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Removing the feeling of isolation for online students

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by Lauren Hart Piper , Vice President, Product Management and Marketing,

Online students often suffer from a sense of being separated from other students taking the same course due to a lack of physical interactions. This is an important issue and one of the main reasons students fail to complete an online program. In order to ensure students who are taking classes online do not feel isolated, program directors, faculty and staff need to increase student engagement by providing online students with a sense of belonging to the campus. When these attempts are effective, students are more likely to stay focused and less likely to become distracted.

Some of the best ways to achieve student engagement is through the use of modern technology such as the following:

· Private social networks. A private social network allows online students to connect with other students as well as with program directors and staff outside of the classroom. A social network set up by your institution is a better option than using an existing site as you have more control over features including the site’s layout, administration, and atmosphere in general.

· Gamification. Games are a great way to motivate students to continue learning and practice material learned in class. Students use their knowledge to reach goals and can win badges, rewards, points or coupons. The activities need not be complex; students usually enjoy and find value in even the simplest games such as being the number one student who comments or votes the most in a given community.

Using social business software for student engagement is essential for the success of your online programs. Any college or university that has an established online program(s) or is just in the process of building online classes needs to include an enterprise engagement platform that will help motivate learners outside of the virtual classroom and, in turn, increase retention levels.

Lauren Hart Piper is VP of Product Management and Marketing for Enterprise Hive. She has launched numerous customer service, sales and marketing and product management social collaboration community solutions.

Defining Community Requirements that Scale, Part 2

Published on June 09, 2014, by Lauren Hart Piper , Vice President, Product Management and Marketing

   (Part One of this series can be found here.)

Successful communities don’t just happen, they’re the end result of careful planning and a solid understanding of how well an organization anticipates its members needs as the community grows and matures, yet many organizations fail to plan effectively, often resulting in communities which burn out quickly.  As The Community Roundtable covered in their companion post on their blog, it’s critical to begin your community planning with an understanding of your community’s user segments and the level of depth at which people contribute and interact with one another during various stages of their growth as members from lurker through to heavy contributor.

In this post, we’ll examine two common factors organizations frequently ignore when defining their community requirements: the importance of outside influences on the community, and factoring in an organization’s culture into the design of the community.

ACCOUNT FOR OUTSIDE INFLUENCES

Social tools are not immune to outside influences, and organizations need to understand how those influences, be they HR policy changes, new regulations, or something like the privacy scare that Facebook experienced can affect the interactions inside the community.  The causes of these changes can be difficult to identify, and often impossible to predict, but being able to monitor member’s activities across different groups can help organizations to understand how these dynamics affect individuals or the service as a whole.  To better plan for the effects of outside influences it is helpful to think about scale and function of a user’s activity.  This scaling and functionality can be broken down into four principal stages:

Personal – Most services start out with very few people in the system and users are sharing information outwards, without a concrete expectation of what will happen.  People will identify groups of interest to them personally and monitor the activity within those groups until they’re ready to contribute themselves.

(Pro-tip: this is a great time to leverage individual connections to seed your community with content and interactions. Don’t hesitate to ask to colleagues or involved users to share info or comment on content.)

Serendipity – At this stage, the search functionality within the community may be rather rudimentary, and interpersonal connections happen mostly by chance.  Members will join communities during this phase to get help with challenges they’re facing and identify those who can help them.

Mature Social Tool – At this stage, the community becomes a true social tool, used by its members as you intended.  Engagement and adoption are strong and the community begins mapping to those who are beyond the early adopter stage.

Complex Social System – People are actively using the tools available, but not necessarily in the manner in which they were intended.  It’s often these unexpected, fringe use-cases where the community provides the most value.  Here, outside drivers often exert a strong influence.  If there are too few objects or conversations in the system at this stage, the community can become very narrow and burn out quickly as users will have run through all their ideas, and activity quickly wanes.

As communities join the “One Year Club”, they may expect to hit the 1:9:90 rule (1% of the people in the service are contributing information, 9% are editing and managing the information and 90% are consuming).  In the State of Community Management 2013, TheCR reported that this longstanding rule of thumb is actually inaccurate. They found that on average the typical community saw engagement that was closer to 15:35:55 (15% of the people in the service are contributing information, 35% are editing and managing the information and 55% are consuming) and top performing communities looked more like 17:57:26. The biggest factor in this shift seems to be active and engaging community managers.

It’s easy to get your early adopters to contribute and share, but those people only represent 2-5% of your population at most.  To get the other 95% actively involved, your community managers need to make adjustments to develop that social comfort level which fosters sharing.  If you can identify and hit on the community’s main pain points, people will begin sharing more openly, and the community will self-sustain as users look to it as a source of solutions, and you’ll move closer to balanced engagement.

MAPPING COMMUNITY TO YOUR ORGANIZATION’S CULTURE

Rather than using the word “trust” as a guiding principle for designing and developing community, The Community Roundtable instead suggests using the term “comfort”, a concept whose definition people can more readily agree on. Focus on understanding these three areas of Social Comfort:

Comfort with People –  Social comfort with others and knowing who they are and what they will do with the information a person shares is an important prerequisite to engagement and information sharing.

Comfort with the Software – People need to understand the implications of the actions they take within the software (e.g. what starring something means, what a ‘like’ implies, etc.).  Do these actions imply approval or simply interaction?  Organizations have different culturally-derived understandings of these actions, which can make a universal prescription for how to handle them problematic.

(Pro-tip: Having a “Read Me First” or glossary of common terms and action can improve engagement, especially in a community with highly-specialized language or software. Including this reference allows members to learn at their own speed, and encourages the proper use of both the tools and the terminology.)

Comfort with the Content –  The various components which go into the creation of content require that the user have a comfort level with those tools.  The tools need to reflect the different types of interactions discussed earlier for both small and large group collaboration.  One to one, one to few, few to few, one to many, few to many and many to many all have different interaction needs which social software must support.

Most communities start as a one-size-fits all solution which lacks sufficient depth to cover these different use cases.  The people who design and build them usually don’t have sufficient experience with social interaction design to understand the UI complexities involved, or how to iterate or test them.  Moreover, they often don’t have the experience necessary to understand how culture interplays within the design or how the organization interacts with external people.  They buy one-size-fits all solutions or design to what they believe is an accepted standard without understanding what their organization’s unique needs truly are.

Careful consideration of social interaction complexity, outside influences, and company culture when defining the requirements for your communities will ensure that they’ll ramp quickly, encourage contribution and engagement; and prove resilient in the face of change.  Understanding what your organization’s unique needs are and then mapping what you buy or build back to those needs is the formula for successful communities.

What type of outside influences have impacted your community’s development and how did you deal with them?  Were your organization’s culture and social comfort levels factors you considered in the planning stages or did you have to pivot six months or a year post-launch to account for them?

(Note: Check out Part One of this two-part post over on TheCR’s blog. There we discuss user types in communities and how varying depths of use and contribution influence a community’s success.)

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