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 your LMS.

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 application.

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 example

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Designers scheduled live chats on specific topics; for example, a regular Ask the Expert session.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 forums.

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.