Too often, the Web 2.0 tools that corporations and schools use to facilitate collaborative learning fail to incorporate a method of awarding scores to participants. Platforms labeled as tools for collaboration or knowledge management, rather than for training or learning management, usually lack a built-in system for keeping score.

If keeping score somehow undermined the goal of collaborative learning, the missing functionality might make sense, but scores can be a surprisingly good way to help learners enter the environment at their own level of expertise.

Consider the scoring strategy Yahoo! Answers uses to award points to its members. New users start with 100 points, the ability to ask up to five questions a day, answer up to 20 questions a day, and comment on 10 answers a day. But if users want the ability to rate other answers with a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down,” they have to earn another 150 points first. To earn those points, they could simply log in once a day for 150 days. If they choose to answer questions, however, they can earn 2 points per question, which would speed up the process. The quickest way to earn a lot of points is to provide the Best Answer for the question. When an Asker selects a Best Answer, the participant who wrote it gets 10 points, and additional points for each “thumbs up” rating from other users.

In other words, the system rewards users for visiting the forum, offers greater rewards for participating, and even greater rewards for doing quality work. It’s an ingenious strategy for building participation in the environment and tracking and rewarding individual users’ contributions to the understanding of the group.

Most corporate tools don’t offer a scoring system nearly as elegant, but with a little imagination a learning designer can create a similar scaffolding effect.

A call to action

The first time learners visit your Learning 2.0 environment, they may be new to Web 2.0 applications, new to the subject matter, new to one another, or some combination of the three. Depending on the goals and needs of the group, the first few times learners enter the environment you may engage them in icebreaking activities or ask them to perform a serious task, but you should always include a specific call to action.

As an early assignment, a facilitator might ask the group to vote on a question, to introduce themselves to the rest of the group, or provide a link to resources they’ve found useful in the past. Vague or general directions tend to be dismissed as noise and often lead to a low number of responses or to poor-quality responses.

The tasks you assign do not need to be limited to the functions of the software platform. Polling, for example, can take place regardless of whether your software includes a built-in function for polling learners. If it doesn’t, polling may mean asking users to add their names under a thread, or to add a star or tag to a particular location.

Going forward

As the conversation continues, assignments should become more challenging. The first threaded discussions might evolve from simple polls into exercises where you ask learners to rank choices in the order of their preference and explain the reasons for their choice. Later, you might ask participants to divide into groups (or they might naturally divide into groups on their own) to argue the pros and cons of a particular situation. You can ask specific members to pose questions to the group, submit blog entries, or edit wiki entries for accuracy.

Scoring is a motivator because it provides users with feedback. If your learning environment doesn’t include a scoring strategy, look for ways to help the members of the community notice and appreciate one another’s contributions. At set intervals, ask the group to tag other users who have given them insight into another point of view, to add a star if another user has asked a question they might not have thought to ask, or to comment on posts they find interesting. Truly, a little appreciation goes a long way.

One caveat

Learning communities that sustain themselves over long periods engage in these activities naturally. Members are simply curious about one another’s opinions and know others appreciate their contributions. If learners are engaged in productive conversation without you, avoid the temptation to get caught up in the role of emcee. Ultimately, the goal is to create a learning community that sustains itself with minimal intervention from the learning designer.