How to Build Online Social Learning Environments

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Social learning can take your online courses to the next level. In this LMScast Christopher Badgett talks with Michael Eisenwasser of about how to build online social learning environments using BuddyPress to enhance your students’ learning experience.

Michael is an artist, web developer, and BuddyPress expert who runs the BuddyBoss development agency. BuddyPress is a free, open-source WordPress plugin that allows users to build Facebook-style social networks for their WordPress websites and eLearning sites.

The LifterLMS course development platform has BuddyPress integration built in, so you can easily create a social network for your eLearning environment. You can replicate a classroom environment with interactive study groups. BuddyPress is fully customizable, allowing you to turn features on and off at will. You can allow your students as much or as little access to the site and to other students as you see fit.

Social learning environments offer flexibility and expanded student engagement. Some instructors employ blended learning by coupling online social networks with actual classroom meetings. The online social aspect can act as an extension of regular classroom time, or as the primary learning environment with occasional in-person meetups. You can also include incentives such as badges and advanced access as students achieve higher levels of learning.

Online course offerings make education globally accessible by reducing costs and eliminating the need for physical proximity to a classroom. Students can earn college credits or gain valuable job skills to qualify for higher-level positions. The software development community has been especially active in online education as they learn by using the tools they are creating.

Niche interests are especially well served by online courses that provide interactive sharing of otherwise hard to find information. Providing a social element is especially helpful for non-technical learners who greatly benefit by learning from each other as they discuss course content.

Social networks require administration in promoting your offerings to bring in users and build your community, deciding how accessible you want your forums to be, and moderating activity. You should build in barriers to spam registration, limit interaction to one or two forms of communication, and make sure members are clear on the purpose of each group.

Michael encourages users to download BuddyPress and explore just how much it has to offer. You can also try a demo of LifterLMS to see for yourself what it can do for you. Learn how to build online social learning environments to support your online courses, and you’ll create a more dynamic eLearning experience.

Remember that you can post comments and also subscribe to our newsletter for updates, developments, and future episodes of LMScast. Thank you for joining us.

And if you’re an already successful expert, teacher or entrepreneur looking to grow, check out the LifterLMS team’s signature service called Boost. It’s a complete done for you set up service where your learning platform goes live in just 5 days.

Episode Transcript

Chris: Hello and welcome to another episode of LMScast. My name is Chris Badgett, and I’m joined by Michael Eisenwasser. He’s a BuddyPress expert, and we’re going to get into social learning in this podcast episode. So hi, Michael, welcome to the show.

Michael: Hey, how you doing? Thanks.

Chris: Tell us a little bit about you. Where did you come from? What are you all about?

Michael: Sure. I run a company called BuddyBoss, and we’re a BuddyPress development agency. For those of you who don’t know, BuddyPress is a plugin, kind of a framework, for WordPress, for building social networks on WordPress. That’s what I do. My background, personally, is as an artist and a web developer. I got in to BuddyPress through developing sites on WordPress.

Chris: That’s awesome. For the uninitiated, if you were to give somebody, or somebody asked you on the street, “Hey, what’s BuddyPress?” How do you describe it?

Michael: Okay. At a high level, BuddyPress is allowing you to make community oriented sites on the web. That can be something similar to Facebook, but it could also be something like Khan Academy or or LinkedIn. Basically any site you’ve ever gone to where they request that you log in and then you create a profile, from there maybe you message people or interact in some way. These are the types of sites that you might want to build with BuddyPress. BuddyPress, specifically, is actually, at a technical level, is a plugin for the WordPress content management system. What it does, is it basically … Normally, in WordPress it’s kind of a one way channel where a user logs in to an admin area and from there they publish some content, maybe a blog post, and another user comes and reads it from the front end.

What BuddyPress does is turn all of your site visitors into publishers themselves. They log in on the front end, they have a profile, they can create content, they can interact with each other through activity streams, like Facebook, or forums, or they can send private messages to each other, very similar to Facebook messenger. Then it’s very extendable. The code is written in such a way that you can build plugins that extend what it is. For example, we have a plugin we sell that allows you to upload photos into your activity stream, like Facebook. You can extend it and do stuff like that. That’s what BuddyPress is.

