December 30, 2005

Learning Communities

There has been a lot of talk about "learning communities" over the past few year. Many corporations are trying to build them. And learning communities have spontaneously formed in cyber-space. But what are learning communities?

A learning community is a group of individuals (usually 20 or more, too large to be a "team") who've gathered together to learn about a specific subject or professional discipline. Learning communities, like learning teams, generally have individuals at all levels of development. Some members of the community are novices and other are experts. Learning communities may have specific tasks or objectives they are trying to accomplish - but many do not. Members may simply gather together because they have a strong personal interest in the subject matter or commitment to the discipline. Examples that we're all familiar with are Schools or Colleges within a University. And many professional associations are learning communities because they foster the development of people within a particular discipline by offering a variety of instructional activities and enabling like-minded people to communicate with one another. Prior to the advent of the Internet, learning communities were a PHYSICAL place where people met face-to-face. But now "virtual" learning communities exist where people communicate only online. Of course, most schools and associations have quickly adopted the Internet to augment the face-to-face interactions that occur in their communities.

Building effective learning communities requires more than just subject matter to hold them together. No doubt, some schools are probably held together merely because the law or the market place requires individuals to have a certain academic degree or credential in order to work in the field. But in most learning communities are constructed by people who've voluntarily come together. Strong learning communities, like any organization or neighborhood, generally have the same key ingredients that sustain them and help them flourish:

1) All members have a sense of belonging; new members feel welcomed
2) A mission or purpose which is important and transcends individuals
3) Members share responsibility for sustaining the community

The distinction between a learning team and a learning community is a sutle one. Learning communities are generally larger in size (often several hundred people) and have a much broader purpose. Learning communities are frequently sustained over long periods of time. Learning teams are generally much smaller groups - generally less than 20 people. The purpose of a learning team is generally a short term goal - their actions are often focused on a specific task or objective. Learning teams may be disbanded when the objectives have been met or when its members move on to do different things. Learning teams are often found within learning communities.

An analogy, one that I think is helpful, is to compare learning communities and teams to neighborhoods and households. A strong neighborhood is a large group of people with common interests (not merely the land that they occupy together). Strong neighborhoods are made of not only households but also businesses and other organizations (e.g. churches, senior center) that support and sustain the members of the neighborhood. Most strong neighborhoods have strong households - smaller units of people who spend significant amounts of time together and who enable one another to succeed. Older, more experienced members of the household (usually called parents, but this is not always the case) have a particular responsibility to attend to the needs of the younger members of the household. But members of a household often grow and leave. New household are sometime built and others fall apart or move away. Strong neighborhoods can help households that are faltering. But strong neighborhood are rarely destroyed by an isolated or even a few households that aren't doing well.

Like strong neighborhoods, strong learning communities have similar requirements - they don't thrive merely by having a bunch of members or a collection of learning teams affiliated with them. Food for thought in this new year.

If you're really interested in this stuff, check out or this site at Miami University of Ohio regarding Faculty and Professional Learning Communities.