When I started graduate school again in 2010 as an education major, I was pretty unsure of what the future would hold for me and higher education. Learning communities were all the rage from about 2004-2009 at the community colleges where I worked, so I thought I’d focus my research on how this style of teaching could adapted to the online or hybrid curriculum. For the record, I never got to teach a learning community course because they were either the exclusively scheduled for full-time faculty or I couldn’t justify the extra (unpaid) prep time it would take to collaborate with another teacher.
Three of my favorite colleagues taught a biology, chemistry, and English composition learning community that I thought was the bees’ knees for pre-nursing students. This was before the hullabaloo about STEM, and I thought they were onto something big. When the English teacher started talking about retiring, she asked me if I’d be interested in taking her place. I was so honored, but I had to turn it down because my teaching load of six composition courses and my freelance work were just too overwhelming. And I’ll be honest and admit that the science teachers intimidated the hell out of me even though they were incredibly nice.
Then The Recession hit.
Funding for learning communities dried up. Courses were unbundled (surprise! that word is back). Faculty stopped pitching ideas. There are dead links to learning community course materials in the dusty corners of the Internet.
I’d like to think that the learning community is an idea with legs in 2016.
In 2008, Matthew Zeidenberg published “Community Colleges Under Stress” through the Community College Research Center.
Read the following quote as a Venn Diagram with open education, effective courseware, and supported professional learning for teachers. Add more circles focused on recent conversations about competency-based education, the unbundling of the curriculum, and guided pathways for students.
See these Venn Diagrams swirling around the conversation about free community college.
From Zeidenberg in 2008:
Another promising strategy that could potentially improve the efficacy of remediation is the “learning community,” in which groups of students take a number of courses together, with faculty coordinating the teaching. In this arrangement, a remedial course can be coupled with a college-level subject course. A student might take a remedial English course in combination with college-level history and sociology courses. The reading and writing in the remedial course would use materials from the college-level course. Learning as a group can create a sense of teamwork and connectedness that can improve student motivation and success. In addition, if students see a connection between remedial courses and college-level success, it may motivate them to work harder in the remedial courses. An experimental evaluation by Susan Scrivener and colleagues of learning communities at a community college in Brooklyn, New York, found some positive impacts of the program. Students in the learning community had better outcomes during the semester in which the learning community was implemented and completed the college’s remedial English requirements faster.
Note the bolded sentences. That’s the thing.
At the time of this publication in 2008, most of the people I worked with did not know about open education, open educational resources, or that there was a movement of people working to build on this idea. It’s still not a mainstream idea for many faculty members. That’s changing, and it’s very interesting to see it unfold.
The challenges our students and teachers face, however, remain very much the same.
We now have powers to build and blend courses in ways that could support learning communities. Now that I work for Lumen Learning, I see how courseware gets created, how it’s used to generate meaningful data about student performance, and how it can change everything for teaching and learning online. And I believe that, by the way, or I wouldn’t have accepted this job.
Honestly I made a joke about learning communities, and I remembered this research I did for an adult education class titled “A Foot In the Door” where I interviewed three adult returning students about their educations. All three of them faced external pressures such as health problems, jobs, transportation, and child-rearing that made it difficult for them to get to campus. They all admitted that they sometimes struggled to get to campus because of their personal lives. I was curious why they didn’t take online classes where they could have more flexibility with their schedules.
To my surprise, all three students who were very different, expressed how the lack of community they felt as online students drove them away from online courses. In a face-to-face class, they told me, they felt part of community and they liked the personal attention of the teacher. They liked feeling like they were a part of a community learning together.
Here’s what I wrote in 2010 as my reflection about this research paper and presentation (feel free to laugh at my mention of specific products. I did):
I am left with larger questions regarding my future role as an educator. How can we, as online teachers, help enrich the adult returning student’s perspective of online learning? Do adult returning students prefer face-to-face classes to online classes? If so, why? Will communication technologies like Elluminate, Skype, and teleconferencing alienate or entice this demographic? Will technologies that allow more “virtual” face-to-face interaction online, help adult returning students who have only limited access to traditional learning spaces? As more of my own teaching takes place online or in hybrid classes, I wonder if I am losing opportunities for teaching students like my interviewees, a demographic I care a great deal about at EvCC. Despite my seeing them all as ideal candidates for online classes, they see themselves as poor fits for this style of learning.
All three students are emphatic about needing direct human interaction in their learning process, yet some of the practical challenges they cite in being students could perhaps be remedied with the benefits of asynchronous learning.
That bolded sentence–that’s the thing. Still. In 2016.
Direct human interaction. Personalized learning. Personalization. Connection. Personal connection. Community. Learning as a person in a community.
It can be done with technology, and I’m very excited about this learning community that I now call my day job. It’s an idea with legs, as they say.
Let me close with another quote from Zeidenberg in 2008:
Limited finances are hobbling the ability of community colleges to fulfill their multiple missions. Although more money is not the solution to all problems, it is clear that it is better, all things being equal, to be less reliant on part-time faculty and to allocate money to support strategies such as tutoring and mentoring, supplemental instruction, individualized student counseling, and programs to assist students to succeed in college.
That’s the thing. In 2016. Still.