Starting a Learning Process Online

Offline presentation of tools and discussion (photo Gerdi Keeler)

Offline presentation of tools and discussion (photo Gerdi Keeler)

On 31 January last, Gerdi Keeler and I conducted a workshop for NVO2 on how you can start a learning process online already before the first face-to-face event. In order to enable our participants to experience this concept, rather than just hearing about it, we created a closed online environment in which we shared smaller and bigger assignments with the participants. All assignments were related to the use of an online tool. Assignments were also all related to sharing experiences and information.

Using assignments before a learning process or training starts is of course nothing very revolutionary. In the sign up form, future participants are often asked about their motivation, about what it is they want to learn exactly and about their experience with the subject matter. Trainers or teachers also quite regularly ask participants to read something beforehand. All this information could be used to make participants aware of their own personal motivation to take part, to tailor the training to the real needs, to avoid spending time on something everyone already knows and to render the time spent together more effective by sharing some of the theory beforehand.

Also not new is the fact that such assignments tend to yield limited results, and that you mostly find out about how little results were achieved during the face-to-face event.

However, with the existing wealth of online tools you as trainer or teacher have much more possibility to get acquainted with your prospective participants than before. If you do not want to bother them, you can simply look up their LinkedIn profile to see what their experience is, and what skills they think they have. You can check out their Twitter account to see what makes them tick, and if they have a blog you can find out even more about their interests, activities and skills.

If you would like to engage with your participants before the training you can make use of many different online tools. You can ask them to share pictures, videos, cartoons, etc. or to comment on a blog post if you want to go in the direction of Flipping your Classroom.

These assignments can of course be sent out and collected via e-mail. But why take the risk of miscommunication? We all know a thing or two about “Reply all” in moments when it shouldn’t have been used and vice versa, as well as those times that you think you are sending something to one person and it turns out your address book selected another person with the same name. And why not use the chance to create a network of the participants? In other words, it is worth your while to create an online environment where you  and participants can post assignments, results, questions and replies.

Yammer network

Yammer network

In any case, we decided to create a closed network on Yammer for our communications with the participants.  We felt that this tool would provide the best possibility for discussion and sharing, and would probably not be too difficult to use for most people. Just in case, we shared a short guide on using Yammer via e-mail as well as in the Yammer network itself, so that participants could look up certain functionalities as they went along.

Most of the assignments we shared  involved visual tools, like Bitstrips, Wordle, Tagxedo, ReciteThis and the like. In all, some 12 tools were shared, excluding Yammer. Some tools were used by all participants, some by none and most by the majority of participants. Bitstrips, Wordle, Tagxedo and ReciteThis were the most popular tools: they were the most used and participants were the most enthusiastic about them.

What did you gain from the online start? In Spiderscribe

What did you gain from the online start? In Spiderscribe

Participants were very enthusiastic about the online start. They liked getting acquainted online. They found this way of starting “inspirational“, and had learned a lot from the tools and tips shared and from the exchange online. The tools presented were useful and clarifications provided were helpful. They had gotten a lot of ideas for their own work. This had motivated them hugely.

Reflections on the online start underlined the importance of selecting the right tool for the online environment. For some participants Yammer had been easy to use, and as the few questions they had were answered swiftly, they did not experience problems much. For others, however, it felt as if they had to learn two things: to use Yammer and to learn about the online tools offered through Yammer. It seems that they did not consider Yammer itself as one of the tools to be learned for an online start – just as your regular participant would see less use in investing time to learn working with Yammer compared to investing time in the course topic.

Another issue that was mentioned was that of expectations management. Participants had the feeling that they had to do everything that was offered, and that there was not enough time for this. In the end, no one managed to try out everything, although a few participants managed to try most of the tools. This issue could be seen either as a communication issue or as a responsibility issue: should trainers communicate precisely what needs to be done and how much time needs to be invested? Or should participants take responsibility for and ownership of what they want to learn, and also for those things that they decided are not top priority right now?

Here, I think, are some issues at stake that you might not encounter as much in case of offline assignments or even e-mailed assignments. While all assignments were individual-based, sharing them in an online environment where you also collect the products for all to see, could result in peer pressure, even if unintended. Participants see what others have done, they read the stories, questions and answers. In Yammer they can also easily check the statistics (although I do not believe they did in this case). They can also see when something was done – for instance, it would have been pretty much obvious if there had been a “last minute” worker included in the group. This is not the case if you send out assignments via e-mail and collect all replies individually. In that situation, people can be blissfully unaware of who has done what and whether that was within a suggested time frame or not. They also cannot see the quality of other people’s work. Of course, they can also not be inspired by each other, nor help each other out or learn from one another. Which is why we chose to create a network.

Another issue is that of the possibility to use certain online tools on the job. Some organisations do not allow the use of certain tools on work computers, and some people do not feel free to do such assignments from their work desks. This then leads to a need to do these assignments after work hours, from a home device. And that is something that some people simply do not like to do. That may not just be the case for employed participants, also freelancers can find it difficult to find time for self-development and can fail to see that certain tools will help them as professional as well. I do not think that this issue of work versus private sphere was too important for this group, but it was mentioned as an issue that could be important or even crucial to other groups of participants.

