A learning community is a group of people who share common academic goals and attitudes, who meet semi-regularly to collaborate on classwork. Such communities have become the template for a cohort-based, interdisciplinary approach to higher education. This may be based on an advanced kind of educational or 'pedagogical' design.
Community psychologists such as McMillan and Chavis (1986) state that there are four key factors that defined a sense of community: “(1) membership, (2) influence, (3) fulfillment of individuals needs and (4) shared events and emotional connections. So, the participants of learning community must feel some sense of loyalty and belonging to the group (membership) that drive their desire to keep working and helping others, also the things that the participants do must affect what happens in the community; that means, an active and not just a reactive performance (influence). Besides a learning community must give the chance to the participants to meet particular needs (fulfillment) by expressing personal opinions, asking for help or specific information and share stories of events with particular issue included (emotional connections) emotional experiences.
In a summary of the history of the concept of learning communities, Wolff-Michael Roth and Lee Yew Jin suggest that until the early 1990s, and consistent with (until then) dominant Piagetian constructivist and information processing paradigms in education, the individual was seen as the "unit of instruction" and the focus of research. Roth and Lee claim this as watershed period when, influenced by the work of Jean Lave, and Lave and Etienne Wenger among others, researchers and practitioners switched to the idea that knowing and knowledgeability are better thought of as cultural practices that are exhibited by practitioners belonging to various communities which, following Lave and Wenger's early work, are often termed Communities of practice.
Roth and Lee claim that this led to forms of praxis (learning and teaching designs implemented in the classroom, and influenced by these ideas) in which students were encouraged to share their ways of doing mathematics, history, science, etc. with each other. In other words, that students take part in the construction of consensual domains, and "participate in the negotiation and institutionalisation of ... meaning". In effect, they are participating in learning communities. Roth and Lee go on to analyse the contradictions inherent in this as a theoretically informed practice in education.
Roth and Lee are concerned with learning community as a theoretical and analytical category; they critique the way in which some educators use the notion to design learning environments without taking into account the fundamental structures implied in the category. Their analysis does not take account of the appearance of learning communities in the United States in the early 1980s. For example, The Evergreen State College, which is widely considered a pioneer in this area, established an intercollegiate learning community in 1984. In 1985, this same college established the Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education, which focuses on collaborative education approaches, including learning communities as one of its centerpieces.
Learning communities began to gain popularity at other U.S. colleges and universities during the late 80s and throughout the 90s. The Washington Center's National Learning Commons Directory has over 250 learning community initiatives in colleges and universities throughout the nation.
Learning community models
The learning community approach fundamentally restructures the curriculum, and the time and space of students. Many different curricular restructuring models are being used, but all of the learning community models intentionally link together courses or coursework to provide greater curricular coherence, more opportunities for active teaming, and interaction between students and faculty.
- Linked courses: Students take two connected courses, usually one disciplinary course such as history or biology and one skills course such as writing, speech, or information literacy.
- Learning clusters: Students take three or more connected courses, usually with a common interdisciplinary theme uniting them.
- Freshman interest groups: Similar to learning clusters, but the students share the same major, and they often receive academic advising as part of the learning community.
- Federated learning communities: Similar to a learning cluster, but with an additional seminar course taught by a "Master Learner," a faculty member who enrolls in the other courses and takes them alongside the students. The Master Learner's course draws connections between the other courses.
- Coordinated studies: This model blurs the lines between individual courses. The learning community functions as a single, giant course that the students and faculty members work on full-time for an entire semester or academic year.
Residential learning communities, or living-learning programs, range from theme-based halls on a college dormitory to degree-granting residential colleges. What these programs share is the integration of academic content with daily interactions among students, faculty, and staff living and working in these programs.
Results of learning communities
Universities are often drawn to learning communities because research has shown that they improve student retention rates. Emily Lardner and Gillies Malnarich of the Washington Center at The Evergreen State College note that a learning community can have a much greater impact on students:
The camaraderie of co-enrollment may help students stay in school longer, but learning communities can offer more: curricular coherence; integrative, high-quality learning; collaborative knowledge-construction; and skills and knowledge relevant to living in a complex, messy, diverse world.
There are also criticism on learning in groups. According to Armstrong (2012), people put in groups lose their sense of individual responsibility. And typically the things learned through taking individual responsibility are the things remembered by adults.
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- Center: National Learning Commons
- National Study of Living-Learning Programs
- Free Learning Community Portal
Educational Programs built on the Learning Community model of Education: