In my last blog post, I focused on the different ways of linking courses in order to make the case, as Shapiro and Levine do, that the more we customize our learning communities to meet the specific needs of our students, the greater the positive effects on the institution. However, as we begin to scale up, we begin to face obstacles that are not necessarily of a pedagogical nature, obstacles that must be overcome in order to assure the survival of our linked courses. Having linked courses, unfortunately, does not assure students will take those classes. There are lessons to be learned from previous institutions that have already gone through this kind of overhaul. For example, Shapiro and Levine explain that “[o]ther campuses have found that offering learning communities does not guarantee participation, particularly among a freshman population often skeptical to try something new or different” (Creating Learning Communities). I know that at Truman we had some issues with low enrollment early on due, I am sure, to the difficulties that often arise when a new pedagogical model requires serious alterations in scheduling, registration, advising and student expectations.
Getting the Word Out:
Interestingly, one of the greatest challenges to implementing learning communities is simply informing students, parents and faculty about what they are and what advantages they provide. Shapiro and Levine describe very simple and effective strategies for raising awareness about learning communities. For students, she focuses on developing program literature that answers the following questions:
1. What is a learning community?
2. Why should I enroll?
3. What can learning communities offer me?
4. How do I enroll?
They argue that this information should be included in all recruitment materials, applications, brochures, and videos; it should also be prominently displayed on the college website and be presented to incoming freshman at orientation. Our authors also believe that students who have already participated in linked courses should, if at all possible, be a part of orientation to further reassure students about the value of linked courses and get them excited for the upcoming year. At the very least, claim our authors, “Program literature should include quotations from former participants.”
For faculty, Shapiro and Levine obviously focus on professional development activities. They argue, “In the same way that the campus needs to prepare students with new expectations for their college experience by building in a transition . . . it needs to acknowledge the importance of orienting faculty to the new rules expected of them.” Shapiro and Levine feel workshops should be led by faculty who have already participated in learning communities because “much of the development of the sense of community comes from faculty exploring with each other and defining together their own expectations.” They feel that learning communities cannot be successful if they are not “owned” by the faculty/departments that are offering them. And because so many learning communities are paired with a writing class, our authors point out that it might be a good idea to have experienced faculty demonstrate that “write-to-learn” does not necessarily mean more grading, nor does it require a teacher in a discipline outside of English to have expertise assessing writing. Initially, learning communities will require more work in terms of planning and collaboration, but much of that can be alleviated over time as instructors develop reusable curriculum and through shared assignments and shared grading.
Another challenge to implementing learning communities happens at registration. Registration can sometimes be an obstacle when it comes to student success, and it can really hurt learning communities if not handled with care and forethought. If the individuals registering students (which are the faculty at Truman) don’t know about the existence of learning communities, the result, obviously, is low enrollment, but, more importantly, if registering for learning communities is too complicated or confusing, that too can affect enrollment numbers. Our authors favor having students register for learning communities during orientation, assuming the institution has the ability to register all those students at that time. Shapiro and Levine also suggest listing learning communities separately in the catalogue from conventional classes because they fear it will be confusing to the students. The issue, as far as I see it, is that if learning communities are listed separately, they may be perceived as optional, and students will be much less likely to sign up for them. As my students often tell me, “We don’t do optional.” Our authors do feel, however, that students not enrolled fully in a learning community should be able to register for linked and stand-alone courses in the same place and at the same time. Similarly, institutions must decide if signing up for one class will automatically enroll the student in the paired class. This will most likely also involve a discussion with IT. One way to deal with this issue is to implement block scheduling on a large scale. Block scheduling simply means having linked courses meet back-to-back. Blocking should reduce scheduling issues that arise when students need both linked and stand-alone courses. Block scheduling has the added advantage of “provid[ing] faculty and students with more time to plan and engage in collaborative learning and community-building activities.” In order to further encourage student participation, Shapiro and Levine suggest scheduling learning communities during peak times.
Besides making sure there are few obstacles impeding the implementation of learning communities, some institutions provide further incentives to students who participate in learning communities by “creat[ing] a special citation” on their transcripts. One institution went so far as to create an alternative orientation for their learning communities students and had them go around campus testing water for pollutants. Parents reported in a survey that their children came back from this orientation very excited about the upcoming semester. Finally, our authors suggest developing “a name for the program, a logo, and an event T-shirt . . . to foster community identification, which makes it that much easier to build authentic community.” For example, Kingsborough Community College’s program has the catchy moniker, “Opening Doors.” These are only a few creative ways of generating student excitement and fostering lasting community.
As always, I invite comments and questions. Large-scale collaboration is going to be essential for making our transition a smooth one. As fall 2014 approaches, we need to make sure the information about learning communities is in the hands of students, their families, faculty, and staff. We also need to be as proactive about addressing any technical concerns as we are about pedagogical ones. And finally, faculty and staff must communicate between departments and between campuses to discuss setbacks and successes, solutions and best practices so our learning communities are fully enrolled, blocked and integrated.
– Timothy Matos, Reinvention7 team member, faculty at Truman College