Can we learn together while apart?

Kimberly E. Casteline, Ph.D.

The pandemic cast a bright spotlight on distance learning and the hundreds of hours spent online quarantining served as incentive to improve the experience for both educators and learners alike. The time we spent physically apart made us appreciate the importance of human engagement in the context of learning. A recent article in Forbes points out that there is a difference between “online learning” and an “online community.” It goes on to state the need to consider ways to make distance learning a more social experience. 

Simply stated, human beings learn better together than apart. Social learning allows learners to exchange perspectives that they would not have otherwise discovered, collaboratively reinforce knowledge gains, and motivate one another to stay engaged throughout the learning experience. When strategically deployed, this approach can make all the difference in successful online training. Creating an online community around the learning opportunity is the key to social learning and generating the type of engagement that leads to better learner experience and higher rates of completion.

Here are four straightforward strategies that can transform online training into a social learning experience.

Learner Discussions

The first one is the most essential: learner discussions. Allow learners to talk directly to each other. This can take the form of live virtual discussions or asynchronous posts on a central bulletin board, as long as learners know that they are talking to other human beings learning the same material during the same timeframe. And don’t just make the technology available. Model for learners how to use it and demonstrate to them its utility.

Organic Conversations

Secondly, allow space for organic conversations. The opportunity for learners to talk to each other should not be confined to answering specific questions about the course material. Just like in an in-person classroom where learners can chat with each other about more than just the course, allow learners to share whatever is on their mind. They should not feel like all their interactions are forced.

Individual and Group Contributions

Thirdly, enable and recognize both individual and group contributions to the success of the learning community. At the inception of the group, communicate the goal for the group and everyone’s role to play in reaching that goal. Be strategic about public and private communication so that the overall tone stays positive. Publicly acknowledge those who are hitting their targets and privately encourage those who aren’t. Make sure everyone knows that their part matters.

The Power of Peers

And lastly, use the power of peers. Social cognition theory states that peer acceptance is a powerful motivator in learning. Create ways for learners to hold each other accountable such as by working in pairs or groups. Or implementing friendly team competitions with low-stakes awards, like bragging rights.

In essence, creating a learning community is doable with a bit of effort and forethought as to how to enable and encourage learner communication. Once you open the lines of communication and create multidirectional dialogue, you are on the path to a more enjoyable  learning experience for all.

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