Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Learning Communities Session (Donovan Plumb, Robert McGray and Elaine Harris)

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jun 22, 2006

Originally posted on Half an Hour, June 22, 2006.

Learning Communities

From the Canadian Council on Learning conference on adult learning in Fredericton.

See also the formal report.

Donovan Plumb, Robert McGray

If you look through the beginnings of the report you see us trying to come to grips with the term 'learning communities'. It's not a term where if you do a search in a database you'll get a lot of hits. But we see it as important for any organization involved in adult learning, because there has always been this relation between community and adult learning. So we wanted to see what the people in the field were actually saying. So our task was to review the acaemic and professional literature, to investigate indicators (though the notion doesn't really apply) and address gaps between theory and practice.

The whole premise of a state of the field review is to see what people are saying, but as researchers we don't do this without a bias, so we are always moving in with a different kind of interest, and ours was probably articulated by Maude Barlow, this crazy change taking place and intensifying in the last ten years, the thrust of globalization ramping up and negating the community context. We were concerned about the impact of globalization in impacts. So our report was framed around that, how communities were being negatively impacted by globalization.

When people talk about learning or community, they are usually thought of uncritically, two very warm fuzzy words. We want to resist the temptation to say this is just a good thing, let's look at that. When we worked in Jamaica, there's a crime problem, and when people get into crime organizations, there's a learning path,m and we didn't want to endorse that.

One definition we found is from Ron Faris: 'learning explicitly used as an organizing principle and social goal - learning resourcs are mobilized to foster communities.' We don't want to say what a learning community should look like, but it should have an organizing role.

Intrinsic connection between community and adult learning. Eg. Frontier College, Antigonish Movement, Farm Radio Forum, Women's Institutes. You can't have health community unless it critically engages learning, you can't have learning unless it transpires community (yes, he said that).

We wanted to check out the extent to which our field has developed its explicit undertanding of this connection. We began to see that there are different lvls of this sense of that. We have this sense that what we really need now is a theoretical and practical understanding of the critical importance of this connection. The reason is that our communities are really at risk. While they were healthy and not under attack by globalization, we could draw on their resources and take them for granted. But as they are under attack, these resources are being depleted. We can't just reply on the inherent learning processes in a community any more. We have to become increasingly clear about the linkage between community and learning. So we nbeeded to find out how people were talking about this linkage.

Levels of connectivity:
- learning and community not explicitly linked
- linked but with limited connections
- linked but not explicitly theorized
- linked and explicitly theorized

The way in which the research is tending to go is that the connection is being theorized, and this is a positive thing, and a goal for the learning centre is to mobilize this understanding, so, eg., where community development is taking place without any discussion of learning, this can be shifted upward. To promote this kind of deeper understanding.

Four key findings:

1. Current trends in research in adult learning focus on individual learning, thus misses community learning, cultural cognition. Learning isn't something that happens jut in our heads.

2. Learning communities are difficult to research because they are emergent and complex, not pre-planned and complicated, and as a result they are difficult to investigate using static social science methods

3. The connection between community and adult learning runs against more mainstream themes - it does not fit well into the picture of a consumer culture.

4. The systems of indicators, measures and benchmarks are ill-suited fr assessing adult learning. Often people have teleological based assessment, with an end in mind, and a number used to measure it. But this is misleading. Does not take into account context, circumstances.

Possible research questions:

- what is the nature of the relationship?
- what does the development of the community context help or hinder learning
- and how does development of a leaning context help build community?
- and how does research in this field help the quality of life in Canada?

Elaine Harris

Part of what I will talk about are gap that I perceive.

What I want to say about what you heard is that it was exciting that some discussion about this is taking place, because it doesn't generlly fit, it's not neat and tidy. Part of 'learning community' is a normative ideal, and we are still trying to make it an analytic concept. And because it is an idea, there is this sense maybe we shouldn't be talking about it. So I'm happy we were able to keep it. Although recognizing the difficulty of trying to put a frame around it.

Although we use the Faris definition, part of the problem still is, 'What is a learning community'? We know some things are essential, but it's still vague. A lot of the context of that is not particularly defined. So perhaps we need to say more about the types of learning communities we've been part of. We have some essences, but not a good idea of what they are. Eg. communities of geography? communities of affinity?

