On Learning Communities

Last month I read a blog entry about the ‘idea store’, a new merger of libraries and learning centers that is being tried out in Britain. Ever since I’ve been toying with the idea of learning communities. Today I did some internet research and discovered that there has been a lot of discussion about learning communities within the university. Most of these programs and ideas have focused on creating a community of students inside a university or college. The focus seems to be on improving the student-student interactions, essentially another go around at the peer learning model. See this definition from evergreen.edu

In higher education, curricular learning communities are classes that are linked or clustered during an academic term, often around an interdisciplinary theme, and enroll a common cohort of students. A variety of approaches are used to build these learning communities, with all intended to restructure the students’ time, credit, and learning experiences to build community among students, between students and their teachers, and among faculty members and disciplines.

The idea store concept appeals to me because it takes learning beyond the classroom. A few years ago I was a semi-regular attendee at a Socrates Cafe meeting. One of my biggest complaints was the lack of continuity. Issues kept coming up again and again but never seemed to be resolved, lessons learned one week were forgotten the next. Part of this was because we exercised no control over who participated, new members joined and left at frequent intervals, some people were disruptive. There were some regular members but there wasn’t any way to pass on information over time.

Somewhere between the formal programs of a university and the informal discussions of a weekly philosophy book there is a middle ground. The idea store seems to be approaching that middle ground. Here are some things I’d like to see:

  • No formal evaluations or grades. People should join because they are interested in the material. This raises a problem for those who are unable to find people who share their interests.
  • Combination of online an offline meetings. Online work can help store and share new knowledge but the community building that takes place in a university or at a library is also important.
  • Availability of experts from various domains, such as business or a university, to answer questions and deepen understanding of a topic. Public lectures might be a starting point for this. Need to consider the difference between popularizing a topic for the general public and showing the progress of scholarship with work in progress.
  • Suggested curricula from various sources. This might help to provide a focus to the freewheeling ad hoc discussions I encountered at Socrates Cafe.