The online learning environment is a convenient and flexible way for employees to engage with professional development. Regardless of location or time, participants can upskill and develop expertise in their own time, at their own pace.
While there are many benefits of online learning for both employees and organizations, the learning experience can feel isolating for participants. For learning designers, the challenge is to create opportunities for social interaction for online learners in ways that will add value.
In this article, we will explore why discussion between learners is beneficial, and consider how to incorporate more opportunities for interaction with online courses.
Why communication between learners is beneficial
Whether learning takes place online, face-to-face, or uses blended methods, communication between participants is a crucial part of the process.
The 70:20:10 model for professional learning has become an increasingly popular learning tool. The theory is simple and recognizes that the majority of learning opportunities occur outside of formal lessons.
According to the model, social learning accounts for 20% of all learning opportunities. While many interactions will occur naturally, those responsible for learning and development in organizations can also take steps to facilitate discussion.
Research suggests that asking the right questions is a helpful place to begin. In the journal article, Designing Discussion Questions for Online Adult Learning, Berge and Muilenburg explain this concept in more detail:
‘Online learning environments, web-based or otherwise, are often more learner-centered than traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms. Online classrooms that use computer conferencing are discussion-oriented, authentic, problem and project-based, inquiry focused, and collaborative (Berge, 1997). In this type of environment, it is usually more important for the instructor to ask the “right questions” than to give the “right answers”.’
How to make online learning more interactive
There is no doubt that it is challenging to create authentic opportunities for social interaction with online courses. However, learning and development professionals can enhance the online experience. The following suggestions might be a useful starting point:
1. Choose or design modules with the right questions
As explained above, the questions and activities set in an online course will determine both the quality of learning and interaction between participants. It is essential that those responsible for learning and development review the lessons they choose for employees to engage with, and ensure that they are asking the “right” kind of questions.
But what does this mean? Berge and Muilenburg go on to explain that the quality of questions asked of participants can be assessed using Bloom’s Taxonomy.
Questions that generate more interaction between participants tend to encourage higher-order thinking skills, such as creativity, reflection, and analysis. If participants are asked to recall facts as part of a learning activity or asked to consume content, they will have very little reason to engage with each other.
2. Make use of discussion boards
In a review on making classroom discussions more interactive, Amy Peterson points to discussion boards as a handy tool. She explains that in a traditional classroom, a select few learners participate in classroom discussion, while the others remain silent.
With online discussion boards, each participant can contribute to the debate without the social pressure of answering in front of a large group. When online courses use discussion boards effectively, this means more learners can actively participate in the learning process and engage with other students.
Another advantage with discussion boards is that the size of the group can be controlled, allowing for closer interaction between participants when the class size is smaller. The learners can form closer bonds with fewer people, and it becomes much easier for them to collaborate. Groups can also rotate to give depth to interactions and help participants to engage in a variety of different learning interactions.
Again, asking the right questions is key to facilitating high-quality discussion. Discussion prompts that are open-ended will be particularly helpful, and those which encourage students to give real-life examples. Students can also lead the conversation, and use prompts to guide the dialogue.
3. Create opportunities for face-to-face interaction between learners
An online course alone can offer learners many opportunities for discussion and interaction. However, learning and development professionals can build upon these discussions either physically in the workplace or via video link.
Although not always possible, physical interactions are preferable as they enable participants to experience the full range of communication when interacting with each other. For example, they can read each other’s body language and pick up on changes in tone of voice.
4. Build in opportunities for reflection on learning
Learning and development professionals can also build upon the discussions generated in an online course by providing more opportunities for participants to reflect on learning.
A well-structured online course will include opportunities to reflect on the learning process. However, it might be helpful to allocate time for further reflection and discussion beyond the online course.
For example, if a module is focused on teaching participants a particular skill, they could be encouraged to apply their learning during the following week. At the next team catch up, they could bring their reflections along to generate discussion.