Building More Impactful Virtual Learning Communities

Cole Hoover

Cole Hoover is the Director of the MovingWorlds Institute.

Virtual learning technology and communities are not a compromise or a back-up plan. As we’ve learned in operating global learning communities for social impact professionals, we have found that the right virtual platforms present opportunities to increase access, improve outcomes, and engage more diverse participants. As you move to virtual — whether that is coaching your peers, training your employees, or upskilling community members — we’re sharing the lessons we’ve learned to help you make virtual training even better and more effective.

Certainly, the transition to virtual can be intimidating, especially as it’s happened so suddenly as a result of COVID. But as you’ll see, it can actually lead to better outcomes for the people you are working with. While a virtual environment does miss an in-person element that is irreplaceable, there are a number of benefits unique to virtual learning. Namely, it allows you to cater to different learning styles more easily, manage really big personalities that can dominate group sessions, and capture more point-in-time feedback to drive data-driven improvements.

Simply put, virtual training is an asset, not a back-up. We put the Director of our Institute, Cole Hoover, in the hot seat to share what goes into creating virtual learning communities that thrive. Here are 9 best practices to keep in mind:

#1. Mindset matters

Have some fun and take time to celebrate.

Particularly if you’re going virtual by necessity rather than by choice, it can feel like a second-best option compared to the in-person world you’re used to. But virtual is anything but a back-up option. While it’s true that virtual learning can be challenging, it also empowers you to do things that aren’t possible in-person.

As the leader of any virtual community, set the tone from the beginning: virtual training enables things that otherwise would not be possible. More diverse populations can participate in equal environments. Every individual can be catered to in order to improve their learning outcomes. Take the time to communicate to your stakeholders that virtual learning is challenging, but ultimately worth doing. It takes commitment for a virtual community to thrive, and people will get out of it what they put into it. 

Action Tip: Securing buy-in and commitment up-front from participants to do their part to make the community thrive will lead to more meaningful experiences for everyone. Ideas to help include:

  1. Having people sign a pledge to stay engaged
  2. Start your training(s) with an input session where people can share their anticipated challenges and upsides of virtual engagements
  3. Create a shared guidebook, with participation by all, that sets the stage for why the virtual learning community matters and how to stay engaged

#2. Make training sessions memorable

In our guide to behavioral economics for social impact, we highlight some of the ways that we can design programs and solutions that account for actual human behavior. In the bestselling book The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact, authors Chip and Dan Heath share how these same insights apply to design more meaningful experiences.

Moments become more meaningful and memorable when they invoke the following:

  1. Elevation 
  2. Pride
  3. Insight
  4. Connection

Keeping these elements in mind will help you design experiences that have more staying power and better learning outcomes.

Action tip: In advance of your session, host a quick brainstorming session with your team (and potentially even a learning community member or two) to think through these questions:

  1. How can we create “elevation” by increasing sensory appeal, raising stakes, and/or evoking emotion?
  2. Can we share “insight” that helps people see from a new angle, trip over the truth, and/or experience another reality?
  3. How can we create a sense of “pride” by recognizing members, making people feel courageous, and/or showing progress?
  4. How can we develop more powerful connections by creating shared meaning and/or deepening ties?

#3. Create a “run of show” and TEST

Enlist help, whether it’s a fellow presenter or a background facilitator. Align your team with a “run of show” that clearly outlines lines of responsibility and other key details as outlined in the table below.

Action tip: Before the training, test your tools. Also, have learners test the tools, too. Then, during the training, make sure someone is in charge of making sure the tech is working so if there is an issue, the facilitator can keep the group engaged while group-wide or individual-facing issues can be resolved.

#4. Be strategic with technology

More tech isn’t necessarily better – be strategic with the tools you choose to use, and when to use them. Polls are cool, but they can also be a distraction. Chat is great, but it can distract people from the main presentation. 

The right technolog, like Mural, can really help improve virtual sessions

Before you start rolling out technology ideas, first map out your desired learning outcomes for the session. Particularly in a virtual setting, it’s important to think through how every minute will ladder to those outcomes. You want to make sure that for each outcome, participants are going through a learning process: setting goals for learning, learning a new concept, internalizing it, and then teaching it back. Next, audit the way you are planning to deliver the training. If you identify a potential gap in the learning process, you can then choose the specific type of technology that can best address it.

We have found that the following tools are particularly helpful at different parts of the learning journey:

  1. Baseline: Using surveys and assessments to understand goals and capture baselines
  2. Pre-work: Online community and learning platforms to distribute background reading and check completion
  3. Live training: Using enhanced video and presentation technology to augment Zoom presentations. Providing individuals their own online journals to give space for reflection. Hosting a group virtual brainstorm and tracking ideas on a shared board to create interaction and get point in time feedback
  4. Wrap-up: Polls, shared spaces, and virtual breakout groups to create opportunities for people to teach back and highlight their learning 
  5. Follow-up: Surveys to capture opportunities for improvement, which can then be used to extend learning online.

