Monday, October 17, 2016

Learning Communities

Last year, I wrote a piece on “Re-Imagining Continuing Education,” which focused on the need for universities to re-invigorate the continuing education function in order to meet the needs of the dramatically changing communities that we serve.  One thing I suggested was that Continuing Education units could adapt the MOOC concept in order to deliver noncredit services to groups within the community.  Today, I’d like to expand a bit on that idea.
            First, though, we need to get beyond the “MOOC” model as it has emerged.  MOOCs were initially advertised as a way to extend noncredit education to under-served areas.  They became shadows of credit-based online courses.  They also became a business for some.  At any rate, true noncredit Continuing Education programming goes well beyond what the public identifies with a MOOC.  It is time to start from scratch.
Continuing Education can best use online learning technologies in a noncredit environment by creating online “learning communities”—systems that allow universities to maintain an ongoing engagement with a client group through which multiple learning opportunities can be developed.   Learning Communities would have several key elements:
·      The ability for participants to enroll and participate in faculty-led noncredit online courses, research transfer seminars, and training workshops.  Some of these may lead to certificates, “continuing education units,” or badges.
·      Access to open educational resources (OERs) developed by the host institution to provide specific research-based content that users can apply in their local working environment.  These may be small training modules, demonstrations of new processes and procedures, backgrounders on regulation, or academic content that members can use to train local staff.  OERs might include video lectures, process demonstrations, computer models, etc.
·      A social media environment that allows members to interact informally with each other and with academic experts on local issues as they arise and to share experiences in using OERs and applying the content acquired from the Learning Community.
·      A data bank where ideas, discussions, etc., can be stored for later access.
            Each Learning Community would be led by faculty in the sponsoring academic unit and administered by the Continuing Education/Engagement/Extension office.  The institution should assume that the Learning Community’s needs may extend beyond the major discipline around which it is organized; one role of the Continuing Education office, then, would be to help attract other disciplines to the Learning Community when the need arises.  The Continuing Education office would also be in a good position to ensure that successful innovations generated by one Learning Community are shared with others. 
            Learning Communities could benefit any number of professional groups that are geographically dispersed or work in different organizations.  Some examples:
·      School Teachers
·      School Administrators
·      Hospital Professionals
·      Farmers
·      Local Government Professionals, such as Borough Managers, Financial Officers, Police, Firefighers, etc.
·      Elected Officials
·      Tourism Directors
·      Small Business Owners/Operators
·      Specialized Professionals
·      Leaders in Civic Organizations
·      Civic Clubs and Service Organizations
·      Librarians
            While each Learning Community would have a distinctive set of services and programs, all might operate under a similar business model that would have three major components:
·      An annual subscription fee would fund basic operation of the Learning Community.  The fee might apply to the organization or to its members.  For instance, a school district could join a Learning Community, giving a specific number of teachers access in a given year; or the district’s membership might be based on the number of teachers in that district.
·      During the year, the Learning Community would offer a variety of formal noncredit training programs.  An individual registration fee would be required of all participants (either paid by the member organization or directly by the participant).
·      A Learning Community may choose to charge a subscriber to download OERs.
            The goal would be to keep membership fees low, with the understanding that the value of the Learning Community increases with the number of members.
            Ideally, each Learning Community would also have an advisory board that would give members a voice in governance.
            Most institutions involved in Continuing Education/Engagement/Extension have some experience with organizing constituents in order to coordinate services.  In many cases, existing business models could be adjusted to the online environment. 
            The Learning Community model offers new ways for colleges and universities not only to extend their academic expertise into the community, but to create an ongoing two-way relationship between faculty and their constituencies for research and technology transfer—and to identify new areas for future research and development.