When I created my first online course in 2013, online learning was a lonely affair.
Platforms like Skillshare and Udemy were exploding in popularity. But the vast majority of courses at that time were one-way: information flowed only from the instructor to the students.
There was no expectation that a student would get to know their peers. No chance that students might actually contribute to each others’ learning. A course was just a vehicle for delivering the knowledge in the instructor’s head to students.
In the fall of 2016 I took a writing course called The Art of Longform, to learn how to write deep, insightful essays for my blog. It was delivered live and in real time, via a new platform I’d never heard of called Zoom.
Within the first couple class sessions, I was hooked. I quickly realized that reliable, high-quality, group video calling would completely transform what was possible in online learning.
I spent the next couple months creating the first version of an online course I called Building a Second Brain, to teach the obscure but increasingly important skill of Personal Knowledge Management. I recruited a small group of friends and former colleagues to be part of the first beta group, which I called a “cohort.”
Over four years later, the concept of “cohort-based learning” has caught fire. As I recently explained in a brief history of the four waves of online education, online programs delivered live are upending the industry and revolutionizing the impact that independent instructors can have on their students.
I believe that the defining factor of the new generation of online courses is community.
No longer are we expected to sit alone at our computers for hours on end, absorbing data like robots. No longer are we supposed to somehow find the time and motivation to check off every lesson, for weeks and weeks on end. No longer are we just the passive, unquestioning recipients of someone else’s opinions.
We are returning to what has made education tick for countless generations: learning together, in community, in real time, with everyone contributing. Community provides what content alone lacks: coaching, feedback, encouragement, and peer-to-peer learning that only comes from seeing and being seen.
The technology of online instruction has finally become simple and user-friendly enough that we can focus on the experience of learning. And the experience everyone is looking for is the experience of transforming together.
A brief history of discussion forums
As powerful as Zoom is for real-time communication, it doesn’t allow everyone to participate. There is always just one person speaking at any given time, and everyone else is a spectator.
I’ve tried many times over the years to create an online space where students could communicate “many to many.” Where their self-expression wouldn’t be limited by the constraints of time and space.
The first community group I launched was on Facebook in 2014. I wanted a place for instructors on the learning platform Skillshare (where my course was hosted) to be able to come together and share what was working for them.
The discussions were incredibly open and honest. Every one of us was trying to figure out what it meant to be a freelance teacher, and the sense of fellowship we found in that private Facebook group was invaluable.
But as the group grew in size, it quickly descended into a morass of self-promotion, daily deals, and spam. I couldn’t keep up with the responsibilities of moderation, and the group fell apart. I needed more control and better moderation tools to be able to keep the community healthy.
A couple years later I tried again on Discourse, an open-source discussion platform used by many organizations who want to control the community experience. We set up and customized a forum for students of my course, designing every aspect to suit their needs.
But once again, we eventually ran into major challenges. As much as I love the open-source philosophy, our Discourse forum required way too much effort to set up and maintain. I had to hire a technical consultant on a monthly basis just to install updates, troubleshoot problems, and answer our questions.
While the platform was powerful, it was too open-ended and technical for me and my small team. We could customize anything we wanted, but that abundance of options meant that we didn’t feel comfortable doing so.
On top of that, the Discourse user experience felt a couple generations behind what people were used to. Bulky buttons, outdated visual design, a lack of responsiveness, and siloed pages made every minute spent there into a chore. We had swung to the opposite end of the spectrum, and realized we needed a curated, user-friendly interface like people were used to on social media.
As 2020 began I knew we needed a community platform we could fully control, but that didn’t require technical expertise. That was private, but also fostered lively discussions. That had a great user experience, but didn’t force us to give away our customers’ data to a social media giant.
That was the moment we were introduced to Circle.
Founded by CEO Sid Yadav and other former employees of the online learning company Teachable, it promised to give independent creators like us the benefits of community without the headaches. I’d been talking to Sid for months about his ideas on the emerging movement of online communities. I knew that he and his team had thought deeply about both the problems and the opportunities.
Circle is now the primary platform behind our flagship courses Building a Second Brain and Write of Passage, serving thousands of students every year. The live class sessons are delivered via Zoom and the content lives on Teachable, but everything else – discussions, questions & answers, student feedback, interest groups, assignments, and much more happens on the Building a Second Brain Circle community.
Circle recently raised a second round of funding at a valuation of over $40 million. I’m proud to have joined the round as an angel investor alongside other prominent creators on the platform, like Anne-Laure Le Cunff, David Perell, and Nat Eliason.
Until very recently, there were few options available to online creators who wanted to gather a community around their work, without demanding so much time that it interferes with their work. As the creator movement takes off and more and more people realize that they can connect with like-minded people and make friends through the Internet, the platforms these communities are built on will be ever more important.
If you’re interested in starting your own discussion space, whether for a private book club, an online course, a paid community subscription, or just a place to connect over shared interests, I highly recommend you consider building it on Circle.
You can see a short walkthrough of how the platform works by clicking the button below, and even join a live demo if you’re ready to go: