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Learning communities are a framework in which students, faculty, and staff can collaborate with the aim of addressing structural barriers to academic success. They often link several existing courses together or restructure curriculum entirely with the needs and interests of that particular student population in mind. Many times they are led by a coordinator and faculty and staff that work together--for instance, English composition instructors participating in a learning community may partner with a specific counselor assigned to the learning community to support their students' distinct needs. Some learning communities, like Umoja, are national--and others can be specific to the school or university.
Learning communities are also a model for student-centered learning, particularly when it comes to practicing culturally responsive pedagogy. And they can lead to increased student learning outcomes.
In the realm of remote learning, learning communities can be severely impacted because they are based on social connections. But studies have shown that learning communities are possible and effective as a way to promote a sense of belonging in online and remote learning, particularly in the following ways:
Increasing learning efficacy
A June 2020 Edsurge article states, “Learning communities--where students work together with a common goal, purpose, or interest--are colleges’ best tool to make online learning, hands-on learning.” The article continues, “Being in the learning community helped these students stay connected to each other even after the virus sent them home—letting them find ways to continue their great work helping others.” Learning communities are a way for schools and universities to provide a personalized learning experience and keep students engaged and motivated.
Learning communities result in increased student success. Umoja is an example of a learning community that centers the African and African American diaspora experience. Umoja practices culturally responsive pedagogy, for instance, by assigning reading specific to student interests, thereby removing roadblocks to writing outcomes and nurturing intrinsic motivation. And while Umoja recruits Black students, it is also open to and has included, students of all races and ethnicities. And like many learning communities, Umoja integrates student support services and digital literacy with the curriculum, advocating the integration of the 3Cs: Classes, Counseling, and Community.
At Chabot College in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Umoja community has resulted in measurable student learning outcomes. The college’s Office of Institutional Research documented the success rates of African American students enrolled in Daraja (the prior name for their Umoja community) versus those in non-Daraja courses. And the differences are stark, with, in some years, Umoja students experiencing a 90% success rate compared to 38% for non-Umoja students. Umoja students attempted and earned twice as many credits and increased persistence than non-Umoja students.
Learning communities increase persistence and retention. At their most ideal, learning communities support student communities and enable learning to occur. At the most pragmatic level, retention serves an institution’s financial bottom line. The above EdSurge article also states, “Students who find purpose in their remote learning with these online learning communities will be more likely to find success—and stay enrolled.” DiRamio and Wolverton, in their research article entitled Integrating Learning Communities and Distance Education: Possibilities or Pipedream?, found that “Learning communities, as a course design strategy, have proven successful in confronting challenges associated with attrition and retention. Because high attrition is associated with online distance education, learning community principles might be applicable to online courses.”
Overcoming isolation in remote learning
Remote learning can make a student feel isolated and lack a sense of belonging. which can lead to decreased motivation, academic misconduct, and attrition. But learning communities can directly mitigate this isolation and absence of physical contact. According to Quarles in Five Ways to Foster Community in Distance Education, “Unfortunately, community-building can be an afterthought in distance education – and when community is lacking, students suffer.” Additionally, students who don’t feel seen are more likely to engage in academic misconduct. On the other hand, when students are engaged, more opportunities open up for them during school and afterward. To that end, The Chronicle of Higher Education features one university’s plan for accommodating students in Fall 2020 in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s “Carolina Away.”
Learning communities promote equity. For first-generation students, for students with financial hardship, or for students without ready access to education, things like higher education aren’t a guarantee. There may be students without intrinsic knowledge of institutional processes or understanding of good study habits--and learning communities that pair counseling and student services can provide supplemental support. The benefits of a supportive, lasting community are unparalleled.
Furthermore, because learning communities often focus on student populations that are underserved, they offer a critical service. And we have to support at-risk students who are particularly vulnerable to the inequities of remote learning.
Community lasts beyond the classroom. And in the face of increased isolation, the inequities of remote learning, rising academic integrity concerns and enrollment and other pragmatic matters, it’s important to address issues holistically, for the long term. When educators wonder how it is they can increase retention and uphold learning and create a sense of belonging, learning communities are one solution.