Chris: That’s awesome. I often describe it as Facebook in a box. It really blows me away that it’s free. It does so much, and it’s free. I think about how much money it took to build something like Facebook. I can take BuddyPress, you can download it off the WordPress repository and plug it into your site, and you have a Facebook-like platform. Of course, the hard part is going to be to get traffic and get a big audience like Facebook or much smaller. It blows me away that that’s free and out there in the ecosystem. Can you tell us a little bit about the community behind it?

Michael: Sure. BuddyPress originally was created by a guy, Andy Peatling, who got hired by Automattic, the company behind WordPress. So he works there. Another guy, named John James Jacoby, triple J, he kind of took over as the core developer many years ago. If you’ve ever used bbPress, it’s a very popular forum software for WordPress, he’s also the core developer of that, so the two plugins integrate pretty tightly together. Then there’s a number of other core developers who worked on it. You have your, kind of like WordPress, it’s open source and you have your core contributors who every day are developing it. There’s them, and there’s a community of people out there who are out there testing the releases and contributing in other ways. People are building logins and themes that work with BuddyPress. There’s a pretty large community. If you go on and look up plugins, BuddyPress will show up as one of the more popular plugins, so it’s pretty well supported.

Chris: That’s really awesome. If you’ve noticed, in LifterLMS there’s an integration with BuddyPress you can check. What that does is that uses the BuddyPress registration system and then adds your courses and your course data to your profile so you can build out that social network. I think it’s important to note, too, that with BuddyPress, you can turn features on and off as needed. If you don’t want the Facebook-like activity feed, you can turn that off. If you don’t want to have the friends component, you can turn that off.

Michael: Exactly.

Chris: Yeah. Go ahead.

Michael: Depending on what you’re doing with your site, it may not always be appropriate to have everything. Of course, right, if you’re building an education type of site, you may not want to have the ability for people to become friends with each other. Or, you may not want everyone to be able to message each other, you might want to restrict that to only people in the same course or something like that. You can control a lot of that.

Chris: Tell us a little bit about BuddyPress Groups. What’s that all about?

Michael: Sure. BuddyPress Groups are kind of a, every group is a central place where people can organize around an idea. Out of the box, it’s kind of a blank slate. The main thing is a bunch of people can join the group together, they can have a forum, and they can talk about things. In an education context, you can imagine, in the real world, you have classrooms and in a classroom people are getting together and talking about some subject. You can replicate the same thing online. In a group, you could have all the people who are in your classroom, or maybe in your grade or whatever, all join together. They have to be a member to be in there, and then they can talk to each other in the context of that group.

Chris: I believe there’s settings where you can do invite only or have it open for people to join. Is that right?

Michael: Exactly. A group can be public, where anybody can join. A group can be private where an administrator or moderator of the group has to invite people. It can be a totally hidden group that no one even knows about.

Chris: That’s awesome. There’s a lot of flexibility there.

Michael: Yeah, exactly.

Chris: Let’s talk about BuddyPress in the context of online education a little more. One of the things I like to look at is, when you look at online sites like LinkedIn, it’s sort of like a business networking place, but online, Facebook is like your friendship ecosystem, but online. The things that do a good job of kind of, though not completely, mimicking what’s going on in the real world, or the physical world, tend to do very well. What is it about BuddyPress, in the social component, that captures the classroom experience? What makes it so powerful as opposed to just having an online courses website where the student drops in, learns the skills, but no social component, per se?

Michael: Sure. You know what it’s like to be in a classroom, you don’t just learn from reading the material, you learn from interacting with the other students and from interacting with your teacher. In a real classroom environment, there are lots of upsides to bringing education to the internet, right? It’s cheaper, it’s more accessible, anyone can be a teacher, and students can be from all around the world. You have all these advantages but the major con, I think, is that it’s kind of lonely, it’s isolated. You go to a website and take a course and do a quiz, and that’s it.

When you introduce BuddyPress, it allows you to have a classroom-like experience where you can get to know the other students in the classroom, and people can have discussions around … Let’s say there’s some course material there, everyone can have discussions around their opinions and talk about the material, and the teacher can come in and talk to you, too. You get to know your teacher, you get to know the other students. It enhances the learning, and it does a good job of replicating what happens in a classroom.

I’ve seen some people actually use their BuddyPress course network as an extension of a real classroom. Some of these people even have an actual classroom where people are meeting in person and having a lesson. Then they extend that. In between classes they come online and they discuss the material and maybe they have a group where they post documents and stuff.

