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How to leverage formal and informal communication in online learning

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Student engagement is the top tool in the learning designer’s arsenal. But it doesn’t always take place in expected ways. Learn to leverage informal student communication methods.

In a shifted learning landscape, educators are concerned that learners will be isolated, disengaged and have less favorable learning outcomes. 

But top online learning methods and techniques like social, active and student-centered design ensure that learners are keyed into the learning environment and kept as engaged as possible. 

These learning principles have something important in common: all call for increased opportunities for online student communication and collaboration, be it between classmates, or learners and course instructors. 

“You can still have a rich, social learning community. Through the effective use of both formal and informal tools and channels, you can foster a lot of the magic of human connection that has gotten lost in a crude move to the online space,” says Hubble Studios Founder and CEO Hannes Geldenhuys. 

We’ll dive into the differences between formal and informal communication in learning, and how you can reap the benefits of both in your institution. 

Formal vs informal communication: What’s the difference?

Forums, Q&As, breakout groups, group work, and peer-to-peer feedback: These are all methods for online student collaboration and communication. 

“Learning is a social activity, and cohort-driven learning is a very social thing,” explains Hannes. 

These methods for online student collaboration help create an environment where rich learning can take place. With more interaction with their peers, opportunities to put newfound knowledge into practice, and feedback loops that check on their understanding, learners are better equipped to achieve meaningful learning outcomes

Between message boards, forums, virtual office hours, and lecture Q&As, there are numerous tools available to facilitate student communication. It’s up to institutions to gauge learners’ needs and then identify which are the most relevant and impactful. 

With channels of communication opened up, teachers can provide insights and advice to students, offer up encouragement for a job well done and clear up possible misconceptions. But learners can support each other too by sharing their thinking and their approaches to problems. By asking questions openly, they can also help alleviate each other’s anxieties. 

But as learning communities emerge around online courses, so will informal spaces for communication and collaboration. Be it student WhatsApp or Signal groups, Slack channels, or even Facebook groups, learners, and sometimes even instructors, create forums to engage outside of the formal learning environment. 

The shift off of the platform doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a lack of functionality in the formal learning environment, explains Hannes. Pointing to a past course Hubble Studios collaborated on, Hannes noted how learners formed their own WhatsApp groups, despite excellent channels for online student communication built into the platform. And the informal communication worked very well. 

“Because it’s more informal, the style of communication changed. People are more vulnerable in informal channels. People connect more emotionally,” he notes.

Alternative spaces for online student communication emerge for myriad reasons. Sometimes educators set them up themselves, hoping to cut through internal bureaucracy and lengthy processes for formal channels. Other times learners might prefer them over clunky forums that lack the functionality they need: like threaded chats, or the ability to establish private working groups. Or, they may simply prefer a tool they’re already familiar with, that’s easily accessible on their devices, and that they’ve already incorporated into daily living. 

Sometimes it’s because learners are looking for a private place to vent, to share relevant articles, or to veer off topic on a niche that really interests them. Others want to share tips on exams. Others want to campaign for a change in deadline. 

“The life of any community happens mostly in the informal space,” says Hannes. 

He continues: “For me, it’s part of what’s tough about the move to remote. Informal is easier in person. Because we’re all online, the need to ensure that we can support those informal channels becomes all the more highlighted.”

The benefits of informal student communication methods

But embracing informal student communication methods can be a tricky pill to swallow. With issues of data protection at stake, questions of compliance, and the idea of unregulated learning spaces potentially running rogue, it can be an uncomfortable balance. 

Let’s imagine an online MBA that’s run through a prestigious US university. Learners are divided into groups for an assignment. Some enjoyed collaborating together so much that they continued for the duration of the program. 

They form a WhatsApp group where they share resources, ask and answer each other’s questions and prepare for their assessments. The group becomes a valuable tool, and members add their classmates until eventually, the group grows to include the bulk of the class. It becomes a pivotal space for learning and support. Then two learners have a falling out. One is a group admin and kicks the other off of the group. They miss out on further opportunities for peer learning and complain to the university.

With scenarios like this in mind, it’s easy to understand why institutions might be nervous about what they cannot control for, particularly given WhatsApp’s latest update, which gives group admins power to moderate activities. “The informal creates all sorts of other social dynamics. The formal allows you to drive more hierarchical compliance,” says Hannes.

This discomfort isn’t unfamiliar to Hannes. As a business leader, it’s tempting to call for compliance within the workplace. Reflecting on the Hubble Studios team’s shift to using Slack as a tool for informal engagement and collaboration, Hannes shares: “I could look at this new informal channel and say one of two things: ‘We’re at work. I need you to comply with the tools we use here.’ Or I could say: ‘Wow, people are socializing, collaborating, and being productive using this tool.’”

Hannes went with the second option and made the call to embrace the new tool. He feels similarly about informal student communication methods within learning, and helping partners to support these channels is a focus for the Hubble team. 

“We provide tools that open up opportunities for people to connect and collaborate. If that happens to be informal, I’m a massive fan,” he says. 

“What institutions are struggling with is how to support the informal channels, acknowledge them and work with them. And so a lot of our consulting work is creating space for the things that happen in the informal channels, but bringing it into the fold of courses.”

How to embrace formal and informal student communication methods in online learning

To reap the benefits of social learning and collaboration, institutions should design online student communication and collaboration tools into programs, but also acknowledge and support those that emerge organically. 

There are many tools that you can integrate into your LMS, or support informally, to facilitate peer-to-peer feedback, host working groups and encourage general interaction within cohorts. 

Video conferencing tools like Zoom, Teams and Google Meet are well-established, and can usually be easily integrated into an LMS. For chat-based engagement, WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal are all popular options you could support in your program. 

To try some alternative forms of interaction, you can look into polling your learners virtually using tools like Slido or Mentimeter. These are particularly powerful tools to break down barriers and up the engagement in less student-centered forms of learning, like during live, instructor-led presentations, where learners typically take on a less active role in learning. 

To elevate group collaboration, you can consider virtual whiteboard tools like Miro, or Mural. These push learners to put their ideas down, live, and are ideal for group brainstorming sessions. 

To bridge the gap between the physical and virtual, you could look to tools like Spatial Chat, and Wonda VR, which help to craft immersive group experiences. 

For a gamified and hyper-interactive learning experience, you could look into YellowDig, which integrates with major learning management systems like Moodle, BlackboardLearn and Canvas. 

Much like the informal discussions and collaborations that take place during the on-campus experience, informal communication adds to the picture that is online student engagement and helps to foster spaces of rich connection and collaboration. Institutions can reap these benefits. Hubble Studios specializes in partnering with institutions and organizations to optimize their programs for online delivery. Ensure that your learners are able to maximize their learning experience. Get started with industry insights on our blog, or get in touch with a member of our team today.

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