Online Learning Is Evolving to Finally Put Community First From static and solitary, online learning is evolving to a more dynamic future: one that starts with genuine connection.

By Greg Smith

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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For proof of just how big an impact the pandemic had on online learning, one need only look at the numbers.

Between 2019 and 2021, the industry exploded, going from $200 billion to over $315 billion in value. And while it's easy to credit public health restrictions for catapulting online courses into the mainstream, that doesn't mean the trend is on track to wane as Covid (hopefully) retreats into the rearview. The appeal of affordable, flexible and accessible knowledge on everything from bread-baking to resume-writing is here to stay, with the industry projected to be worth $1 trillion by 2028. But the future of online learning won't look like it did during the era of social distancing and isolation.

Despite the growing interest from investors and learners, there's a lingering misconception about what online learning is, namely a static and solitary experience typified by dense courseware that can be intimidating for learners and creators alike.

The truth is that online learning is evolving into a much more diverse and fluid way of sharing knowledge — one that's grounded in an aspect many people overlook in the experience: community.

Related: The Digital Learning Revolution: How Classes are Moving Out Of The Classroom

Serving knowledge through connection

When I started my first online course, I viewed it as a thing I put out into the world for others to access on their own time with little involvement from or connection to me. That was a great starting point, and it led me to found a company based on the idea that anyone can create a business — and generate income — by sharing the knowledge they already have. The potential to achieve success in building traditional courses remains strong today, but it's far from the only (or even the best) option for both learners and creators.

Connection has always been a primary human need, and the pandemic has only intensified our hunger for it. Over the last two years, online groups formed around shared passions and niche interests have exploded in popularity and taken on new meaning in our lives. A recent study found that 77% of people surveyed said the most important group they belonged to in life was online.

The communities that arise from Facebook groups, online forums or even among followers of certain social media influencers are natural environments for informal knowledge exchange, allowing peers to pass on advice on topics ranging from raising backyard chickens to learning obscure coding languages. And the trust and bonds that grow in these communities also become fertile ground for more formal learning pathways — such as coaching sessions, in-person seminars, and yes, online courses — to emerge from the creators, moderators and owners of these spaces.

The key difference is that these learning pathways grow out of the community, and not the other way around — a kind of 180 reversal of the way learning and community used to function. Especially as adults, we've all heard that taking a class is a great way to meet people, but the sweet spot of online learning seems to be flipping that idea on its head: building a community around a shared interest and then offering educational programs that can deepen the experience.

Related: 5 Ways to Connect With Your Online Community

The power of putting community first

To truly understand the power of community, you first have to understand what it isn't. We're not talking about free-for-all opinion-fests on the open internet. Community isn't found in the comments section on YouTube or in being one of 1 million+ followers on an influencer's Instagram.

Real communities are curated, with active creators who vet or invite members to join based on common interests and set a code of conduct around respectful communication, privacy and discretion. Members, meanwhile, are committed to active dialogue and the exchange of ideas and information — there's no grandstanding or challenging for the sake of ego. These are crucial components in creating the conditions for knowledge to flow: You need a safe space where everyone is invested.

While online communities have in the past started in Facebook groups, bulletin boards or other open platforms, we're seeing a rapid shift to private communities hosted under the brand of the community leader. This allows for a more curated experience that's much more valuable to members and can create a more profitable opportunity for the owner.

This might sound like a high bar for creators, but in many ways starting a community is an easier entry point than writing and marketing a full-scale online course. And with a built-in feedback loop, creators can tap into their communities to gauge interest before they invest in creating more formal educational products that generate income and serve real value.

That's what Nina Zadeh did, for example, in building her 60,000+ community of creators and influencers. Initially, Sidewalker Daily was a place for people to connect and exchange ideas, but with a growing desire for interactive learning opportunities among members, Zadeh created a number of live events and online courses — which group students into interactive cohorts — in response to the requests from her existing community.

Related: How to Build an Online Community People Will Love

Learning with others also makes for a better experience for participants. Studies show learning in community has a positive impact on everything from retaining information to course completion rates. But even in the absence of an overt teacher-student dynamic, just being involved in a group of committed, like-minded people can be beneficial for gaining and exchanging knowledge.

I'm part of a couple of communities that are dedicated to entrepreneurship and leadership. One of the things I love about these groups is that, although they do offer formal seminars and courses, they offer other ways to gain more knowledge and wisdom. Just being part of the community gives me access to new ideas and perspectives when members answer someone's question or share a take-away from their own process of trial and error. The idea that everybody is an expert at something ensures I'll gain knowledge just by participating — and it's what keeps me engaged and coming back.

For all its convenience and flexibility, the downside of online learning has always been the idea that it doesn't provide one of the best aspects of taking a course IRL: connecting with other people. We're finally seeing the industry mature and find its footing by evolving to blend offline and online, and prioritizing community connection, no matter what form it takes.

Wavy Line
Greg Smith

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

CEO of Thinkific

Greg Smith is the founder and CEO of Thinkific, the leading platform for creating, marketing and selling online courses and membership sites. Greg is passionate about helping entrepreneurs create or grow a business around their own passions, knowledge or skills.

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