Content Doesn’t Matter, Community Does
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Content Doesn’t Matter, Community Does

Why do people pay to go to Ivy League universities?

It’s not for the content. Paying six figures to go to Harvard doesn’t give you access to any teaching materials that you couldn’t find yourself right now for cheap or for free. You can read all the same books that Princeton students do from the comfort of your own home. MIT has even made most of their course materials available online for free to anyone who wants them.

People spend six figures for the pleasure of putting an elite school on their resume, but also for the experience — for the professors, the study sessions, the late-night dorm room philosophy chats, the lasting alumni network. In short, for the community.

Content is cheap; community is valuable. It’s so valuable people will pay huge amounts of money to learn alongside their peers. So why do modern course developers expect people to pay for online courses that are passive video content? Lectures are only a part of what makes a valuable learning experience, but they're the part that online courses double down on.

In a world where content is freely available, the only way to provide real value to online learners is by providing them with a learning environment that’s communal and collaborative.

Online Students Are Being Short-Changed

As online courses have become easier to produce, designers have put too much effort into creating video content and too little effort into community building. The rise of for-profit ed-tech companies and massive open online courses (MOOCs) played a major role in the proliferation of the stale, yet common “video, video, quiz” format.

This heavy reliance on video content isn’t just psychologically isolating; it’s also not all that conducive to learning. A recent study by MIT found that MOOCs have failed to live up to their promise to democratize higher education and instead suffer from low-retention rates and a decline in enrollment over time.

As they currently exist, most MOOCs simply cannot compete with in-person learning, where many valuable learning experiences are derived from collaborative activities. A student studying marketing at university, for example, will attend lectures on the theory of marketing, the history, and the different models of marketing. Those are all important components of understanding how to be a marketer, but there are many other components that can’t be taught through lectures, like how to manage stakeholders, how to communicate and present ideas effectively, and how to create compelling campaigns. These skills are learned through discussions, group projects, and meaningful feedback on their work.

So why are most online marketing courses just a series of videos illustrating various marketing concepts? Students are missing out on all those creative and social skills that you can only get via social interaction.

This emphasis on content over community keeps online learning from competing with a classical university education. It’s also making courses far less valuable to consumers.

The Internet Has Democratized Access to Content

The internet has made finding quality content easy and inexpensive. While this is great for anyone who wants to find information fast, on a higher level, it has also had the effect of devaluing good content.

Fifteen years ago, there was a lot less content online. If you wanted to learn about a specific subject, you had to intentionally seek out a dedicated online course. People were pretty easily satisfied: if the content was good, they were happy.

But today, the internet is flooded with content. Blogs, social media, Wikipedia, and, of course, YouTube. You can learn to cook an egg, do your taxes, or become an expert on the history of early medieval Spain with the click of a button. Everything you want to know about everything is already available on YouTube. For free.

As a result, people are much less disposed to pay to learn when they can find the same materials online for free. If you want to make a really good course and even charge money for it, you need to be better than YouTube.

Of course, when content is free, it’s also easy to take for granted. Most MOOCs have an average completion rate of just 12.6%. You can attribute some of that to tourists who are just signing up to check it out, but there is also very little incentive to see the course through. People start the course, find the information they were looking for, then take off, never to return.

So how do you deliver value in a world where words and video just aren’t enough? By facilitating a great learning experience that’s more than just a content delivery system.

The Real Value Is in Communal Learning

Creating opportunities for person-to-person learning is the most effective way to make online courses more worthwhile.

Collaborative learning, where students learn with and from one another, has huge benefits for individual learners. Students retain more, develop a deeper understanding of complex subjects, and are more psychologically invested in completing their course work when they learn in a collaborative environment.

It’s difficult to learn complicated concepts simply by listening to a lecture. It helps to ask questions, discuss concerns, and hear the concept explained in multiple ways from different people. In the book The Skillful Teacher, Stephen Brookfield wrote that small peer groups act as a filter through which the students have their assumptions checked and perspectives reconsidered. “It seems that students experience critical thinking primarily as a social learning process,” he says. “They say they don’t get very far on their own in trying to uncover and check their assumptions.”

In a university setting, this learning happens not just in class but also between lectures, during study groups, and even in the cafeteria. None of that is happening in an online course, where students may not speak to one another without prompting.

So how do we encourage student interactions remotely?

What Community Looks Like in Online Learning

In an online learning environment creating community has to be more purposeful and structured to make up for the lack of organic collaborative opportunities. Here are some examples of how it can look like when you encourage community among students online:

It looks like Teams or Group Projects

When students have the opportunity to work together towards a common goal, they have a powerful incentive to stay engaged with the material: social motivation. Studies have shown that social presence and collaboration can boost the effectiveness of online learning far more than relying on a student’s intrinsic motivation.

It Looks Like Incentives and Friendly Competition

One easy way to amplify this commonality is through competition. Divide students into small groups and have them compete against each other to earn points by completing assignments. Or award a prize for the best group project. Even a simple incentive can spur students to help one another succeed.

It’s important to note though that these competitions should not be set up so that doing worse than a peer will hurt your final results - that leads to poor collaboration and community. Instead, award prices for exceptional work, and no penalties.

It looks like online forums for discussion

A simple way to encourage students to interact more meaningfully with the materials is by giving students a platform to discuss course materials, ask questions, and chat about unrelated subjects. Free tools like Slack, our discussion activity, or even closed Facebook Groups, make it more simple than ever to set up and moderate discussions.

It’s not enough to simply provide a forum and hope a fruitful discussion happens; it’s the responsibility of the instructor to set clear expectations for use, provide thoughtful discussion prompts, and moderate comments to prevent abuse.

It Looks like Peer review

Collaborative assessment, where students trade and review each other’s work, allows students to learn in multiple ways: by creating content, receiving feedback on that content, and giving feedback on other students’ content. It can even be used in very large classes to make sure that students get individualized feedback.

It looks like Alumni Networks

Alumni networks are a valuable part of the university experience that can be harnessed online to play off people’s group loyalties. Course graduates could be added to a group Slack channel, where they can interact with other alumni and ask for help or professional connections. An online alumni network benefits students long after the course has been completed. 

Online Courses Must Evolve to Stay Competitive

Nobody has ever said their favorite part of university was sitting in their room alone, doing homework. Yet somehow we have managed to distill a great deal of online learning to basically that: thousands of people sitting at home alone, staring at a screen.

By fostering online communities, we can help bring back all of the good stuff — deep discussions, friendships, and community-based learning — that make in-person education so valuable. Only then can online learning truly compete with a six-figure education.

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