How to Create a Social Learning Community

Building a cohort or community to enable learners to learn from each other has been a long discussed topic in the education/learning industry. We have called it social learning, peer-to-peer learning, and few others along the way.

Typically, most of us have probably built communities around a class/event. The purpose & life span of these communities are very clear. They thrive as long as the event lives & die with the event. During the event, you have the luxury of enforcing discussions within a certain context & even rate/rank/score users on it. These are like the good old discussion forums that now include a social layer on it.

Then there are communities that you want to keep alive irrespective of the event and around a topic of culture transformation, system implementation, capability area, and so on. These are the tough ones. Based on a recent experience in this creating this type of community, just wanted to share the following top three (3) lessons learned.

Lesson #1: Tap into existing communities and/or don’t make them granular

Communities thrive on people & your focus should be on that “customer acquisition”. More number of people you have within a community, the better of you are with keeping up the buzz. By splitting communities, starting new communities, and ignoring existing communities, you will typically end up fighting a uphill battle to acquire “customers”. This is best explained with this example.

Let’s say you have a community of 5000 members called Education who follow your university’s education social stream & you are about to launch a peer-to-peer learning strategy within the context of a communication capability area – what would you do? 1) Tap into the Education community (or) 2) Try and setup something unique for Communications? Try (1).

Setup your community with a larger context, clarify to the users that many other topics may be discussed here, and then follow-it up with the buzz. While personalizing learning is about tailoring the context for your audience, expanding context within social learning gets you a head start. Once you have a loyal cohort that is following a stream, you can engage and transition as needed.

Lesson #2: Fret about the user experience

Well the names of buttons, titles of links, what catches a learner’s eye when they are glancing at things all matter. Getting user attention has never been this premium.

Lets say your users have to click on a button to join your community – what would you call it?

  • Ask a Question – makes it very specific. Your users are not likely to click on it if they don’t have a question.
  • Follow – makes it generic and leads an expectation that your users are going to receive information without having the need to engage
  • Join the community – gets a bit more action oriented but doesn’t indicate what joining the community means
  • Join the conversation – makes it seems like conversations are already happening and we are prompting the user to join them.

Now think about which one would prompt you to click on that button?

Next review every single entry point for your user. If they are going to see your post in a twitter (or) twitter like stream before they come to your site, your titles better be catchy, have an image associated with it, and generate the intrigue in the first 5-7 words. Otherwise it ain’t matter – you’ve lost your customer.

Further, be shameless about promoting the community and the conversations. In a social world where just about everything is trying to pop out & grab attention, it requires a lot of deliberation to stay front and center in a learners’ head.Ask permissions to post your discussions into other communities and vice-versa and don’t miss an opportunity to keep talking about the community (e.g. email signatures, meeting openers, etc.)

Lesson #3: Generate discussions – push before you pull & give it time

Your users go through a journey within the community – they go from awareness, observation, passive participation, active participation, before becoming an advocate.

Naming the button as Join the conversation doesn’t alone suffice. When the users get to the community, there they actually need to see the conversations. They aren’t going to be active (or) be the first ones. The first one’s are a rare breed & when you see them, engage with them deliberately on future posts.

The only way to get going in a brand new community is to seed conversations. Start seeding conversations by posting informational nuggets, questions, surveys, prompts, & even rewarding sharing will get user engagement going. Look for those first few user generated conversations. They are the treasure you are after.

Once you start seeing the user-generated conversations (meaning users are talking to each other), become the follower & start seeding first responses & wait until others start chiming in.

Did I mention providing incentives to user participation. Badges are the first that come to mind, Klout score, Influencer Score, turning active users into advocates, are all some additional tricks for engagement. You can get as creative as you want with this.

Slowly but steadily, you will notice that learners are now actually conversing. Step back and go back into the role of seeding the conversations. Now you have gone from building the community to keeping up the buzz within the community.

This is a lot of work. After you build the community, keep doing your thing & give it time. It takes a while to get customers, pay attention, listen passively, engage passively, then get more active, and eventually advocating. That journey is a tough one for your learners to go through but they eventually will get there.

Finally, Don’t give up, give it time & your social community will buzz.

Credits:

Image sourced under Creative Commons. Click here for the actual source

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