed with ideas and anecdotes. The result was some pragmatic advice on what works, what doesn’t and practical steps to take.

Defining learning communities

Definitions of learning communities were built upon during the day but the overall concensus seemed to be that a learning community is a place where a group of individuals have

  • A shared value
  • An aspiration or desire to contribute
  • An opportunity to develop
  • A point of focus
  • A sense of belonging

Learning communities may have a distinct beginning and end ( such as those supporting a specific formal learning programme of online or face to face learning) Or they may be open ended supporting informal learning and development around a particular agenda. At this event, technology was also a common factor in developing learning communities as it helps to connect individuals using tools such as social networking, blogging, discussion boards, virtual meeting places, chat rooms etc.

Practical hints and tips from the day

All of the speakers shared their experiences, good and bad in establishing and sustaining their learning communities ( see below in examples of learning communities). Lessons from the day included:

  1. What tools to use? Ning and Drupal both got the thumbs up from the event as being easy to use, simple to introduce (even in the tough lock down IT environments) quick to customise  and free!
  2. Facebook is an obvious contender for bringing people together but use with caution , not all people are keen to use their social spaces for ‘work’ purposes ( including the young!). Facebook tools such as ‘becoming a fan can help build a profile for your network but they work best by word of mouth – as soon as you start to be proactive in engaging new fans, the site can lock you out!
  3. Define what kind of learning communitity you need and for what purpose– a closed one ( with a beginning and and end around a specific programme) or an open one for an audience that provides opportunity for ongoing future development.

For closed ended  communities supporting specific programmes– the following tips were given:

  1. Preset activities in the different technologies –  the concensus was that these both blogs and discussion groups work well when you preset activities for learners to do using the technologies. If you just build them into the site without providing an incentive to visit, learners will be less confident in using them.
  2. First impressions count – if you are using online learning communities as part of a formal programme, allocate lots of time at the first event to introduce the community, how it works
  3. Set expectations early – what contributions are expected from individuals and in  what time frames? This helps early engagement.
  4. Find out from learners what they want – sounds obvious but this really helps particularly when you are introducing this to those not traditionally used to using technology in learning.
  5. Use network/community leaders to drive activity – make sure those leaders have the right skills to facilitate eg commenting on comments/blogs quickly, asking another question to encourage further input etc.

Tips for any l communities looking to encourage more informal learning and collaboration:

  1. Agree behaviour rules for the community: one way of establishing how a community should behave online is to ask the community to define its own behaviour. B&Q used the guideline of ‘behave in the way that you want to be perceived by others’!
  2. Stories are important to bring life to the community. Encourage story telling. Equally different voices and different media (such as posting video or audio clips) all help to encourage engagement.
  3. Consider using different conversational tools – this provides different points of entry – some may prefer to blog and comment on blogs, some prefer to lurk in discussion groups for some time before getting involved. It is important to provide choice.
  4. Make space for individual creativity and control – can participants upload their own content or tools they have created?
  5. Build confidence – what are the questions your learners might have about getting involved? Help them to find answers in order to increase their confidence.
  6. Be aware of organisational firewall issues or social networking policies. Some of the new tools which are closed communities can provide useful workarounds when corporate policies prevent normal access to social networking sites

Examples of integrated learning communities – Case studies from the day

The education sector , not unexpectedly, had excellent experience to share in the way that learners could be supported via learning communities.

Stuart Sutherland, National College of School Leadership brushed over the emmense expertise that the college has built in developing leanring communities for leaders in schools by pointing the group to an free excellent resource – 100,000 heads are better than one –   that outlines lessons from the worlds largest community. Instead he focussed on how they were currently applying those lessons to support a programme for young school leaders of the future. He outlined how he built a community space in one morning using free software Ning that allowed learners to share their reflections on the programme and the way they were applying their learning back in the workplace.

Liz Worthen, Director at London Gifted and Talented, described a similar set of communities that supported teachers across a range of ages working with gifted and talented children. The programme   showed how a network leader was appointed for each initiative, encouraging participation and providing feedback. (case study details available)

From the commercial sector, learning communities were part of formal learning programmes.. Michelle Russell and David Chidley – the training  team behind Royal Caribbean’s successful e-learning–  used a learning community called ‘Captains Zone’ to sustain interest from those travel agents who had completed a programme. The Captain’s zone uses all kinds of activities to keep their audience engaged once their formal programme had finished. This included addictive games, mini videos with latest cruise info and even a captains log ( blog) that encouraged their participants to record when they made their first sale ( a neat way of measuring some return on their programmes!)

Karen Ver from the CIPD explained how some of their face to face programmes now use online learning communities to connect dispersed groups of students in between formal study time

Barry Sampson, B&Q, outlined how a learning community had been developed outside of a formal learning programme to support anyone interested in managing their own development. It was not linked to a particular audience or programme but was open and used by any looking for next development opportunities.

We also presented findings from some of the resources on collaboration  from Towards Maturity.

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