Chris: We would call that blended learning, where it’s not necessarily an either/or decision, it could also just supplement. Or you could kind of do it the opposite way, where you do most of the learning online, and then you have a little in-person event once a month or once a year or whatever to blend it up. That’s super powerful, I think, if you can do it, if your audience is close enough to be able to come together in that way or has the resources to fly to an annual event or whatever.

Michael: Exactly.

Chris: What is it about online social learning, what problem does it solve in the broader context of our culture and what’s going on in the world?

Michael: Sure. My personal opinion is that education, at least in the United States, is in kind of a bubble. The cost of education is so huge that, for a large segment of the population, they will never make back what they’ve spent to get educated. You can easily spend over $100,000 in the United States, just to get a piece of paper that shows that you’re qualified for a job. I think about that, and it seems crazy. Like, there’s got to be a cheaper way to prove somebody’s qualified for a job than that. I’m not the only one who’s noticed this, right? Education is very rapidly moving online for that reason. It’s much cheaper and easier to do it online, and people in the job market are getting more accepting of ulterior ways of proving somebody’s qualified than a degree. That’s exciting me. Also internationally, I’m just talking about the United States right now, but around the world, there are huge populations of people who have almost no access to education and …

Chris: Tons of talent.

Michael: Yeah. There’s talent all over the place. Are there people who have the potential to be really good and just don’t have anyone to teach them? Meanwhile, you have teachers who are teaching the same lessons every year, and none of that is available online for everyone else to see. You take education, you move it online, and suddenly the whole world can access it. That’s just like, I’m a huge fan of Khan Academy and this is part of their mission, but they’re basically doing K through 12. They’re going to go through textbook education, but there’s so many other subjects that could be moved online, and they are. Me, working with BuddyPress, I’ve already explained how I think adding the social layer adds a lot to it, so there’s a lot that, I think, we can contribute to what people are trying to do with online education. For those reasons, I find it very exciting.

Chris: That’s awesome. I know I hear sometimes that people feel like, “Oh it’s already done. The people who have gone online have already won.” I don’t really see that as the case. I always like to use the example of learning software development or different programming languages. I feel like that whole area was kind of an earlier adopter of online education. That makes sense, because they’re using the tools that they’re building, so it’s like this, innovators at the front of the wave.

I don’t know how long Codecademy, Treehouse, all these other online education platforms for learning programming have been around, but they’re doing quite well, and they’re producing people with skills that are able to get high paying jobs or become entrepreneurs. Just because that’s already happened or it might be harder to compete in that arena, it doesn’t mean that another niche, there’s millions of niches that you could still either be the first or part of the early crowd. Then what you really need to focus on is differentiation. One of my personal side projects I run with my wife is about a type of organic gardening called permaculture. We actually meet with experts around the world and film their workshops.

We literally bring them online to a community that’s very not used to working online. We just use the same methods that have been going on for 5 plus years that the development community has been using. I think there’s just so much opportunity to build a learning environment, or a social learning environment that to follow your passion and also get people from around the world excited about. You’ve really got to focus on differentiation and what makes you different. What I want to ask you about is, I know when you build a forum or you build a social network, the biggest mistake I see is that people have the mindset, if they build it they will come, or whatever. What are some tips you have for people, if they are going to go social or just use forums to avoid having a dead, or to give that early attraction and get a vibrant community going?

Michael: Sure. For one thing, if you’re going to have forums, which not every social site has forums, but a lot of them do, that’s a pretty popular component. If you’re going to have forums, you need to be moderating it. You also don’t want to let anybody into your site, because as soon as people start spamming it or doing stupid stuff in there, no one’s going to want to spend any time in there. It’s good, if you have a course site, that you can close the network to people who are actually serious about doing this. Then, you have somebody who’s a dedicated moderator, if you’re small, maybe it’s just you, and then as you grow, maybe you can hire somebody who’s going to spend time in there and answer people’s questions and make sure everything is correct. That’s, I think, pretty critical.

Then the other thing is, like we talked about before, you don’t have to just have everything all at once. It may not make sense to have people sending messages to each other and also having activity streams and also having forums, because they don’t know where to go. People on the internet are like water, as soon as they can find a place to float to, they will. They’re going to leave blog comments, they’re going to go to the activity stream, they’re going to go to the forum, they’re just going to be asking things, and then they’re going to email you. It’s going to be all over the place. You have to structure, you have to guide people, you have to think about what you’re actually trying to do here and guide people into those areas.

