Communities of learning

Published by Kate Gallant on

My role at One Digital is to facilitate learning, and I’m really interested in how we can best support those who are more disadvantaged and lack digital skills to get online, and then to continue to learn.

As I visit projects and listen to partners, one of the questions I’m focused on is

“What’s the best way to support this learning? and how can we do so in a way which is sustainable given the resources available?”

For this reason I’ve started to be interested in the potential for supporting communities of learning amongst learners with the aim of continuing the digital skills journey after the initial intervention is complete.

Background – learning environment and motivation
Much of the work of One Digital and its partners is to provide digital skills learning in community and workplace settings. The learning environment created is accessible, flexible and learner-led.

We want learners to be supported to overcome:
Situational barriers such as cost, or lack of childcare
Institutional barriers like large class sizes or too formal expectations of attendance
Dispositional barriers such as fear of being too old to learn, or poor previous experiences in school

Motivation is a significant barrier which can be both extrinsic and intrinsic. An extrinsic driver may be that learning digital skills will support improved likelihood of securing work. Intrinsic drivers relate to the internal drive to learn. If we don’t have motivation to learn and see the potential benefits we are unlikely to start on a learning journey.

Motivation is often improved for people learning digital skills by sharing learning experiences with others from their local communities. During my project visits in the last couple of years I have often observed groups of learners and how they and their Digital Champions interact and create learning communities.

Communities of learning have the potential to help learners to overcome motivational and dispositional barriers particularly. Set up informally they would also continue to lower other barriers as well.

Communities of learning are usually associated with educational institutions, such as universities, who are interested in how they can integrate teaching staff and students to learn in a collaborative way. They are partnerships that seek to develop deeper learning. One distinctive point is that they would seek to be balanced in recognition of people’s contribution to developing shared understanding and knowledge.

Considering our work to support digital skills, observation suggests that this type of learning community could be very usefully formed to support on-going development of digital skills. Examples could be

  • a community drop-in group at a library in a rural area
  • between a group of work colleagues
  • or amongst older people living in sheltered housing.

These communities are sometimes successfully formed, but without there necessarily being an aim to achieve this, or an understanding of what value they could offer. The need is for learning communities to facilitate groups of learners to continue to learn, otherwise there is a likelihood that they remain only ‘narrow’ users of the internet, with reduced levels of digital skills.

Research evidences the need to provide on-going learning opportunities to ensure full digital skills are developed. Analysis such as in the Lloyds Consumer Digital Index which uses the Essential Digital Skills Framework shows that 17.3 million working people (53%) in the UK do not have all the Essential Digital Skills required for work and 22% of the UK are without Essential Digital Skills for life.

Characteristics of a community of learning
Communities of learning need to be:

  • Visible rather than hidden communities
  • Explicit on their role and the opportunities they provide
  • Have clear boundaries around their purpose
  • Be social, rather than formal
  • Meet the needs of their members
  • Provide a safe place to learn and fail, as knowledge and skills are developed
  • Have a limited participation – so people feel safe within them
  • Support people’s motivation to learn
  • Provide an active route to enable the construction of new learning
  • Encourage problem-solving
  • Facilitate deeper learning by discussion and experimentation
  • Develop skills which are directly relevant to participants

Facilitating a community of learning
The potential for a community of learning would need to be explored from early in the set-up of a new digital skills project.

  • Practical elements such as a continued space (venue) for activity to take place would need to be confirmed
  • Enabling them to be self-supporting will be critical to their on-going development and resilience
  • An understanding of the nature of the group – based on peer to peer learning being valued by the participants – needs to be facilitated
  • Participants need to have opportunities to decide on what the learning focus of the group will be
  • The differing skills levels within the group should be recognised and welcome with cooperation and constructive learning encouraged to be at the heart of the community
  • The potential for digital skills leadership from within the group needs to be explored, taking into account the need to keep the dynamics equal between those who have more knowledge and those who are still learning.
  • The involvement of the project setting up the community of learning is clear. For instance, will they provide continued access to a staff member if useful to the group?

What next?
Here are a few questions it would be great to discuss with partners:

  • Is this a route to more sustainable learning?
  • What do other practitioners think, particularly about whether communities of learning can be a model for supporting digital skills?
  • Can we hear from projects that feel they are actively developing communities of learning?
  • Is this happening in your local community?
  • How is it working and what knowledge could you share with others that would make this happen more?

How we can help you
One Digital will be offering opportunities to discuss how we sustain digital inclusion projects in the coming months. If you are interested follow us on twitter @OneDigitalProg or email us to sign up to receive email updates from us.

Note – distinguishing “communities of learning” from “communities of practice
For this article it is useful to distinguish between a community of practice and a community of learning. A community of learning is aimed specifically at groups of individual learners. A community of practice is for project-based practitioners to have a shared level of competence they wish to utilise, in order to improve their practice. Wenger defines communities of practice as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do, and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” From this we can see that the distinction is comparatively nuanced.

Some of the thinking behind this blog comes from practice observation. Below are some of the articles that I accessed whilst developing a more structured approach.
New eelearning: Roles in CoPs revisited (2018)
Graduate Student Instructor: Social constructivism
Department for Education: Barriers to learning for disadvantaged groups (2018)
LLoyds Banking Group Consumer Digital Index (2019)
Teaching Adult Barriers to Digital Literacy Learning (2017)
Wenger-Trayner Introduction to Communities of Practice (2015)