The true power of learning communities (LearnComs)

By David Guérin

First of all, a massive thank you to the following people for their time and valuable feedback and insights. 🙌

I believe that education is fundamentally social, and most people want to experiment and learn together. As a matter of fact, I have recently finished an On Deck fellowship, which showed me the true power of community learning, despite not meeting my peers in person. I’m fascinated by a new wave of EdTech companies that leverage community learning to tackle two massive issues in the education world: engagement and motivation. I call them “LearnCom” companies (I know it’s not super original but it does the job. 😬)

Today, I would like to explore three questions:

1. does the community learning approach work?

2. what’s next?

3. what will be/are the challenges of LearnComs?

🤔 1. Does the community learning approach work?

The short answer is yes. I believe it works for three main reasons: (1) accountability, (2) relationships, and (3) sense of belonging. These three elements provide a great boost to motivation, which is ultimately what you need if you want to learn something new.

Accountability 🤝

The accountability factor constantly pushes you to engage with your peers and instructor(s). By joining a small group of selected and motivated peers, you essentially commit to 4 implied rules:

(1) really care about your peers (and they will care for you)

(2) help them to achieve their learning goals (and of course they will help you with yours)

(3) provide ongoing and honest feedback on their work (and again, you will receive feedback on yours)

(4) be held responsible by having to contribute and explain your comments/beliefs. This is particularly helpful because it helps you build your communications and teamwork skills, among others.

Wes Kao from Maven describes accountability as “you have nowhere to hide”. She’s right, it’s hard to BS your way through something (excuse my French 🤐) in front of your peers, knowing that their learning journey depends on you and vice versa. You are mutually committed to the learning and development process.

Relationships 🫂

The relationships you develop with your peers (including the teacher/professor/instructor) plays a big part in the whole learning experience. You develop a real relationship 10X faster. Why? Because you are put in a room with a bunch of people with common characteristics and shared learning goals. Everybody rows in the same direction and this automatically creates an intimate space where you can share/receive feedback openly. Surprisingly, this encourages FOMO too, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing! You don’t want to miss sessions, be left behind or miss learning opportunities. 😰 Traditional learning is generally considered a solitary activity (i.e. MOOCs, lectures w/ limited interaction), so finally having the opportunity to learn alongside a small group of like-minded, motivated peers is a great way to increase engagement.

Sense of belonging 😎

It feels good to be a member of community X or Y and funnily, this puts indirect pressure on your learning process. You want to make sure you meet the expected “standard”. You become more invested in your learning, from which you and the group benefit. While it is arguably not a learning community per se and other factors apply (such as selectivity, credentials), YC is a good example. Entrepreneurs who are part of the YC community proudly share “YC batch S21” in their LinkedIn/Twitter bios as a quality stamp. The same clearly applies to Reforge and On Deck and speaking from my own experience, it certainly helps you to keep motivated and hold yourself to higher standards.

If you are interested in digging further, Tiago Forte highlighted 4 elements that distinguish cohort-based online courses. This is a great piece.

🔮 2. What’s next for post-university learning communities?

Let’s get to the exciting question: “Ok I get it, it seems to be working. But what’s next?” First, I believe that we are only at the beginning of this new trend and it has plenty of room to run until it’s fully realised as a ‘normal’ or ‘common’ learning experience. On an innovation adoption curve, I would put LearnCom somewhere between innovators and early adopters category, so yes, it’s still early.

From a macro perspective, I believe that the evolution will be about the productization of learning communities: from “community as an add on” to “community as a core product + private + niche”.

What does that mean?

  1. The market will become even more fragmented due to a high degree of specialisation of learning communities by subjects (e.g. marketing, product, no-code, design, etc.). I expect to see winners in each category and perhaps even some winners across 2–3 sub-categories (marketing + product; design + no-code, etc.). Will see.
  2. The competitive moats might come from (a) network effects (more vetted members = more value, better engagement) and/or (b) positioning/branding (principles, identity, perceived quality).
  3. The community aspect will outweigh the content. Today, consumers consider learning solutions mainly based on their content and outcomes. I anticipate that as the learning community model develops and becomes more structured, the value that consumers place on the community aspect of learning will increase and possibly outweigh the value consumers place on content when choosing between “learning offer A” and “ learning offer B”.

From a micro perspective, the main shift will be about the value perceived and delivered thanks to the communities. The content will become less important.

Learning communities 1.0.

People (1) come for the content and (2) then engage with the community.

