Learning Communities

Objective

This is a reflection on the concept of learning communities, as presented by Barkley in Student Engagement Techniques.  One of the conditions to promote synergy between motivation and active learning is creating a sense of classroom community.

Reflective

This concept stood out to me for a few reasons.  Firstly, being enrolled in the online version of PIDP 3250, I believe that I am currently part of a learning community.  It is unlike any other learning community I’ve participated in – primarily because I think it feels more like a community than just about any other classroom or online learning experience I’ve had.  And that’s the feeling I get just after three weeks in the course.  So I’d really like to step outside the course for a moment, look down on it, and investigate what makes it such an effective community.

Secondly, I just really like the idea of my classes having a strong sense of community.  To me that means students are working together, have a mutual respect and understanding for each other, contribute to their own and others’ learning in a meaningful way, and everyone feels like they belong and have a sense of purpose for being actively engaged.

Lastly, I went out to brunch with a teacher friend a few weeks ago who was telling me how she’s found great success in implementing technology in her class to establish a community.  This piqued my interest and I’ve been meaning to investigate that further.  

So it’s all just fresh in my mind as all of these ideas from all different angles converge into a single reflection about relevant course content.  I’m motivated to look into this concept and I have a sense that my time spent doing so will have value.    

Interpretive

Creating a sense of classroom community promotes synergy between motivation and active learning which will strengthen student engagement.  The questions I want to explore are, what are classroom communities and how do we create a sense of classroom community?

Barkley (2010) promotes Cross’s (1998) definition of learning community as, “groups of people engaged in intellectual interaction for the purpose of learning”.  Watkins (2004), adds that the community not only learns together, but “about its collective process of learning”.  He adds that the “focus is on human processes for building social and learning relations” (p. 1) and that the community has certain hallmarks: members decide and review; belongingness develops; cohesion amongst members emerges; and diversity is embraced.  Watkins also identifies a number of processes that are likely to be present in a community: Active engagement with the community goal; bridge-building to other communities; collaboration to create joint projects; and dialogue to engage and progress.  Ultimately, the focus of classroom communities, while demonstrating these hallmarks and processes, is on learning, which usually occurs through enquiry and the creation of new knowledge.  

Advice on the development of classroom communities seems deeply rooted in online learning environments.  Cooper (2016) provides some advice to instructors on how to build an online learning community.  His six tips for instructors are: Be present at the course site; get your students involved; set expectations from the beginning; interact with students; invite questions, discussions and responses; and mix up the way that students are learning.  Pappas (2016) has some additional suggestions in this regard, such as, cultivating a personal connection and appointing online learning community leaders.

Browning (2016) provides some advice to instructors about classroom learning communities, facilitated through online learning management systems, and suggests transparency, modeling behaviour, and celebrating differences are keys to success.  She notes that discussion forums and blog assignments, “provide opportunities for students to communicate digitally with classmate that they might not speak to in person”.  She discusses an example of how she highlights student blogs and embraces different perspectives and honesty above all else, which promoted more open exchange of meaningful comments.         

Returning to Watkins (2004), his extensive research into the topic led him to summarize classrooms as communities with the following descriptions, “students are crew, not passengers…cooperative learning activities build supportive relationships that increase belonging and motivation..students take an active role in classroom governance.”  He outlines classroom practices as a number of elements – tasks, resources, social structure, and role – all operating around a central classroom goal.  His version of a classroom community is observed in the following points:

  • Students operate together to improve knowledge
  • Students help each other learn through dialogue
  • Learning goals emerge and develop during enquiry
  • Students create products for each other and for others
  • Students access resources outside the class community
  • Students review how best the community supports learning
  • Students show understanding of how group processes promote their learning
  • The classroom social structures promote interdependence
  • Students display communal responsibility including in the governance of the classroom
  • Assessment tasks are community products which demonstrate increased complexity and a rich web of ideas

All of the above advice seems to be enshrined in the online version of PIDP 3250.  And it all seems like what I’m after.  While I understand it may take quite a bit of practice, it certainly provides a vision, with some aims and objectives of how to start building better learning communities in my courses.

Decisional

While I’m more interested in establishing a community inside my classroom for the several hours per week that I’m together with my students, I understand that having a central online hub can enhance the community outside of the classroom.  My college utilizes Desire2Learn (D2L), which from the outside looking in, is great, but students feel like it’s just another place they have to login.  I’ve tried other approaches to building an online community by trying to get involved in social media platforms like Instagram, Twitter and yes, even Snapchat at the request of my students.  The result though, is the community is starting to be spread too thin – there is no central online hub outside of the classroom.  Students access course material on D2L, they post pictures on Instagram and share stories on Snapchat.  I’ve been exploring ways to bring this all under one roof.

Perhaps exploring D2L further might help.  I notice it has a blog option, and I can certainly try to incorporate the discussion forum with more vigor.  The idea of having students facilitate their own discussion forum for a set time on an assigned topic is a fantastic idea that meets much of the previous advice about learning communities.  D2L also has the ability to allow students to reflect and maintain a portfolio but these are options that I just haven’t investigated fully.  I use it primarily as a repository for course content.  I’m going to meet with our instructional designers and seek support from our Teaching and Learning Centre with the specific goal of incorporating D2L as a blended approach to my classroom by maximizing the opportunity to participate in the community.  

A few weeks ago, a friend told me about how she has observed positive outcomes in her students after establishing a Google Community for her courses.  I joined a few Google communities over the past few weeks and they have been engaging.  They are much more aesthetically pleasing than D2L and even the fact that it’s called a “community” goes a long way for me.  There is potential for different students to moderate the community for given times on specific topics or in whatever way they choose.  Ultimately, it looks like a great option to bring course content under the same roof as social media by combining the best of both worlds.  It doesn’t seems like too great a leap to have my students connect to an established community with an existing google account.

In summary, I’m going to keep trying to establish the foundations of an effective learning community during class time.  I’m also going to explore the idea of creating a central online hub for my learning communities and give students the power to moderate and regulate their own learning in that format.  This might involve more blog projects, discussion forums, digital projects, but more importantly sharing all of that knowledge with each other, under one roof.

References

Barkley, E.F. (2010).  Student Engagement Techniques A Handbook for College Faculty.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Browning, C. (2016).  Building an Online Learning Community That Fosters Relationships. Retrieved from https://ww2.kqed.org/learning/2016/12/13/building-an-online-learning-community-that-fosters-relationships/

Cooper, S. (2016).  How to Build a Thriving Online Learning Community. Retrieved from www.elearningindustry.com/6-tips-build-thriving-online-learning-community

Pappas, C. (2016). 8 Tips to Build an Online Learning Community. Retrieved from www.elearningindustry.com/6-tips-build-thriving-online-learning-community

Watkins, C. (2004).  Classrooms as learning communities.  NSIN Research Matters, Institute of Education, University of London, Autumn 2004, No. 24, p 1-8

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