Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the focus is on remote learning. That’s led to many educational institutions—from colleges to for-profit companies—bulking up their slate of virtual offerings. In other words, it’s the perfect time for technologists to learn remotely, whatever their focus or specialty.
However, remote learning lacks one thing that its in-person equivalent can easily provide: the opportunity to interact with classmates, join study groups, and generally learn within a supportive group. In a physical classroom, such connections can often form organically; plus, schools tend to encourage groups and partnerships. But if you’re learning remotely, how can you forge the same kind of community?
For starters, the institution conducting your online classes may have you join a group of some sort, whether it’s a Slack channel to work on a project or a forum where students can post questions and advice. Beyond that, you may need to be proactive, and head onto the larger web to find the support and information that you need.
“There’s any number of communities out there around programming and IT development skills,” Kirk Werner, vice president of content at Udacity, told Dice. “There’s open discussion and semi-social sites like Reddit who have beginner and more advanced discussion groups, and then there’s sites like Stack Overflow and GitHub.”
Online learning platforms (Udacity among them) also provide an environment where current students can interact with other current students, Nanodegree program graduates, and even human mentors to give advice and feedback to learners.
Werner pointed out that some popular technologies (and the creators of those technologies) have their own communities, either on their own sites or on Reddit. For example, there’s an enormous community on Reddit around the Swift programming language, which many students are learning in order to build and maintain iOS and macOS apps; Microsoft offers YouTube videos that break down the intricacies of the Python language, with students able to interact and leave comments. “The first step I would say is reach out through your favorite online learning platform to others who are learning with you, or have already completed your content or project,” he said.
The Importance of Community
While learning can be achieved individually, the best way to internalize knowledge in a real-world context can occur when learners work with other learners, interact with experienced technologists, and ask questions of mentors and advisors who can give professional and individualized feedback.
“Simple walkthroughs and self-evaluated projects don’t give the critical information that learners really need—encouragement and praise for work well done,” Werner said.
Online platforms with just a “lean-back” education model, where little to no hands-on work is completed and there’s no real interaction between students and graduates or mentors, may drive students to look elsewhere for community. “GitHub, Stack Overflow and other content specific platforms can be a way to engage more completely with a community—getting advice and even looking over open positions,” Werner added. “I believe that any individual that comes into these communities with the honest interest to learn would be welcomed and directed to the right threads and answers.”
Jon Kimmel, IT career lab accounts and careers manager at National Able Network, a non-profit organization that offers IT certifications in Chicago, said that students have begun creating their own online groups for study and socialization, since they can’t do so in person.
“We’ve found that, in general, when students form their own groups to address study and assignment topics, they do much better than when they study solely on their own,” he said. “Our instructors, and I’m sure most instructors right now, are always happy to answer group questions, or take into account a topic that the groups are having trouble with during class time or during a special study or practice session.”
National Able Network encourages students to form such groups by showing their effectiveness, while highlighting how socializing with others can enhance the collective training experience.
Kimmel also suggests that students look at LinkedIn Groups, in particular the ones that focus on the curriculum the students are working with (such as Cisco Networking Academy). This will also allow them to network with technologists who have a lot of experience with the platforms, programming languages, and skills at hand.
“I think we’re kind of an outlier in that we do cohort-based learning, instead of course-based like Google and other online training programs, but even in those situations, there’s probably strong evidence to show that the socialization aspect of group study increases success in completing the goals of the training program,” Kimmel added.
Werner agreed that building a peer-related community, whether synchronous or asynchronous, gives learners the opportunity to extend the content within any learning experience.
“Udacity students can not only ask questions about the current Nanodegree program, but related topics and make more broad connections with other students and graduates,” he said. “They also use our Student Hub and our network of student services, graduates, project reviewers, and mentors to gain insights into any questions they might have.
During their experience within the Udacity Classroom, learners can interact with other students, gain tips and help from human mentors, and reach out to their services team related to career help. Werner expects to see more “point-of-use” community within the learning experience, determined by student activity (or inactivity), where learners can get a boost or even extension activities depending on their progress (or lack thereof).
Companies = Community
As previously mentioned, some technology providers also host forums or communities where technologists can learn from one another. Randy Russell, Red Hat’s director of certification, points out how Red Hat launched an online learning community for exactly that reason.
“We wanted to have something that supplemented that training experience with social learning, and the benefit of something like that is that it’s a bit more focused and meaningful,” he said. “Rather than being a scattershot of looking for Linux learners and ‘find what you can, where you can’ approach, an online learning community is objective-focused, and it does give you that ability to have a peer-to-peer community.”
When you’re learning new skills, participating in a group like this is akin to having a workout buddy. “It keeps you on task, keeps you focused—that’s a good approach to take,” Russell added. “Identify some people who are working towards the same goal and challenge each other.”
But keep one crucial thing in mind: the people you’re hearing from might not necessarily be the authority on the technology. “They might be on some things, but understand that you might want to be careful about the guidance you get, and it’s good to be able to reference an authoritative source, and that’s where as structured learning approach comes into play,” Russell noted.
In other words, even as you’re participating in online communities in order to boost your education, make sure to verify whatever you learn through other means—with your instructor, for example, or a trusted mentor.