Making Online Group Learning Effective

By Claire Schneeberger
When organizations start down the path of online learning, there’s often an initial attraction to self-paced learning—and for good reason. Self-service courses, JIT (just-in-time) training, and adaptive learning are efficient and effective methods to help individuals. They also leverage the benefits of the online environment to reach anyone, anywhere, at anytime.

And yet, in the instructional world, we know that working in a group setting enhances learning. Jean Lave’s situated learning theory and Albert Badura’s social learning theory both contribute to our understanding of the benefits of group learning. (See sidebar.)

Is it possible to get the best of both worlds? Can you reach a geographically dispersed group of people AND engage them in group learning? The answer is a resounding yes. Recently I collected strategies and tools for managing, designing, and leading ongoing groups from our team of learning designers, and from a group of associates and friends in the field1. The result is this comprehensive list of strategies and best practices.

Situated Learning Theory
Real learning happens only when it is contextual—meaning, when students can directly apply it in authentic activities, contexts and cultures. Social interaction and collaboration are essential components of situated learning.
— Jean Lave

Social Learning Theory
People learn through observing others’ behavior, attitudes, and outcomes of those behaviors.
— Albert Bandura


I. Managing

How you market courses, and enroll and communicate with students, plays a big role in your overall success.

A. Attract and enroll the right people
If your course content isn’t relevant for your students, then no matter how great your course design is, your learners won’t be engaged. Some ways to ensure success include:

  1. Have clear course descriptions that include a clear objective that has benefits for both the user and the organization.
  2. Work with managers to identify people who are ready and would benefit from the courses. Where possible, involve managers to meet with participants before and after each session—before to talk about what they are getting ready to learn; after to talk about their take-aways and expectations for applying or further exploring the subject matter.
  3. Collect information during registration. Gather information to help you get to know your audience, their needs, and the context in which they work before the class begins. You can then use that information to tailor the course to be more relevant for your students.

B. Communicate expectations
Before the class starts, prepare students with the information they need to succeed.

  1. Set expectations for learner involvement. Get people to buy-in to do the prep work and come to the session ready to actively engage by providing very clear expectations for learner involvement in your marketing and registration materials, along with reminders of this expectation—and the rationale for the expectation. Spell out the map of what’s happening and when.
  2. Provide technical how-tos to equip learners with the skills needed to use the platform and set expectations for interaction.

C. Ask for feedback
Collecting feedback from learners throughout the course can provide invaluable information to improve relevance as you iterate the course design.


II. Designing

The activities, assignments, and discussions you plan for your course can generate both situated and social learning. The peer-to-peer learning is typically a perspective on the practical application of the concepts. Each participant has their own direct experience—or lack of—with a skill as well as indirect experience—how they’ve seen or experienced that skill used by other people in their work or personal life. It can reveal new strategies or unintended consequences to be on the lookout for when developing their action plans.

A. Interaction is key
A good rule of thumb is that virtual classes should engage participants with interactions and/or each other approximately every four minutes2. Participants want to engage and collaborate. Select activities that will engage the learners in complex, realistic, problem-centered activities that will support the desired knowledge to be acquired. These may include:

  • Role-playing
  • Scenarios
  • Compare and contrast activities
  • Learning buddies or small groups

B. Seed the discussions
Ask provocative questions that require learners to have to think, not just respond with something that they might have read or heard.

  1. Start the engagement prior to the live meeting. Ask learners to input their thoughts, rebuttal, debate, dialog, etc. asynchronously into the program. And then have people review it, so that when you come together real-time, people are already experienced with what other people are thinking.
  2. Encourage “think time.” Include a handout with live virtual sessions with prompts for reflection where learners can record their thoughts. This will support everyone in being more prepared to share with the group.

C. Get commitments for action
Have your students create action plans and give assignments that require that the learning be applied.


III. Leading

Your online group may have live virtual meetings, or they may be participating in assignments and discussions around the same time, but not in a “live” session. In either case, your job as the course leader is to maximize participation and facilitate learning between participants.

A. Have a visual of participants
Do everything you can to include real profile pictures of all users and when possible use video. Video allows you to pick up on non-verbal cues and has been shown to improve connection over the use of just voice or text3.

B. Set norms
You can facilitate participation by setting norms such as:

  • Have a working microphone.
  • Be prepared to be called on by name.
  • Chat and whiteboards must be seen and used by everyone.

C. Facilitate group dialog
Most importantly, in order to generate group participation leaders must recast their role from content transmitter to facilitator. This can include assessing products produced by learners, encouraging reflection, tracking progress, and helping learners become more aware of contextual cues related to what they are learning4.

  1. Facilitate conversation between participants. Ask a lot of follow-up questions, including asking students about what they heard when someone else had a response. This will get students talking to each other and not have every discussion come back to the leader.
  2. Share the chat transcript from your live sessions.  For each topic, prepare prompts to paste into the chat. This will help you keep the flow when people start chatting. And, after the live session you can clean it up and send it to the group.


References:

1 Thanks and acknowledgement go to Tracy Wright, MAEd at ETR, Camille Smith at Work In Progress Coaching, and Ken Ketch and Devta Kidd of GroupMind for their contributions to this article.

2 Huggett, Cindy. “Virtual Training Tools and Templates.” Main, ASTD Press, 2017, www.td.org/books/virtual-training-tools-and-templates.

3 Sherman, Lauren E., et al. “The Effects of Text, Audio, Video, and in-Person Communication on Bonding between Friends.” Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 1 July 2013, cyberpsychology.eu/article/view/4285/3330.

4 Situated Learning. Northern Illinois University Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center, www.niu.edu/facdev/_pdf/guide/strategies/situated_learning.pdf.