The first wave of online learning communities is EdTech companies that use communities as an “add on” to their core product (usually static content) in order to enhance the learning experience and increase engagement. This has worked incredibly well in some cases. Here is a shortlist of companies that I believe are leading the way in the community learning space: SuperHi, Cousto.io, Maven, GetSetUp, ProductSchool, Makerpad, Scrimba, Jungle Program, ThePowerMBA*, YouSchool* and AgroLeague*. (*Part of the Brighteye family)

Concrete example:

YouSchool: The learners join the courses because of the great content and a clear outcome: obtaining a diploma recognized by the French government in order to be able to operate in a regulated field. After starting the course, the students realise how active the community of peers is, allowing them to slowly move away from the content over time. Surprisingly, the community aspect becomes as important as the content during the programme.

Learning communities 2.0

It’s obviously impossible to predict accurately but as mentioned above, I believe that the community will become the core product instead of an “add on”.

People will (1) come for the community first, (2) be highly vetted, (3) engage with peers & consume content, and (4) will stay engaged (much longer) for the community.

The two main shifts anticipated are:

(1) The community will be the main influencing factor for the learner to decide on whether to enrol in a new learning programme.

(2) Once you become a vetted member, you will likely stay engaged for a longer period of time. You will stay engaged longer because you will be able to keep learning alongside your peers as your learning goals evolve over time.

Here are a few examples of startups that I believe have already started to productize their learning communities: On Deck, Reforge, Weekend Club, Framework, interintellect, Farnam Street, Everything Marketplaces, Ness Labs, Hack The Box*, Tandem*. (*Part of the Brighteye family)

Concrete example:

Reforge: if you are an operator who is looking to learn about scalability, the company offers annual memberships to join their community in order to help you with that. The membership includes access to (1) cohort-based programs (limited to 1 per year), (2) curated content, and (3) a community of vetted peers. This is a powerful combination for learners and the approach encourages learners to stick around for long periods of time.

😰 3. What will be/are the main challenges of learning communities?

(1) Maintaining engagement over time: designing interactions that will allow the community to maintain a high engagement over time, especially after the learners have reached their initial learning goals. The key questions might be: How do you make sure they will stick around and contribute? Is it about optimising the diversity of the group of learners? How to encourage relationship building efficiently between peers?

(2) Decentralizing the community: ultimately, I’m convinced that the best communities (not only learning communities) don’t rely on specific leaders. Instead, they encourage members to launch their own initiatives and create sub-communities. How do you help existing members take over and grow the community while respecting the core values of the community?

(3) Positioning: learning communities apply to people of different ages. I have witnessed generational gaps already about LearnCom: “this approach is for Gen Z”. Not an easy challenge to address but GetSetUp is a great example of how learning communities can work for elderly people too. LessonLeap and Outschool are perfect examples for kids too.

(4) Monetising the learning experience in an efficient way: this challenge is linked to the perceived value by the learners. Finding the right business model (e.g. subscription based? Pay as you go? Lifetime membership? Coaching service on top of the membership? Limited or unlimited access to the learning offering? etc.). There are a few good companies that come to mind (e.g. Farnam Street, Ness Labs) that are doing a great job at monetising their community.

(5) Managing learning environments both online and offline: the ultimate goal of a learning community is to allow you to learn in the most efficient and engaging way. For this to happen, you need to feel comfortable and access spaces that encourage learning. Creating these intimate spaces is very hard, especially in a post-COVID world where I expect to see the rise of a hybrid learning model (mixing both online & offline environments). Adapting seamlessly to the two different learning formats will be a tough one to crack — especially in a context where current solutions to deliver an online experience are doing an OK job but are still far at replicating an offline learning experience.

(6) Getting the right balance between the utility of the network and status (i.e. exclusivity): should the community be about the volume of learners or exclusivity? Is it possible to mix both efficiently? I believe there are strong network effects in communities: more learners = more value and it seems that it is tricky to grow a network while maintaining its value. As Erik Torenberg says in this podcast, you will have to pick one (utility or status?) and think deeply about optimising that balance from day 1. He even suggests starting with high status and then the utility will come into the process.

Final thoughts

I believe more than ever in the power of this social learning model in a post-university context because it addresses two long-standing challenges in the learning process: motivation and engagement. I’m really excited to see how this learning model evolves and mixes with other models to unlock further learning outcomes while making the experience more fun.

I want to congratulate all the EdTech founders who are building LearnComs. If you want to chat about this exciting trend, please reach out as I would love to connect: dg@brighteyevc.com 📨

We are the leading European VC focused on EdTech. We invest in companies that help people learn & grow: www.brighteyevc.com