Among the many features that an LMS contains, chats and forums
are perhaps the most underused and under appreciated. Yet, academia
has long used discussion as the best way to build community and
promote learning. So can you, by leveraging the power of chat in
Great, you think! You finally got funding approval for an LMS or an
LCMS. Guess what? Now the hard work begins. There is a whole litany
of questions you must ask yourself: How do you define success? How
do you reconcile the needs of your learners with the goals of your
corporation? What are your major stakeholders expecting? Why did
your company buy this system in the first place?
Learning Circuits' survey on LMSs show that the main reason an LMS
was chosen was for tracking employee training completions and
compliance. Out of 181 readers who responded to the August 2006
survey, 58 percent of respondents said the most valuable feature of
their LMS was reporting, while more than 40 prcent said testing and
compliance tracking. Coming in towards the bottom of the list with
a dismal 14 percent response in perceived value was the integration
of collaborative tools.
Many times, corporations are guilty of not thinking strategically.
They may be more comfortable continuing to do what they have always
done, mirroring F2F training sessions in their online model. They
are concerned with ROI, which is met with such measurable benefits
as centralized training distribution, increased efficiency,
reusability of content, tracking and reporting functions. The value
of these features in your LMS cannot be underestimated, but there's
so much more.
What the academic world knows
It's becoming more common to design online academic programs that
encourage adult students to become actively engaged in their own
learning. This makes for an environment where learners feel valued
as individuals and for their experiences, which many argue
increases motivation and stimulates retention.
Individual classes are held over several weeks, period of time, and
many programs are sustained over months or years. During this
period of time, learners form communities of practice and use the
technology to support chats, discussions, and forums. These
communities are a metaphor, since they exist only in virtual
proximity and the commonality is in shared interests and goals
rather than an actual location or time zone. Memberships in
communities of practice may be sustained beyond the borders of any
single course, and members may merge and re-emerge with other
communities as they discover expanding interests through dialog.
Discussion forums are threaded postings that enable communication
in an asynchronous environment, while chats are an opportunity to
have an online conversation in real-time. Forums are more commonly
used because of the need to time-shift among participants, a
benefit of online learning for those adults juggling busy work and
personal schedules with their class work. Either means of
communication fosters a social environment where much of the
learning takes place through peer interaction and an instructor who
acts as facilitator and guide.
Don't call me, I'll call you
Remember those collaborative tools that only 14 percent of
corporate respondents considered valuable? At the top of the list
of collaborative tools are chats and forums; features that are
available in most LMSs. Unfortunately, they also are the most
underused and under appreciated features, and are considered by
some in the industry to be window-dressing with little practical
Yet, the benefit of building online learning communities among
learners is just as important in the corporate world as it is in
academic settings. Much of the real learning that takes place in
the workplace is occurs through informal, peer-to-peer interaction.
Many workers learn how to solve a problem by observing or asking a
fellow employee, not reading the technical manual or attending a
class. And much of that other employee's knowledge came over time
from the same type of informal learning, gathered outside of the
classroom without technical documentation.
Informal learning among employees can be incorporated into the
company knowledge base by capturing forum and chat discussions.
This is a strategic, people-oriented approach to the management of
learning. Knowledge in the workplace is like a boomerang, bouncing
among emails, water coolers, cell phones and mobile devices,
intranets, wikis, meetings, and memos. Creating LMS forums can help
centralize multiple inputs of information into a single tool that
employees can access.
Communities of practice can keep employees connected when sustained
beyond any single online class, supporting professional
relationships and mentoring. Most work-oriented formal learning
takes place just-in-time and over a brief duration,
placing the responsibility of knowledge transfer onto the course
designer. What corporations could learn from the academic world is
to shift that responsibility back onto the learner, and challenge
them to become responsible for their own continual learning. This
links into one of the core deliverables of an LMS, individualized
and focused employee development plans, preparing corporations for
the next wave: talent management.
Four easy ways to build online community, an
Considering my corporation's investment in its LMS, and as one of
the business owners of the LMS implementation, I wanted to maximize
the investment. The design phase of the LMS was the perfect time to
plan how to incorporate all of the available tools, including chats
and forums. Therefore, the content designer needed to understand
the intricacies of the system, and plan accordingly, one piece at a
time. Incorporating chat and forum features may not be one of your
initial go-live goals. (There's more than enough to keep an entire
staff jumping with getting users, enrollments, and content up and
running.) But it's not too early to start planning.
Here are four ways we got started.
- Developers designed chats and discussions into the fabric of
the lessons. They posed questions that encourage analysis or
troubleshooting and included discussion as a lesson assignment.
Discussion forums are the perfect avenues to give the learner the
needed time to think about something before responding, while
promoting peer-to-peer learning.
- Designers scheduled live chats on specific topics; for example,
a regular Ask the Expert session.
- Developers customized how forums were viewed by a user. For
example, the entry point for an employee into the LMS was set to
filter content based on login permissions and user groups or job
titles. That way, the learner was not overwhelmed by choices or
prompted to enter forums that were not meaningful to them.
- Designers followed a blended-learning model. Discussions were
just one part of the learning program; we maintained a variety to
avoid overload and to keep learners interested.
Reducing the risks
There are risks in the use of any type of electronic communications
tool within an organization, so establish clear guidelines to avoid
possible problems. Always offer user training on online etiquette
(or netiquette), with published guidelines and policies approved by
the human resources department, and have an administrator who will
enforce those guidelines.
When it comes to issues of confidentiality, discussion of
proprietary or customer information is strictly off-limits. Because
of this, allocate resources to monitor and maintain your chat
What about concerns over the technical accuracy of information in a
chat or forum? Consider the wiki model and allow discussions to be
self-regulating and self-correcting. Your most knowledgeable
employees will be more than happy to set the record straight, and
through dialog, new knowledge will probably come to light. If
resources are an issue, place a start and end dates on a forum to
avoid open-ended maintenance. Or, better yet, let members of the
community maintain their own forums.
Finally, become an outspoken advocate for community building within
your corporation. Many companies do not have a culture that
supports open communication and knowledge sharing. Make it okay to
have lively and honest discussions, and for employees to express
themselves in an open forum. Only by continually promoting the
benefits of community learning, upward to management and outward to
users of the LMS, will a culture of engagement and
self-determination take root. Spread the word across the
corporation and create other advocates in the other learning silos
of your organization.
Can we chat?
Make your plans now to become a strategic rather than reactive
learning organization. Don't use just part of the package to
recreate learning, mimicking the way F2F training has always
occurred. Leverage the available technology to (ironically) support
a humanistic, learner-centric, community of learning. Chats and
forums let learners communicate across the organization and
supplement knowledge with both peer-to-peer learning and expert
accessibility. Promote your vision of community learning and begin
by chatting up your LMS.