Learning Communities at Dawson

I. Challenges and Opportunities

Daunting social and environmental challenges await us in the 21st century. These challenges promise to evolve at a pace which will tax society’s capacity to adapt. Education is arguably part of the problem; according to David Orr, we have not a problem in education, but a problem of education. An industrial model created to meet the social and economic needs of the 19th century may not supply the kinds of intelligence, imagination, courage and citizenship skills our students will need as they struggle to answer the big questions facing us:

How will we live peacefully together as individuals, communities and nations?
• How will we meet the needs of an expanding global population without destroying the biosphere?
• How will we reconcile the arts and sciences within a holistic appreciation of the physical world and the human condition?
• How will we create wealth that takes the form not merely of economic prosperity, but also social harmony and individual well being?

These questions are enormously complex and interrelated. Prominent in the college network and the English community, Dawson College is uniquely positioned to lead by directly addressing these questions.

Indeed, we have already several faculty and student-driven curricular and co-curricular initiatives – Peace Studies, Sustainable Dawson, SPACE, Innovation and Entrepreneurship – that address these issues. Each has evolved relatively rapidly, from the ground up, as an expression of a unique set of faculty and student interests, enhancing through their growth the learning environment of the college. The momentum and inspiration of these initiatives offer Dawson an opportunity, one we may seize if we see what they have in common: A desire for transformative, purpose-driven education that addresses urgent contemporary challenges. These initiatives are already creating experiences that develop qualities central to the Graduate Profile. They favour active learning that involves students in the production and application of knowledge. Their activities model integrative learning that unites disparate fields of knowledge. In sum, they are helping students recognize and begin to realize their potential as individuals and as engaged citizens.

II. The Learning Community Concept

Since the early 1990’s, the concept of the learning community in higher education environments has gained depth and clarity. The term community denotes faculty and students primarily, but may be extended to include all members of the campus community, and indeed members of the community at large. A learning community is a group with a common interest in a topic, whose purpose is to create an engaging and authentic learning experience. A learning community could be

– A learning-focused extra-curricular activity primarily for students
– An issue/topic-based curricular offering and/or co-curricular activity , with faculty and students working together
– A faculty or administrative learning community, focused on professional development or organizational learning

What characterizes learning communities is their scale (they are small enough that members develop a personal relationship with other community members) and their focus on integrative learning (the breaking down of disciplinary silos, and engagement with complex and challenging “real world” issues). Inserted within the curriculum, a learning community might target an important institutional goal: for example, easing the transition of first-semester students into college studies, or improving retention and engagement in upper-level courses. At many colleges and universities with learning community programs already in place, these goals are achieved though course pairings or clusters organized around a theme or topical issue. Via interdisciplinary approaches and the connection of extra and co- curricular activities with curricular programs, learning communities stimulate intellectual development by creating and reinforcing personal relationships. The scholarly literature evaluating the impact of these practices indicates myriad positive effects:

The camaraderie of co-enrollment may help students stay in school longer, but learning communities can offer more: curricular coherence; integrative, high-quality learning; collaborative knowledge-construction; and skills and knowledge relevant to living in a complex, messy, diverse world.   (Lardner and Malnarich 2008)

In short, the range of possible adaptations of the learning community concept is wide, and the potential for enhancing the learning experiences of students is great.

III. Learning Communities at Dawson

Dawson has the example of a number of Profiles within Programs at Dawson (for example North-South Studies and Law and Society in Social Science) which achieve some of these impacts by creating communities of interest within the larger structure of a program. Additionally we find areas of special studies leading to certificates (such as Women’s and Gender Studies, Hellenic Studies), which are open to students in any program.

By definition, the more recent start-ups SPACE, WID, ALC, Sustainable Dawson, Peace Studies, and Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Model UN and Rooftop Garden function already as autonomous learning communities. To create now an overarching Campus Learning Communities structure would initiate a new phase of collaboration and co-development of these initiatives, and build on the experiences of previous profile and certificate initiatives. The aim would be to optimize the impact and sustainability of each initiative over the long-term. Bringing these initiatives from the periphery to the centre of Dawson’s academic mission, and publicizing them to current and future students – indeed to all stakeholders in public education – would also be a bold statement about the kind of education Dawson stands for in the 21st century.

We propose to build on the time and energy already devoted by faculty to these initiatives through the creation of a Dawson Learning Communities project. The overarching objectives of the project would be to

  • Facilitate sharing, collaboration and coordination between already existing faculty-driven initiatives.
  • Initiate a phase of research on the learning community model, and what its possible adaptations might be in the Dawson context.
  • Encourage a wide participation in current projects and the discussion of future projects by students, faculty and members of the Dawson community, as well the wider Montreal community, and beyond.
  • Where feasible, pilot, evaluate and integrate learning communities projects within the college’s curricular offerings, giving students the incentive of official recognition of their participation and learning.
  • Promote the connection between Dawson’s learning communities and our values and educational mission, both internally and across the college network.

IV. Introductory Resources

Barr, R. B., & Tagg, J. (1995). From teaching to learning—A new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change: The magazine of higher learning, 27(6), 12-26.http://www.taylorprograms.com/images/BarrTagg.pdf

Lardner, Emily and Gilles Malnarich. (2008). “A New Era in Learning Community Work: Why The Pedagogy of Intentional Integration Matters.” Change Magazine. July-August 2008. http://www.changemag.org/Archives/Back%20Issues/July-August%202008/full-new-era.html

Matthews, Roberta et al. (2012). “The Evolution of Learning Communities,” in “Special Issue: Discipline-Centered Learning Communities: Creating Connections Among Students, Faculty, and Curricula.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning. Winter 2012, Issue 132. 1–111. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/tl.v2012.132/issuetoc

Orr, D. W. (2004). “What Is Education for?” in Earth in mind: On education, environment, and the human prospect. Island Press. http://www.context.org/iclib/ic27/orr/

Price, Derek V., (2005). “Learning Communities and Student Success in Postsecondary Education.” MDRC.http://www.mdrc.org/publications/418/full.pdf

The Washington Center: National Resource Center for Learning Communities at