Scaling Learning Through Community Connections

April 30, 2024

We’ve distilled optimal digital learner engagement into five key ingredients for High Engagement at Scale in digital learning experiences. We’ll share these ingredients over a series of posts. Our fourth ingredient to explore with you is community connections.

For decades, we've known that community and social learning play a key role in motivating learners. Peer-to-peer connections and interactions between learners and teachers are part of what makes learning possible. Research by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger on communities of practice shows that these sorts of personal connections encourage and deepen learning. The increase in perspectives and opportunities for interaction and feedback that come from being in a group of learners are crucial to the learning process. 

It’s no surprise that digital learning experiences that make the most of these connections help learners stay engaged and focused. When thoughtfully designed, such experiences create a sense of belonging that’s central to any learner's persistence, engagement, and success, as the Education Design Lab’s 2022 report shows.

Connections among each class’s community members improve intrinsic motivation and learning outcomes.

The attention these learners give each other and get from trusted instructors assists them in achieving their goals.

The days of long, tedious video lectures are thankfully behind us. What we see now is a variety of options for learners to use to engage with each other and with instructors. This gives learners an instructional experience that’s more motivating and personalized, delivering high engagement at scale.

Why Community Is Crucial

Community connections, our fourth ingredient, are not only the glue that keeps learners invested in their digital learning experience; they’re also the secret sauce for scale. 

When you’re in a class, whether you’re enjoying or struggling with the subject matter, you often want to talk about it with other people. In person, this is simple: you can turn to a friend or a peer who’s sitting next to you and have a conversation. And if that friend can help you understand a concept when the instructor doesn’t have time, that means your learning community has scaled to support more people than a single teacher can help. 

But in online learning, learners need a little more assistance to get social interactions going. At Studion, we make this easier through design choices that focus on the following points:

  1. The learner needs to feel a sense of community that encourages them to work together.

  2. The learner must see multiple opportunities for community collaboration without having to dig for them.

  3. The learner needs to have access to experts beyond their learning experience’s main instructor.

Community builders

To get community connections started, digital learning experiences should support learners with tools and techniques that allow them to build community connections. Learners don’t need to become best friends with their peers, but they must feel comfortable and safe assisting and exchanging ideas with each other.

  • Lay the foundation for great connections. The focal point should be helping communities get started. At IDEO U, every learner is welcomed into a new course and invited to introduce themselves. Learners post their projects online, and peer feedback is encouraged by the IDEO U platform. To ensure a safe space filled with trust, the platform provides the learners with guidelines in a document called “The Feedback Tango.” 

  • Set up learning platforms so they encourage the creation of additional networks. If learners are given the opportunity, they may form virtual (or even in-person) connections outside of class. The design of a learning experience can promote this behavior, making that process a little simpler through things like suggestions for activities and meet-ups or support structures for forming online study groups. Another example of creating community connections can be seen on Harvard Business School Online’s platform, which provides many social aspects for learning. Learners can direct-message other learners in the same course, and there’s a profile search where learners can find others with similar interests or backgrounds. HBSO’s community also extends beyond any one course, allowing learners to connect in person via over 30 chapters worldwide.

Community collaborators

Learners can grow an incredible amount through collaboration with each other. Peer-based collaboration can provide a positive source of peer pressure, too, keeping students engaged and motivated. 

  • Utilize collaborative learning activities to encourage participation. Digital learning experiences need to enable learners to collaborate with, inspire, and learn from their peers. When we worked with the University of Notre Dame, we created an online chat feature for their digital learning experience that allowed learners to work with each other and their instructors. This encouraged a closer student-faculty bond and personalized the learning experience.

  • Make multiple methods of contribution available so learners can productively engage. To feel truly engaged, learners must have a variety of opportunities to contribute through diverse means. That ranges from a simple “like” button to a discussion forum to a team-based project. For Colibri, we designed multiple options including forum responses, tutoring, and Q&A roundup emails to allow different types of interactions. On IDEO U’s platform, sometimes learners are invited to share a simple one-word answer to a question, and sometimes they can comment more extensively on a colleague's project in a full gallery. The variety of modes for community participation keeps diverse learners engaged. 

A teaching team

In an online course, it’s common to have hundreds of learners at a time. That makes it impossible for a single instructor to reach each student independently. However, many online courses still strive to create more intimate personal connections through educators beyond the central instructor. 

  • Learners can get timely answers from reputable "teachers" beyond the instructor. Mentors, teaching assistants, and alumni can all be leveraged to scale up the ability for a learning experience to have a human touch. One possible approach is providing interactive introductions and check-ins with a diverse group of experts for each lesson. For their online courses, IDEO U provides a teaching team of people who work in the field leveraging the skills being taught inside the course. The teaching team receives extensive training and is supported by rubrics, plus a treasure trove of additional materials. This rich ecosystem of support allows IDEO U learners to get a timely response to questions and in-depth feedback.

  • A larger community of experts can offer additional expertise. Beyond formal teaching teams, learning experiences can bring in a range of other expertise, from alumni who recently took the course to subject matter experts. Alumni can be empowered with rubrics to give quality feedback. Through expert panels and guest speakers, learners can access practitioners from the wider world beyond their specific learning experience, creating a sense of excitement around the topic and a glimpse at the community of learners beyond their particular course. Colibri accomplishes this with short video or audio clips that present advice and information from real professionals in their fields. These professionals represent a range of experience levels. This builds a network for learners while providing relatable real-world examples for the concepts they’re being taught.    

The Many Ways to Connect

At Studion, connecting others is something we truly love to do as a means to increase engagement and impact. We value connections across learning communities, and we bring that passion to our learning experience designs. Because accountability and motivation are positively influenced by strong community connections, we prioritize this fourth ingredient in creating our clients’ digital learning experiences. 

Does your learning experience meet High Engagement at Scale benchmarks?

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