A last issue I would like to mention is that starting a learning process online offers the opportunity of a diversity that can be overwhelming and that is accelerated by the group process. As said above, during our ten days of online work with the group we shared 12 tools. Some of them were similar to each other and others not, some of them we asked participants to use, others we just asked them to look at. Some assignments could be ticked off in 5 minutes or less, other could take up more time.

Variety of tools shared, collected on Pinterest

Variety of tools shared, collected on Pinterest

Our idea was to share a variety of things that could appeal to different people, and to make sure that nobody would get bored by not seeing something interesting for a few days. This is also what we had experienced in an online course in which we were the participants ourselves: that people tend to “cherry pick”, depending on time available and the connection they see between what is offered and their personal and professional development goals. However, this is not how it worked for all members of our group. They got overloaded by the tools, the assignments, the products and reactions of others and seemingly unrelated discussions. My conclusion is that an online start requires a great level of discipline and balancing from the participants: they should dedicate time to it on a regular basis in order not to get lost, they should be very clear on what it is they want to learn and why, and they should make sure the online group process does not get in the way of their own plans and needs. On the other hand, as facilitator you will have to nurture these skills in the group members. I do not believe that labelling one assignment as obligatory and another not will help, nor that setting a requirement in terms of time investment will solve this. But I do believe that a facilitator should help participants set their own goals and that a facilitator should help create understanding for the different goals within the group.

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Developing Communities

Communities are formed by persons – even if they represent organisations. So if you want to support a community in its development, you have to focus on the needs of the actual people involved. This is for me one of the eye openers of the webinar Digital Habitats of Communities with Nancy White, organised by En nu online on 21 February 2012.

So what are those communities that we spoke about? A community is formed by a group of people with a common interest, value or goal, that build a joint identity. The community provides a sense of belonging and meaning, that is valuable to the members and that makes them want to contribute to the community itself as well.

Nancy White: 3 perspectives on a community

Nancy White: 3 perspectives on a community

According to Nancy White, there are 3 types of stakeholders in relation to a community: the members, the leadership and the sponsors. The sponsors are for instance the organisations that are represented in the community by certain members. While a community should focus on its members and on offering value to them, it should definitely also pay attention to the needs of the organisations behind these members.

Balancing the needs of these stakeholders and of the community itself as a whole needs a clear view on what the community is actually about – what is the reason it exists, and what is its focus at a certain moment in time? What activities can suit that focus and what tools can be used to facilitate the work of the community?

Through their research into communities and their development, White, Wenger and Smith developed the so-called spidergram. The spidergram shows 9 possible orientations of a community at a certain point in time. The spidergram is not a static “test” that you take only once and that provides a roadmap for all time. As a community develops it may shift its orientation. Another important thing to note about the spidergram is that no community scores high on all orientations at the same time, not even a very well-developed one. In that sense, the spidergram does not provide an ideal direction.

So what then does the spidergram show? It basically shows you where the community is at, at this moment. What is the current focus of the community? This in turn can help you define the activities that will deliver the most value to the community and the most suitable tools to facilitate these activities.

Example of a Spidergram filled out

Example of a Spidergram filled out

These are the questions the spidergram can help you ask:

1. Are meetings important instruments for the community to discuss and decide on common viewpoints and steps to be taken?

2. Is the community focused on developing and implementing projects – sets of tasks that are related to each other and lead within a certain time frame to certain, defined and projected output and results? Mind you, a project does not need to be an externally financed official project, internal development of a new practice can also be considered a project.

3. Does the community reach out to expertise? This expertise can be available within the community, and be accessible for instance through an internal resource directory.

4. Is there space within the community to discuss “whatever it is that we need to talk about right now”? In spidergram terms, are there open-ended conversations? Interestingly, this orientation can be strong both in new and in mature communities!

5. Is the community working on producing common content? Like developing documents together, sharing information, capturing lessons learned. Content and projects rather often form a strong starting point of communities as the activities tend to bring people together for a very clear common purpose, that can inspire them to develop into a real community.

These 5 orientations focus on activities of a community. The 4 orientations below  focus on the relations within the community and the relations the community has with the outside world.

6. Is there space for members of the community to each have their own experience – is there space for individual participation? Even though togetherness is a crucial feature of a functioning community, every individual involved will have his or her own experience from this being together, will get out something different than the others. This could also be interesting for the others – to hear a different perspective of what was gained.

7. Is there some level of cultivation of the community? Is someone taking care of the togetherness? Is someone ensuring that new members get to know the others and get to know the community? Are things that need to be shared in fact shared?

8. What is the external focus of the community, the context? Is the community engaging with the outside world, or is it focused on its own goals and activities? There is no right or wrong in being either externally or internally oriented – some communities do not need to lobby with outside stakeholders to achieve their aims, while others could not reach their goals without strong ties to external parties. When scoring your spidergram be aware that an internal focus should be scored closer towards the bulls eye, whereas an external focus should be scored more towards the outside of the “circle”.

9. Are there different relationships within the community? Meaning, do people have one on one relations with other community members or are there small sub-groups of people that share also outside of the “official community channels”? Such relationships do not harm the community, provided of course they do not focus on nasty gossip about other community members, in fact they can help forge stronger ties within the community.

Each of these orientations can be supported by the community leadership or facilitators with different online and offline tools. In selecting and applying tools you should, however, keep in mind to bring value to both the members and their organisations.

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