Learning communities

The educational technology and digital learning wiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search


Learning communities is a group of people who share common emotions, values or beliefs, are actively engaged in learning together from each other, and by habituation. Such communities have become the template for a cohort-based, interdisciplinary approach to higher education. This may be based on an advanced kind of educational or 'pedagogical' design. (Definition is taken from the Wikipedia:Learning community, September 2009).

According to Lenning and Ebbers, a strong learning community ‘‘sets the ambience for life-giving and uplifting experiences necessary to advance an individual and a whole society’’ (Lenning and Ebbers 1999).

Online learning communities: According to Wenger Online learning communities are not merely websites or database of resources, they are groups of people who come together in an online space to learn, interact, and build relationships, and through this process develop a sense of belonging and mutual commitment (Wenger et al., 2002). Barab et al. (2003) further define online community as “a persistent, sustained social network of individuals who share and develop an overlapping knowledge base, set of beliefs, values, history, and experiences focused on a common practice and/or mutual enterprise” (p. 238)

See also: Communities of practice. See also: Situated learning .

Philosophy of learning communities

Barbara Rogoff (1994) defines following features that community of learners posses.

1. Adults serve as leaders and facilitators for students and each other,not as authority figures.

2. Emphasis is on the process of learning (rather than just finished products) in activity-based learning situations with meaningful purposes,where prominence is given to conceptual thinking including both problem finding and problem solving,combination of curriculum areas,and planned flexibility of curriculum in order to build on student contributions.

3. Inherent interest in activities is fostered along with learning responsibility for one's choices. At first newcomers see this as giving more importance to play and fun at the expense of studying that is not considered to be fun.However,with the explicit curriculum aim of children becoming responsible for controlling their own learning,it is necessary for the motivation to involve the children in ways that are integral to involvement in the activity(as opposed to coming from promises or threats of candy bars,grades,stars,or scoldings).

4. Evaluation of student progress occurs through working with the child and observing.Teachers,coopers,and students attend to and reflect on children's progress and need for improvement in the context of children's learning activities;grades are not used.The emphasis is on children's own improvement,rather than on comparison of children with others. Daily involvement of adults in children's processes of learning, along with regular reflection,provide opportunities for evaluation and planning for improvement and helps students treat each other as resources and collaborators rather than competitors.

5. Cooperative learning occurs throughout the whole program with children working in collaboration with other children and adults throughout the day in ways that are intended to promote learning to lead and support group processes as well as to make use of others as resources.At first,newcomers may not see skills in contributing to interpersonal problem-solving and group processes as relevant to "academic" learning.The success in developing a classroom community,with helpful relations among students, makes administering and taking standardized tests difficult,as children have a hard time not sharing information with their classmates.

The above-mentioned features of learning communities are taken from Rogoff, B. (1994), Developing understanding of the idea of communities of learners. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 1.4,pp.220-223.

Boundaries of learning communities:

West and Williams defined characteristics of learning communities, representing different ways of defining the boundaries of a community ( West and  Williams 2017).

  • Community defined by access: Members of the learning community have to:
  1. Reach each other,
  2. Have a common meeting place.
  3. Have quality and quantity time.
  4. Transactional distance.
  • Community defined by relationships: Being engaged in a learning community often requires more than being present either physically or virtually. Members have to have:
  1. Sense of belonging
  2. Trust
  3. Interdependence
  4. Faith in the purpose of community
  • Community defined by vision: Communities defined by shared:
  1. Vision
  2. Goals
  3. Mission
  • Community defined by function: Perhaps the most basic way to define the boundaries of a learning community is by what the members do. For example, workers part of the same team or students in the same class.

Characteristics of learning communities

According to Barab & Duffy (2000) the following characteristics of the learning communities could be singled out.

1.Common cultural and historical heritage

A community has a significant history, a common cultural and historical heritage. This heritage includes shared goals, meanings, practices. New members inherit much of these goals, meanings, and practices from previous community members’ experiences in which they were hypothesized, tested, and socially agreed on.

In this respect, it is also worth mentioning such term as legitimacy. It is also through this heritage that communities find legitimacy. When individuals become legitimate members of the community, they inherit this common heritage, which becomes intertwined with their identities as community members.

