Understanding Online Learning Communities

dreamstime_xs_37842290Online communities – often based around a discussion forum – are one of the most cited features in the area of social learning, but they are also some of the most difficult to get established.  Most of us have experience of entering forum ghost towns, with those tell-tale signs that things aren’t too healthy, such as a flurry of activity a few months ago, with nothing since; or lots of questions, but no answers.

Many years ago, when I spoke at a social learning conference I suggested that L&D go where the conversations are already happening, rather than trying to engineer them from scratch; and I’ve seen plenty of examples where that’s worked.  But there will be times when we do need to take the lead, particularly if the business does not have much experience of self-starting virtual collaboration.

There is an increasing body of research that gives us some pointers to creating the right conditions for forums to flourish and coincidentally, over the last few days, two pieces of interesting content have surfaced in my social media feeds that I want to share.  I will cover the first today.

In her posting, “Tribes, Flocks and Single Servings – The Evolution of Digital Behavior”, Rahaf Harfoush presents her own framework about the types of online communities that we typically find.  I found her observations valuable in terms of making me think about the purpose of the different types of social learning communities we might want to cultivate and how these might set some expectations about the behaviour we would anticipate seeing.  This might also lead us to consider what facilitation skills we might need to adopt to cultivate them.  Each part of her framework is based on two factors – engagement length and intimacy level.

Categories of Online Communities (Source: Rahaf Harfoush, 2016)

Tribes are online communities with a high level of intimacy and long term engagement.  The people tend to know each other well and as well as a shared history, they might also have a unique vocabulary.  As a result they are highly engaged and active within the group.  Even if there is a high turnover of members, the community continues to thrive.  Rahaf suggests that a Facebook group that is focussed on a specific activity that is not time-specific would be a good example of a tribe.

In terms of social learning, this is probably the sort of community we’d love to see, but always struggle to establish.  In my experience, these are the corporate communities that successfully self-started due to the members’ own shared interests and where L&D should offer support, such as providing curated assets to support the ongoing conversations.  It might also be possible to establish role-based communities to enable those with similar roles to develop their own “tribes”.


The ecosystem online community also enjoys long term engagement, but with a lower level of intimacy.  Rahaf uses Twitter as an example to highlight how these groups offer a place to capture engagement, but where there is no specific goal or shared value.  You can interact with lots of people in an ecosystem, but that engagement isn’t very intimate.  Rahaf also suggests that with some people having many 100s – if not 1,000s – of “friends” on Facebook, you could argue that the more general use of this platform would constitute an ecosystem.  I feel the same about LinkedIn.

Looking at social learning within corporations, the use of Yammer or Jabber platforms would probably fall into the ecosystem category.  As with Facebook, there might be some Yammer or Jabber groups that bear the characteristics of a tribe, but for the most part, we are looking at an ecosystem.  And in my experience, the general lack of a shared focus presents many challenges for establishing and sustaining the learning potential of these platforms.  As L&D professionals, we should strive to create groups that feel more like tribes as a way to kick-starting learners’ use of such tools.  This means encouraging like-minded people to move their learning conversations online and looking out for – and nurturing – conversations that have the potential to develop deeper.


Flocks are online communities where there is high intimacy, but over a short period of engagement; quite often triggered by a response to a current event.  After a flurry of online activity, things quieten down and eventually fade away to nothing.  Rahaf refers to the use of hashtags (#) as sign that the group is a flock.

In the world of corporate L&D, I’ve seen flocks appear in response to a specific event, e.g. an IT upgrade, or a particular learning campaign, e.g. compliance training.  They are always great to see, but perhaps we shouldn’t be so disappointed when they disappear.  In the case of the latter, it was actually a surprise to see the flock appear as it did.  If you are thinking about establishing training programme specific communities, then it’s perhaps reasonable to only expect to see flock behaviour from each cohort.  As an L&D facilitator, you should always look for opportunities to extend the engagement, possibly moving this from the flock to an ecosystem community.

Single serving

The single-serving online community has a low level of intimacy, as well as a short period of engagement.  As such, user contributions are transactional in nature and generally occur just the once.  Rahaf cites platforms such as TripAdvisor and Yelp as examples of these.

In terms of social learning, I’ve seen evidence of single-serving participation in very general forums where someone poses a question which is quickly answered, with no further debate.  As we embed ratings, recommendations and comments into our learning management systems, then this functionality will offer another type of single-serving, as learners seek out peer-reviewed training options.  And thinking particularly about sites such as TripAdvisor, we can see how the use of badges (and other forms of gamification) might be used to encourage members to extend their engagement and perhaps increase the level of intimacy.

I’ve summarised my thoughts about how we could use the four community types to support social learning in the diagram below.

Categories of Online Communities and their Use for Social Learning

This brings me onto Rahaf’s concluding observation that online communities might well exhibit two or more of these types, either simultaneously or evolving from one to another over time.  As with all continuums, the key factor is to recognise the characteristics of each point and to support these accordingly.


Understanding Online Learning Communities

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