Earlier this week I attended the UPCEA SOLA+R conference, which brings higher education faculty and staff together to explore what they call “the online enterprise” — the strategic and operational work comprising online learning initiatives.

Dr. Bharat N. Anand, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and the Senior Associate Dean and faculty chair of HBX, joined the conference as the keynote speaker. He shared the three principles that cultivate successful learning experiences:

  1. Real World Problems: Contextualized learning experiences help students connect what they’re learning with what they know.
  2. Active Learning: Providing continuous ways to engage encourages students to “lean in” to their lesson and make deeper mental connections.
  3. Social Learning: Peer-to-peer connectedness fosters community, and collaborative learning provides a unique way for students to engage with the material.

These principles can serve as a guiding light in online learning initiatives — if you check in with them often. Even Professor Anand says that despite having been part of the team that distilled these three principles, they still forgot to incorporate Social Learning for the first several months.

Social Learning is likely the principle most often forgotten as universities strive to increase online program enrollments and “break even” on investment in online programs. But as Dr. Anand expanded, “The promise of digital is not greater reach, but greater connectedness.” Peer-to-peer interaction stimulates individual success through fuller engagement with the learning experiences — and if students enjoy and succeed in your program, you’ve gained the most powerful tool for increasing future enrollments: positive word of mouth.

“The promise of digital is not greater reach, but greater connectedness.” — Bharat N. Anand

Fostering Connectedness in Online Courses

Discussion boards, project sharing, and live virtual presentations are common solutions to encourage peer-to-peer interaction in online learning environments. Many of our clients, and I’m sure many of you, have explored these methods; some with success… and others not as much. How can we increase success rates?

Dr. Anand shared an interesting insight they found during their forays into adding an online discussion element to their courses: 3% of learners created 97% of the content.

Why did so few students participate in online discussion if peer-to-peer connectedness is so important? Fear. Fear of being judged for questions that are too “basic”, “stupid”, “esoteric”.

Harvard combatted that fear by adding the ability to tag question types. This gave students more control over their image, e.g. “Look, I know this question is basic, so here’s the tag, but I’m going to ask it anyway.”

Here’s something else interesting: instructor fear of social learning. What happens if students engage one another in Q&A directly and share incorrect answers? Well, while this is often happens at first — of course creating an immediate desire for the instructor to jump in and “save the day!” — Dr. Anand shared that students typically collaborated and reached the desired answer (from the instructor’s point of view) in five or fewer interactions.

Through Social Learning and collaboration, students build personal connections, engage the material at a deeper level, and have a better chance at an overall positive learning experience. As they say, “The best way to learn is to teach,” or in Latin, “Docendo discimus / By teaching, we learn.”

What Else to Plan for Before Moving Online

Whether you’re moving content to the digital medium because you want to take advantage of the latest technology to engage students, or because your organization is requiring it, careful forethought and planning is an essential part of the process.

We recently created an ebook to share tips from our Learning Design Studio on what other factors you should consider when you’re planning to move learning to the digital medium. If you’re thinking about digitalizing learning for the first time or the twentieth time, I hope this resource helps you ensure your next online learning project is successful.