There are little things that you can do right away that make things more engaging. Probably you have users leaving comments. Probably you have courses that you’re posting there that people want to discuss, and instead of just having WordPress comments, if you give them a profile, then in the comment that picture of them or the link to their name, suddenly will go to their BuddyPress profile. They can fill out information about themselves and now you actually know who they are.

Chris: You can follow them and see like, oh, this is the …

Michael: You can see what they’re up to.

Chris: Yeah.

Michael: You can build in things where, it takes a little customization, but it’s possible to set it up so it tracks which courses they’ve taken or which lessons they’ve completed. You can integrate with a badge plugin, like BadgeOS or myCRED, and give them awards for completing stuff and post that in the activity stream. Then it gives them some pride for accomplishing things. You can be creative with what you’re trying to do. You want to have some intent for why you’re doing this and then design the social network around that.

Chris: That’s awesome. I have to ask you, for our BuddyPress users at LifterLMS, one question that always comes up, and you’ve probably heard it a million times, but what is the best way to avoid spam registrations?

Michael: There are a few factors here. This is a tricky one, because it’s a cat and mouse game.

Chris: Let’s just assume we have a free course, so it gets easier and easier to … It’s not always about having a paid course where you’re making money.

Michael: Of course. If it’s a paid course, that pretty much solves the problem, because spammers are not, they’re not going to pay to get their spam link in. If it’s a free course, there are various plugins that will help block things out, and you’re going to have to experiment a little bit because again, it’s a cat and mouse game. If something becomes mainstream, people are going to figure out how to get around it. The main thing you’re trying to block is people from … The main spam thing that’s going to happen is spam registrations. One thing you can do is force people to log in through social networks. You can actually use plugins and have people log in using their Facebook credential or LinkedIn credential, or Twitter. Then at least their account is tied to a real person. It’s hard for a spammer to make a bunch of fake Facebook accounts and then go attack a BuddyPress site. That will help.

Then if it’s truly open, then you have to do things like, you can add a CAPTCHA on the registration, that will block out a lot of them. You can add a plugin that will, sort of like, people can edit some stuff in their profile but can’t do anything else. They’re held in a queue until you go in and manually activate them. You can add a plugin like that if it becomes a problem. There’s some other plugins, this gets kind of technical, but they do some tricky things. For example, in the registration form, you’re supposed to fill out all the inputs, right? You put in your name, your email address. There’s one plugin that will add a hidden field, so the field is there, but in your browser you don’t see it. These spammers are not people most of the time, it’s a computer program. The spammer will fill out every field. If they fill out a field that’s not actually visible, then the program knows this was a computer, and they block it. There are plugins like that that will help. You have to attack it at a few angles. If you have totally open registration, yeah, it can be a problem.

Chris: Let me just tap into one thing you mentioned there, and this comes back to a recurring customer request we get sometimes, which is about applying to join something. You said there was something where people could, a plugin where people could submit, but they’re not automatically joined. Which one is that? Could that be used for an application to a course?

Michael: This particular plugin is for, I don’t remember the name of the plugin offhand, it’s to block people from being able to access the site until they finish registering, and then they get their profile. It’s not going to prevent them from joining a course. You could do something where, you could have a Gravity Form, and then people fill out something to be able to join a course. You can do other things, you can also have membership levels and that somebody has to be of a certain membership level to join certain courses.

We’re a fan of a plugin called Paid Memberships Pro, which does not actually force you to pay to become a member, but it’s one of the features that it has, is for subscriptions. You could have membership levels, so you could have people who are a first level user and they can only access beginner courses, and then at a certain point in time you bump them up to a more advanced user level, and then they can access some other courses.

Chris: So that way you can limit the flow a little bit. That makes sense. That makes a lot of sense. Cool.

Let me, just selfishly, ask you some questions, because we do have a similar thing. We have a WordPress product business and also a custom development business. For us, as I’m sure for you, customer support is really important, engaging with our customers, listening to feature requests, feedback. I’ll get on the phone with customers sometimes and talk to them about where they’re stuck, where they’re struggling, and it helps me shape the product roadmap. Before we get into features, what have you found that works really well with customer support? How do you handle that?

