Leadership In Higher Education

How Learning Communities Transform Members and Society

The term learning community is well understood in higher education. Harvard, for example, defines a learning community as a space and a structure for people to align around a shared goal. 

For faculty at colleges and universities, a learning community (LC) frequently takes the form of a small group of teachers and professors who communicate and collaborate, in-person or virtually, as they grow and reflect on their pedagogy.

Students who participate in their own learning communities often work together toward a deeper understanding of course material while gaining the skills they need for academic and future success.

However, learning communities are not just for colleges and universities.

Researchers Lenning and Ebbers (1999) note that a strong learning community “sets the ambience for life-giving and uplifting experiences necessary to advance an individual and a whole society.” Moreover, any group of people, whether connected by school, workplace, or society, can experience the positive impact of learning communities.

Here is a closer look at their transformative power.

Build Common Goals

Members in a learning community define and create their purpose and practice, including how they measure progress and success. 

Even if the learning community’s general focus and its participants have been chosen by a supervisor, teacher, or other leaders, the members have the opportunity to define their vision and goals collectively. An LC formed under a common course of study, for example, still leaves the freedom for members to explore more specific and shared interests and form a plan for deepening their understanding.

This experience can be particularly impactful and positive for the individual. 

Lenning and Ebbers (1999) explain that strong communities form out of this collective process of inclusiveness, commitment, and consensus. For some members, a learning community might be their first opportunity to contribute, feel heard, and invest their time in a meaningful pursuit with others. 

Create Connections

When a group of people comes together to form a learning community, they naturally start making connections through their communication and collaboration. This can be particularly beneficial in decreasing feelings of isolation (Lenning & Ebbers, 1999) that may plague people who feel stuck behind desks or cubicles.

But learning communities not only increase face-to-face interactions with members who have a campus or workplace in common; they also bring people together from around the globe.

Technology allows learning communities to form with members who are geographically distant, crossing communication boundaries and promoting a strong sense of global community, diverse resources, and shared purpose for change.

Share Knowledge

Members of a learning community combine their collective resources, information, and skills to help accomplish their goals. Throughout the time that the learning community is together, the participants also gain new, collective ideas and understandings.

One of the benefits of this shared knowledge is that it helps contribute to the learning community’s ability to accomplish its primary goal with solutions and strategies that can benefit the individual, their educational environment, and even their business (Beus, 2017).

Even if the learning community is not successful, each member leaves with experiential knowledge and skills they can apply to future tasks, problems, or learning communities.

Develop Leadership Skills and Roles

In a study conducted by Hostetter et al. (2007), researchers observed the benefits of using student learning communities to improve teaching and learning.

They noted that “students are empowered in finding their collective voice and holding each other accountable for the classroom community.”

Members of a learning community organically take on leadership roles as they explore meaningful strategies and solutions that can benefit others. In the process, they also gain leadership skills.

According to Harvard, these successful learning communities contribute to distributed leadership, the idea that an organization’s success is driven by leaders at all levels who share a common goal.

Empower Change

It is no coincidence that learning communities are often described as “transformative”; they frequently result in positive change within individuals, organizations, and society.

Individual change occurs as members gain skills, knowledge, and confidence. Within higher education, the impact of learning communities on students is well studied, with positive outcomes including higher retention rates, higher grade point averages, lower risk of academic withdrawal, increased cognitive skills and abilities, and improved ability to adjust to college (Lichtenstein, 2005). 

Benefits such as cognitive skills and the ability to adjust, can help individuals in any setting, whether higher education, the workforce, or their communities. 

Furthermore, as teachers, employers, and social groups start to use learning communities to solve problems and complete complex tasks, they will see positive change as well. Imagine a business that tasks a strong learning community with increasing engagement or a community group that takes on the challenge of its residents’ access to health and wellness resources.

Learning communities help measure and understand results, provide knowledge of best practices, and bring together the people who are motivated to make systemic changes. These benefits of learning communities are incredibly impactful. They imply that true transformation can occur within individuals and society as any group leverages the power of learning communities.

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