by Ian Stuart, Director of Learning & Development at Coursera and Lila Ibrahim, COO at Coursera
When you hear “online workforce development program,” what image pops into your head? If it’s a roomful of employees with their noses in keyboards, think again. Even when learning happens online, motivated employees will seek out colleagues to discuss concepts face-to-face. By encouraging those conversations, you can harness their potential to make material stickier, add accountability, and build community around learning.
That’s why we’re experimenting with in-person learning groups to supplement our online learning program at Coursera. In our model, employees are invited to optional weekly in-person meetings to discuss what they’re learning online. Each group is led by a facilitator who may have some experience with the material, but whose primary role is simply to guide conversation.
Establishing these groups took careful thought – and a certain amount of trial and error – but we think it’s been well worth the effort and iteration. We wanted to share our tips for other learning and development leaders who are considering this model.
Choose the right content
You don’t need a learning group for every course in your online program, and some courses will work better than others. Choose courses that:
- Fit into multiple employees’ development goals – e.g., soft skills and core technical skills. At Coursera, we set up our groups right after our quarterly performance development conversations. This timing helped us identify courses that many employees needed or wanted to take.
- Lend themselves to discussion. Courses in leadership and management work well, as discussing these topics encourages employees to share personal examples, apply global frameworks in the context of the local company culture, and support one another through leadership challenges.
Form small, engaged groups
Groups should be opt-in – not everyone needs or wants to be part of an in-person discussion. Employees who are actively interested in being involved will have a specific motivation for taking the course, and will be willing to be held accountable. Knowing that everyone in the room wants to be there also helps to create a trusting environment.
For broadly applicable content, form groups that are as cross-functional as possible. This helps employees meet people from other parts of the organization, and gives them insight into how a cross-section of the company views a particular topic. Employees may also feel safer talking about challenges they’re facing if they’re not grouped with their managers or immediate colleagues.
Finally, keeping groups small gives everyone a chance to engage. We try to cap ours at about ten employees.
Set a realistic pace
Each learning group should plan to begin and work through their course together, at a steady, conservative pace. We learned this the hard way – in our first-ever learning group, we tried to tackle two weeks’ worth of online content in every group meeting. Although the group ostensibly completed the course quickly, we were really just leaving people behind.
The next time around, we moved slower to ensure that everyone had time to complete the online material. With less content to discuss in each meeting, the group was able to explore topics of interest in greater depth. We also had three meetings with no assigned online content – a kickoff, during which everyone shared their goals and any anxieties about the course; a study hall during the week that assignments were due; and a wrap-up, during which we reflected on the course and our conversations.
This manageable pace, along with the opportunities to share intentions and fears, established a safe environment and mutual accountability. We spent eight weeks working through a four-week online course, but everyone agreed that the slower pace resulted in a more impactful learning experience.
Support your facilitators
For aspiring leaders, facilitating a learning group is a professional development opportunity in and of itself. Facilitators will learn to frame discussion topics, encourage engagement, and create space for diverse perspectives; they’ll also have a chance to strengthen cross-functional relationships and build credibility.
Anyone who’s invested is capable of being a good facilitator – it’s not essential that they be a subject matter expert or experienced manager. We recommend asking for volunteers to identify employees who are excited about the role, and offering some basic scaffolding to help them succeed. Here are a few of our top tips for facilitators:
- Get a buddy. Several of our groups have two facilitators; these pairs bring different perspectives to the group, and can cover for each other as needed.
- Plan and prepare. As facilitators, we block out half an hour the day before our group meets to prepare review materials and discussion questions.
- Commit. Facilitators need to model dedication. Make the group a priority, even if you have to call into meetings on occasion (we did!) or rearrange your schedule to attend.
- Talk to each other. Every facilitator will learn new things in every group meeting. Seek each other out to share insights and brainstorm solutions.
Iterate, learn, and expect great things
In-person learning groups are trickier than they sound – every course is different, and an approach that works brilliantly for one might fall flat for another. But after some iteration, we’re seeing powerful results. Participants tell us that being part of a group motivates them to complete courses, and makes them feel connected to Coursera and our culture. We even have a group of enthusiastic novice programmers who’ve tackled multiple courses together.
So take your time, experiment, learn from your mistakes, and have fun working with people across your organization to master new skills. Learning groups may not be right for every employee or every course, but in many cases, they will be an incredible tool to maximize the professional and personal benefits of online learning.
Contact us to learn more about Coursera for Business.