Engagement with fellow learners is a surefire way to keep them coming back.
One of the common challenges faced by many online educators lies in learner retainment. Not only do many online learners struggle to complete a course, but those that do often don’t come back for more. And even when they do return their experience is often one of isolation and solo drudgery.
Because of this, many educators have caught on to the value of community for promoting their courses. A dedicated online community not only brings with it a tremendous amount of support and enthusiasm, it also gives learners a reason to remain part of your program. Like gym buddies or a reading group, sticking to your goals is more enjoyable when you don’t have to go it alone.
That said, there are many ways an online community can be built, and online educators often miss out by considering their community too narrowly. They create either a large discussion forum where everyone is grouped together, or they silo their groups into too narrow categories.
The best communities are a hybrid of the two: broad enough for a wide group of members to keep the momentum going, but also capable of supporting niche sub-groups. Fortunately, your program can have it both ways. Here’s how to think about your community structure so that you can foster better engagement.
System-wide: Everyone on your course network can talk to each other.
If you’re just launching your course, this may not matter much. But envision your community a few years down the road, with several cohorts of graduated learners, and a course catalog full of seminars and micro content. Your learners will have followed different paths, but they will all have something to share with each other. By creating a forum for every member—from the member who joined yesterday to the old-timer who joined on day one—to connect, everyone benefits from each other’s experiences.
Long-time members will want to stay on because of the time they’ve invested in the community, and will have a lot to share about what they’ve learned. They may interest other learners in taking an extra course, help answer particularly natty questions, or share their own learning methods. Meanwhile, new learners keep the community fresh, and bring their own range of valuable experiences.
However, while it is useful to have learners of various experience discussing your course content together, it’s also important to let learners find their niche. That’s where the next structure comes into play.
Group-wide: Everyone within a specific course group can talk to each other.
Let’s say your community focuses on online development. You may have some courses dedicated to web development, others focusing on security, and others on marketing. While your whole community shares a broad interest in creating online businesses and communities, each has a subset interest in these other topics.
For this reason, it’s important to create places for dedicated groups to form. You might create a group specifically for designers to discuss new trends, which would be focused primarily on those who had taken some of your design courses. These group forums share many features of the general forum, in that they are a mixture of old and new learners; they’re simply more focused on a topic area.
Course-wide: Everyone taking a certain course can talk to each other.
Finally, there’s the discussion boards dedicated to learners in a particular course. This may be where you want to focus your homework assignments, so that learners can create and respond to task-related problems at need.
Course-based discussion are also a great entry point to help learners grow more familiar with the online forum format before being thrown into the general channel. While online forums are a longstanding feature of online discourse, not all of your learners will be familiar with them. Take extra care to treat smaller forums as an opportunity to help learners grow more comfortable. This is a place for them to learn the ropes and meet some fellow students before jumping into the deep end.
A few more considerations for your online community.
Having covered all that, there are a few practical considerations for your online community. First off is a question of moderation. The larger your online community grows, the more you will need moderators to help run the community and ensure the forum maintains a welcoming atmosphere and doesn’t descend into chaos.
You should post a code of conduct for your forums that explicitly states what behavior is or is not acceptable. While you would hope everyone shares your desire for a healthy, productive discussion space, this is the Internet. Trouble-makers abound. Posting a code of conduct won’t magically solve your problems, but it does lay out a shared agreement about how the forums should be used.
A general “read this first” document about how to use the forums is also a good idea. You may have policies about how you want your learners to use your forums that go behind how they treat fellow learners. And you may also want to explain the forum structure so that everyone’s on the same page. Here are a few extra considerations.
Do you want learners to create their own groups?
Many forums come with trust-based permissions, so that as a learner engages with fellow learners, they gain points. Eventually, they gain enough to earn extra privileges, such as creating new groups in the general forum channel. Other forums treat this as a moderator-only privilege. However, this can be overly restrictive and keep some learners from engaging.
Do you want to regiment your course groups by class?
We already talked about course groups, but another way to divide these is by specific class. You may have an online Web Development 101 course that opens enrollment three times a year. You could create different forums for each class, so that learners can discuss content with peers, but not with those who have already completed the course.
Do you want learners to talk to each other privately?
Private messages are another feature to consider. On the one hand, they help learners form bonds with other members in the community. On the other hand, because they aren’t moderated, they could lead to trouble if someone begins abusing community guidelines. In the end, whether or how you implement them is up to you.
A strong social community helps learners feel good and stay accountable.
Building a strong online community around your education course takes a lot of work. It’s like planting a garden, and then carefully tending it as the plants grow. You may even find that you need dedicated moderators at some point to ensure the forum continues working smoothly. But however hard you work, you will see good results in the learners who decide to return your hard work with an investment of their own.