Michael: Sure. We offer, basically we have a support forum, and we also have email support for our customers, we have a few full-time support specialists who are helping people. Our strategy is basically, the types of things people are asking about in our forums run a gamut. Some of things are something seems, maybe broken, they’re not sure, sometimes they think they have a feature request, they want something added to our software, sometimes they’re just sort of confused, because it’s their first time using WordPress and BuddyPress and they’re just general questions. We try to answer everything, but we also learn from them.

If a lot of people are asking for the same feature, we think to ourselves, “Maybe that’s something we should be adding.” If a lot of people are confused about the same kind of thing, we think, “Oh, maybe this is a place where we should change the UI or maybe we should add a plugin that will change how BuddyPress works a little bit.” We learn a lot from our customers, and our clients, we learn from our custom development too. Every customer project we take on, I’m on the phone talking to the client and hearing everything they want to do. You recognize patterns, people start bringing up the same kind of places where they find BuddyPress or one of the course plugins, or WordPress, a little bit, it’s not quite doing what they want it to do. We learn from all of that and try to create tutorials that show people how to do this.

Chris: I think it was a couple years ago, I saw a yoga site that you built that was really impressive.

Michael: Thanks.

Chris: It was an education site, it was about teaching yoga or different types of yoga classes or something. That was just, it’s really impressive. I think we experience a similar thing where, perhaps with our products, it gets a lot of people, maybe 80% where they want to go, but then they may need custom development to really encapsulate their vision and that kind of thing. As long as there’s a budget for that, there’s a lot of potential there. For a lot of people, they’re happy with the core offer, and they’re off to the races.

Michael: Exactly. We try to build plugins that will cover the most common use cases. But every so often, someone comes to you, and they want to do something that’s so specific that it just does not make sense to build a plugin that’s going to do that. You might be the only person in the world who wants exactly that, or maybe there’s a handful, so then you go the custom route. Maybe they want you to build, let’s say it’s an education site, they want you to design the site and give them the whole custom experience, then you have to go custom.

Chris: Absolutely. That’s awesome. I appreciate you sharing your wisdom on BuddyPress and using a social network in the context of education. What’s one big takeaway, if you could give people a tip if they’re interesting in pursuing BuddyPress and integrating it? What should they consider?

Michael: Sure. I would say not to get too afraid of all of it. Just set up a WordPress site that’s not very important to you and install BuddyPress on there and go play around, because you might be surprised at how much you can do with very little coding effort. You can set up BuddyPress, and you get plugins that do all this stuff. You’d be really surprised, within a few hours, how much you can get out of it. I would say, don’t spend too much time worrying about it and just dive in and play with it.

Chris: I agree with you on that. I think a lot of people, and I have software tools, but I always say my number one tip is don’t get obsessed with the software tools, focus on your learning content and what your audience needs and just building the community around that.

Michael: Yeah, that’s a good tip, too. That’s something we talked about before, that on the one end, go play with everything, but on the other side, be strict about what you actually put on your final, live site. It’s very tempting to just add everything under the sun, because the feature’s there. That can cost you a lot, not just in terms of money that you’re buying products of developer hours, but also just in how long it takes to build everything, maintenance costs and all the things you have to look after. Don’t add everything under the sun. Figure out what you’re users actually, truly need and try to solve for that.

Chris: Awesome. My takeaway is just going to be, when you play around with BuddyPress, and if you start using it, just turn on, start with 1 of the features or 2. Don’t turn on all 6 or 7, or however many are in there. I think, like you mentioned earlier, the friends thing, just hold off on that one, that’s an easy one to wait on, or the activity feed, if it just doesn’t make sense for your learning environment.

Michael: Right.

Chris: That’s awesome. Thank you for joining us, Michael. If people want to find out more about you, where can they find you on the inter webs?

Michael: Sure. Our website is, you can go there and see our themes, our plugins, everything that we do there. Our handle is BuddyBossWP, like BuddyBoss WordPress, you’ll find us on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube – BuddyBossWP. YouTube is actually a good place, we’re active everywhere, but our YouTube, we make video tutorials about how to use BuddyPress, bbPress, and all our products, and a lot of people like those.

Chris: Awesome. Thank you for joining us.

Michael: All right, Chris, thank you. I appreciate it.

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