Action tip: Pump the breaks. Don’t use cool tech just to use cool tech. Instead, define a “job to be done”, and then find the best tech to do it.

#5. Be flexible, but hold members accountable

We know that life happens. Particularly across time zones, not everyone will be able to join every session at the same time. Build that assumption into your operations and make it easy for people to stay engaged even if they can’t attend live.

That being said, you still want as many people as possible to join each live session. You can borrow a concept from behavioral economics to help encourage that behavior: defaulting. We know that people like to “not think” and will choose the easiest option available. For example, in countries that incorporate organ donation registration into the process of getting a drivers’ license, the opt-in rate is about 80% when the default option for organ donation is “yes,” but only 20% when the default option is “no” and opting-in requires an additional step or action. Your goal should be making regular attendance the default option. Further, create “Accountability circles” where sub groups within your learning community create tighter bonds and help hold each other accountable. 

Action tip: To do this, create events to block out times on everybody’s calendars, remind them over email of upcoming sessions, and check-in on mobile-based platforms if people are consistently missing. To ensure that attendance is the default, make it the participant’s responsibility to tell everyone if they aren’t able to attend a specific session, and why. That being said, make it easy to stay engaged even after an absence by recording all live sessions and sharing them out with the slides/notes afterwards. You can also add a specific prompt and questions that encourages those that missed the session to engage with the content.

#6. Mix it up and experiment

Some platforms, like Zoom, enable virtual “Breakout rooms”. Collaboration tools, like Mural, create virtual sticky-note surfaces. Poll Everywhere makes short polls easy.

Using Breakouts and interactive docs

Mailing people notebooks, tactile kits, and/or other fidget and creative devices in advance – and then integrating these into your sessions – lets people engage different senses. For every main session designed to generate a learning outcome, there should be elements of goal-setting, new information sharing (i.e. presentation, reading, etc. – and ideally a combination to address different learning styles), interaction, reflection, and share-back. 

Keep in mind that this can happen across multiple platforms. Having a separate platform just for your community that’s closed off from the chatter/distractions of other external social networks is something we’ve found to be helpful. Our advice is to experiment and be open to using multiple communication methods together. For example, in addition to our custom community site and Zoom webinars, we also move shorter check-ins and reminders to WhatsApp. WhatsApp group chats let us meet people where they already are and either provide them a nudge to take an action that will benefit themselves/the community, or help them to get important updates or information they may have missed on another platform that they aren’t checking as regularly.

Action tip: Keep a list of the experiments you run, and their outcomes. Was virtual brainstorming with sticky notes a big hit, while responses to polls remained low? Do WhatsApp messages get faster responses than discussion board mentions? Make note of that, and revisit these learnings over time to better understand the way your virtual community prefers to engage. 

#7. Bring in experts in authentic and relevant ways

Virtual environments make it easier than ever to connect across time and distance, and you can use that to your advantage by incorporating relevant guest speakers and experts into your training. Your community will have the chance to interact with these speakers in a much more intimate way than if they were in the audience listening to an in-person presentation on stage. Virtual tech shortens the distance between the presenter and the individuals, making it easier to get to real, authentic, and direct interactions.

Action Tip: Invite guest speakers in ways that make it easy for them to simply drop in. When making the ask, be sure to send context up front about what you’d like them to speak about, and who the audience will be. To minimize preparation time, get rid of the formal stage presentation (that info is usually online anyway), and instead, create a meaningful Q&A environment where your learning community can ask direct questions to help translate the subject matter expertise of the speaker into their direct work.

#8. Use data to keep getting better and deliver more value

There are lots of ways, and points in time, to capture data. Common tools include:

  1. Before: Surveys before to capture baselines
  2. During: Polls, microsurveys, reactions, 
  3. After: Surveys, journal completions, feedback 

This data should be used with the clear goal of capturing feedback to ensure learning outcomes are being achieved. If certain outcomes aren’t being achieved, you can dig deeper by auditing your approach again like you did in step 4. 

Action Tip: Engage the right person on your team to be in charge of monitoring inputs before, during, and after your training so you can use it to improve in real-time, as well as after.

#9. Keep the learning going

Perhaps the best part about being virtual in your learning is that you can keep the learning going. Move key topics to your online learning community to keep the discussion going. Send more videos and reading related to the topics that people were the most engaged in. Assign smaller accountability groups to further explore any of the questions that came up and then teach back. 

Use creative tools, like Flipgrid for people to share back in more engaging ways.

Action tip: Before you start a training, have an action plan for what you’re going to do after to keep the learning going.

In Summary

The technology enabling us to extend meaningful training experiences online means that we include more people, better support all learning styles, and can drive data-driven improvements. As you navigate the transition to virtual, keep these 10 tips in mind:

  1. Mindset matters
  2. Make training sessions memorable
  3. Create a “run of show,” and TEST
  4. Be strategic with technology
  5. Be flexible, but hold members accountable
  6. Mix it up and experiment
  7. Bring in experts in authentic and relevant ways
  8. Use data to keep getting better and deliver more value
  9. Keep the learning going