In the first part of my career as an educator, I was preoccupied almost exclusively with a single type of learning community — the class cohort. Even as my personal pedagogy began to evolve radically in 1997 and 1998 — a time period when I realized my methodology needed to transition to a "centrifugal" learning model, as well as embrace learners as heterogeneous agents moving at different speeds — my focus remained entirely on that one community.
Of course, this preoccupation with the class cohort was natural, particularly for a face-to-face instruction. It also allowed me to develop a stable, core philosophy about learning and knowledge acquisition in general.
Expand the vision of learning
With the advent of the Internet and online learning, however, I eventually realized the need to expand my vision of learning communities beyond the class cohort. After all, if learning is essentially a phenomenon of network activity (think complex adaptive system), the ability to expand each learner's network capacity by introducing additional communities increases her or his learning potential as well as the possibility for feedback into the network.
Connected Learning and community learning environments
Today, as I focus more specifically on Connected Learning and community learning environments, I find it particularly helpful to think about the different types of communities that we can connect to the traditional class cohort as part of the learning design model. The possibilities afforded by such a multilayered community design have definitely added new dimensions to the way I think about designing courses, course activities, and learner assessment.
With that context, here are a few of the communities that I think merit consideration as we begin to think beyond the class cohort.
Previous class cohorts — This is a relatively easy one and a community that too often goes overlooked and underutilized as part of the learning process. As one class cohort completes its defined course work, it makes sense to look for ways to reconnect that cohort to the next one coming along behind it. This type of "alumnification" extends the communal nature of learning for the outgoing cohort, and enriches the learning network of for incoming learners.
Professional practitioners and mentors — Some professional disciplines lend themselves well to the inclusion of a community of practitioners within the course construct. For other subject areas and courses, it's easier to think about inviting mentors or knowledge experts to participate in discussions and/or other activities. Regardless, such communities necessarily add a "real world" feel to a course by moving the locus of expertise beyond the instructor or textbook and into the practical realm. They also help learners begin developing their own professional networks while they are still completing their coursework.
Support communities — Many institutions and programs are able to identify various communities of support that play key roles in student success. These are ideal communities to think about linking to the class cohort as part of the actual course design. For a local charter school we work with, these include student groups, teachers, family, potential employers, higher ed institutions, and faith-based organizations. It is indeed powerful to think about the various ways we can formalize these support communities by making them part of the actual curriculum design.
Open communities — I am a proponent of the online course model that has for-credit and open students simultaneously enrolled in the same course. This approach automatically creates a second community that, by design, can interact with the for-credit cohort. Designing to this capability often provides a rich demographic and knowledge mix that is hard to achieve in a single cohort model.