2.Interdependent system

Individuals are a part of something larger as they work within the context and become interconnected to the community, which is also a part of something larger, society.

It is through this legitimate participation in the greater community, and then the communities' legitimate participation in society, that communities and identities are formed.It is not only the community members who are a part of something larger, but the community itself functions within a broader societal role. The interdependent perspective prevents communities, from small families to nations, from becoming world unto themselves.

3. Reproduction cycle

A community is constantly reproducing itself such that new members contribute, support and eventually lead the community into the future. Communities are continually replicating themselves, with new members moving from peripheral participant to core member through a process of enculturation.Legitimate peripheral participation in which the primary motivation for learning involves participating in authentic activities and creating an identity that moves an individual toward becoming more centripetal to a community.

The above-mentioned characteristics are taken from Barab, S. A., & Duffy, T. (2000). From practice fields to communities of practice. In D. H. Jonassen and S. M. Land (Eds.) Theoretical Foundations of Learning Environments (pp. 37–40).

Barab & Duffy (2000) point out that a community is not simply bringing a lot of people together to work on a task. Extending the length of the task and enlarging the group are not the key variables for moving to the community concept; rather, the key is linking into society-giving the students a legitimate role (task) in society through community participation and membership. We described communities as having three components: a common cultural and historical heritage, including shared goals, understandings, and practices; individuals becoming a part of an interdependent system; and the ability to reproduce as new members work alongside more competent others.

Learning community in higher education

In higher education, the aim of the learning community is to increase the interaction among the students and encourage peer learning, and fight against specialization in order to have different students who are studying diverse majors interact with each other, which eventually means that students have more sources of learning (Goodsell, 2012).

According to (Otto et al., 2015) the learning community appeared first time in higher education by Alexander Meiklejohn in 1920, at the University of Wisconsin’s Experimental College. The experiment adopted interdisciplinary learning and encouraged community building. In this particular context, the learning community is defined as “a variety of curricular approaches that intentionally link or cluster two or more courses, often around an interdisciplinary theme or problem, and enroll a common cohort of students”.

Otto and others (2015) described 5 essential aspects of the learning community, which are:

  • Community: Learning communities must offer safe spaces for all students to interact more closely with teachers and other students in order to carry out the primary practice of creating an inclusive community. The interaction needs to be in and outside the class.
  • Diversity: including different student populations is important. However, inclusive curriculum and pedagogies are equally essential when establishing diversity as a core practice in learning communities.
  • Integration: Students whom just co-register for the same group of courses in learning communities with very little to no curricular integration is not focusing on implementing this high-impact approach. Interdisciplinary, connections to extracurricular activities, deep learning, and even integrative pedagogies like cooperative learning can help achieve meaningful integration.
  • Active Learning: Different techniques of active learning could be used, such as problem-based learning, project-based learning, and undergraduate research.
  • Reflection: reflections of students should not be required only at the end of the course, but rather an ongoing process to evaluate the progress of the students, and the quality of the course. In the context of the learning community, the reflection can help the students to realize what they already know, and what they learned during their participation in the learning community.




  • Rogoff, B. (1994). Developing understanding of the idea of communities of learners. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 1.4, 209–229.
  • Barab, S. A., & Duffy, T. (2000). From practice fields to communities of practice. In D. H. Jonassen and S. M. Land (Eds.) Theoretical Foundations of Learning Environments (pp. 25–56). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum & Associates.
  • Otto, S., Evins, M. A., Boyer‐Pennington, M., & Brinthaupt, T. M. (2015). LEARNING COMMUNITIES IN HIGHER EDUCATION: BEST PRACTICES. Journal of Student Success and Retention, 2(1). https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Thomas-Brinthaupt/publication/301624821_Learning_communities_in_higher_education_Best_practices/links/5e530dcd458515072db79917/Learning-communities-in-higher-education-Best-practices.pdf
  • Goodsell, A. G. (2012). The Growth and Current State of Learning Communities in Higher Education. NEW DIRECTIONS FOR TEACHING AND LEARNING, 132, 5–7. https://10.1002/tl
  • West.R.E, Williams.S.G (2017). ‘‘I don’t think that word means what you think it means’’: A proposed framework for defining learning communities. DOI 10.1007/s11423-017-9535-0.