I'm not sure how you're talking about theory and metatheory and empirical research. At the metatheory level we're all on board for them. They're really important because they're about relational learning, and they're about learning in a particular context. There's not just cognitive learning, there's also an affective dimension, and there's also power involved. But I think if we talked about them we'd find a lot more practice, a lot more empirical data, in various disciplines. One of the reasons we haven't been able to entirely theorize it is that it runs into these other domains (great observation - SD). We need to step outside adult education and look at those other practices that are looking at the same kind of thing, where leaning might not be central.

A reason there has been a lack of development, perhaps, of terminology, etc., is that it has not fitted into the academic world so easily. Compare to impact of globalizations. I want to talk about how hard it is o bring themes of community into the research themes. Have to fight really hard to maintain that level of anaysis. There is a fightback from the academy because the academy is more comfortable with things that can be easily reuced or related, etc. So we don't get so much encouragement to pursue it as we much.

Also, anything to do with geography or local isn't sexy any more - if you're not doing global, you're not with it. I wanted to inject more regional vocabulary into it, eg. 'Northern Alberta', naming particular places, as search terms.

Although we didn't find much under 'learning community' there are other terms. Eg., 'communities of practice'. 'Social movement'. 'Situated learning' is starting to be popular and helpful. 'Social cognition' and 'social capital'. There is a question of whether we ho are alting about leaning are talking about the same thing as 'networking'. The way that learning communities take up knowledge is essentially in communication - the flow of information is not just a flow - it is communicated horizontally, there is a practice of meaning-making happening. Why aren't we paying more attention to communication dynamics that have to do with meaning and not just information and knowledge.

Finally, one of the mot important aspects of the leaning community possibilities - communities of hope - is communities where citizens are involved, issues that arise from the community that are driving thelearning. We talk about how hard it is to get at analytics when we are carrying so much in the term - but it is the space of civic engagement that is so important - learners as citizens, and not working out of their professional roles (a big difference here, a public sphere tht is created - that kind of learning community is the one I want to explore).

And the last thing I want to say is that we have so few slive accounts of learning communities. I have the suspicion that the people who could write the most compelling narratives about learning communities are practitioners. Maybe we can think of collaboration and cooperation with an academic.

Q & A

Comment: issue facing communities: incredibly accelerated resource extraction - and the response maks people think and act like learning communities - but they don't call it that. Also, is there a role for institution-building in this?

Donovan: how can this knowledge centre deepen our support for the development of the capacity to do this kind of work? The important role that adult learning plays in community. It's not just happenstance that they're going to learn about this, of course they're going to have to learn about this. And so - what kind of things need to be there? What kind of conversations do we need to have. How do we manage the inclusive-exclusive balance (you need exclusivity for continuity, and yet you want to be inclusive)?

Comment: my bias is that I think that learning communities as being presented is a part of a new liberal agenda. It doesn't interest you, but there is an equilibrium. To achieve or to reach social justice, let's forget about learning communities, and let's think about groups that need to learn in order to act. Look at them, they won't talk about learning communities. It's this notion of nice, friendly no-conflict that is built into this way of thinking.

Robert: This neo-liberal agenda - I think we can rescue the term.

Donovan: I think we should rescue the term, there's no reason why we should let them take it away from us. It's sort of this doublespeak, trying to capture something away so that we don't have it.

Robert: I so totally agree, though, that writing a report about learning communities is almost anti learning communities.

Donovan: It was sort of an anti community exercise, a state of the field revoiew where you get experts.

Comment: We heard some of the issues - resourcs, defining community, etc. - it seems to me that what I have been doing mostly is adult learning, but in planning we don't talk about that - I have been explicit, but I use the term 'planning' - planners facilitate a lot of learning, often in conflict situations. Perhaps the challenge is you've grabbed onto a definition rather than looking at what's happening. Eg. here, the protected areas, where the movement began with the protests (while the politicians say, it didn't exist until we created a law). They don't call it learning, they call it policy-making.

Donovan: learning si a problem, this knowledge-transmisson view of learning is a real problem, but we can look into the interdisciplinary aspects of it. They're connecting up. They're challenging this industrialized notion of learning. They are creating notions of learning that are very important to mobilize in this kind of context.

Robert: this interdisciplinarity is part of the emergent properties of this theme. We didn't say, fund a study to do this, fund a study to do that. We are thinking te learning centre could say, maybe it's important for communities.

Elaine: the language question insterests me - the decay of public language. Words now don't have the same kind of meaning they used to, they have been co-opted. Part of the struggle is to at least find some common pieces.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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