Unit One: What are Learning Communities?

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Unit Objectives

Participants will:

  • Identify and use principles and practices of learning communities
  • Explore the shift in roles for instructors and students in learning communities

As We Begin This Unit

  • Keep in mind the unique mission of our institution in helping motivated adult learners, with family, work and other obligations, earn a college degree.
  • Consider the salient features two concepts of community, classroom and online, how might they complement each other and be adapted to address some of the issues addressed in the course introduction
  • Consider the subsequent changes in the roles of students and faculty when learning community approaches are adopted.

Learning Communities

Classroom Learning Communities

Bielaczyc & Collins (1999) use the term learning communities to refer to a new approach to education, which first emerged in classroom practice, in which the goal is to create a “culture of learning in which everyone is involved in a collective effort of understanding.” This concept of learning community is characterized by:

  • A diversity of expertise in which all participants are valued for their contributions
  • Group efforts to meet a shared objective to advance and improve collective understanding
  • A focus on learning how to learn
  • Processes and procedures for sharing knowledge the group has generated.

When translated into learning activities, learning communities encourage the development of both individual and co-construction of knowledge, the sharing skills and expertise among members of the community, and the opportunity to make learning visible.

Online Learning Communities

Misanchuk and Anderson (2003) define online learning communities as “a group of people who are brought together to share and generate knowledge in a mutually supportive and reciprocal manner”. To achieve a strong online community, there must be sustained interaction among participants and their instructor at the levels of communication, cooperation and collaboration. In addition, the following elements must be present:

  • Ownership, social interaction
  • Group and individual identity
  • Participation and knowledge generation

Roles of Instructors and Students in Learning Communities

In both these approaches we see that instructors and their students assume different roles, with the teacher becoming a facilitator and students assuming greater responsibility for their own learning which is accomplished through interaction among students and with their instructor. The discourse process of describing, exchanging and evaluating ideas, takes on a central role .

Group Discussion

As you read the following two articles, pay special attention to the roles and responsibilities of the instructor and students. In what ways do these roles complement or differ from your current practice of working with your students? How congruent are these approaches with your beliefs about learning? What adjustments might you have to consider? How difficult might this be? What resources might you need to move forward?

  • Bielaczyc, K., & Collins, A. (1999). Learning communities in classrooms: A reconceptualization of educational practice. In C. M. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional design theories and models, Vol. II. Mahwah NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. PDF. http://hvrd.me/vyQG43
  • Misanchuk, M. & Anderson, T. (2001). Building community in an online learning environment: communication, cooperation and collaboration. Mid-South Instructional Technology Conference, 8 – 10, April 2001, Murfreesboro, TN. PDF. http://bit.ly/2Xcbja

Additional resources

  • University of Pittsburgh. College of General Studies. What makes a successful online student? Web site. http://bit.ly/taIJG1

Connect to Group Discussion Area: Talk:Unit One: What are Learning Communities?


Take some time to return to the readings, the group discussion and the module's focusing questions. Write a brief 300 to 500 word reflection in which you consider how you might begin to incorporate some of the principles and practices of learning communities into one of your studies. Use this exercise to think about specific studies that might be potential candidates; initial ideas for community-based learning activities; a recurring topic or concept that might be better addressed through through group collaboration. You can also raise questions, revisit your assumptions, identify things you need to know more about before proceding.

Each participant will post a reflection to share with our community at Unit One Reflections