The CTL’s Virtual Learning Communities: Sharing Goals from Diverse Perspectives

Steve Volk, Co-Director, Consortium for Teaching and Learning, GLCA
September 10, 2018
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Faculty/Staff Learning Communities have been shown to be a key means of building community around a shared desire to address a vexing issue, advance classroom practice, address immediate pedagogical challenges, or consider how to support to best support our students and the goals of a liberal education. As Martha Petrone and Leslie Ortquist-Ahrens [2004] have written, “FLCs provide a collaborative arena in which colleagues have the time and opportunity to reflect on their teaching, their discipline, their institution, and themselves. By creating a safe environment for the honest engagement of ideas and feelings, the FLC facilitator helps to move the faculty outside of their disciplinary comfort zones and into the realm of intellectual and interpersonal connections. Through this process, teaching and learning are meaningfully enhanced and often transformed.”

At the spring 2018 convening of the GLCA/GLAA Consortium on Teaching and Learning in Ann Arbor, we discussed the potential of creating virtual Learning Communities that would span our campuses and recognized them as an effective way to support faculty and staff from all the GLCA campuses interested in advancing student learning and inclusive excellence through the adoption of evidence-based teaching approaches and supported by a responsive liberal arts curriculum. [We should note that the Learning Community (LC) model shares many of the “Communities of Practice” (Lave and Wenger 1991) methods and understandings, and that they can become “Writing Groups” should they decide on published scholarship as an appropriate outcomes (Mathews, Marcus, Healey 2016).]

While most Learning Communities are locally based, our intention, as noted, is to form virtual communities that span the GLCA campuses. As liberal arts colleges, we share a number of characteristics that allow for similar practices and approaches, as well as a broadly shared set of values and goals. On the other hand, campus culture varies widely from one campus to the next, and these differences undoubtedly shape both how we frame many issues and the institutional frameworks through which we work. This combination of similarities and differences, we believe, will provide a rich environment for discussion and reflection. Further, by creating multi-campus Learning Communities, we can support faculty and staff who may not find enough interest on their own campus to form a community that can address their specific set of interests.

LC’s are voluntary, responding to individual interests and observed needs, and they can create the support networks that faculty and staff depend on to build sustainable, productive, and fulfilling careers.  They work because those who voluntarily commit time and effort see the ways in which being part of a community of discussion and reflection can have a highly positive impact on their classroom practice.  Ultimately such communities confer a benefit to institutions as well as to individual faculty members.  Furthermore, participation in learning communities has often proven to be an important stepping stone for faculty and staff members who then will take on leadership roles in the teaching and learning community on their campuses. And this, in turn, is a necessary step in creating a sustainable environment that can support faculty and staff through the ups and downs of life in the academy.

Forming the Learning Communities

At this point, the CTL is in the process of forming five different Learning Communities. Three of these have to do with work on our campuses, one focuses on ways in which our teaching and learning can be further engaged with our communities, and the final one will address how we become a part of a national conversation on the importance of liberal arts higher education. These five learning communities are:

On our Campuses:

(1) CHANGES IN FACULTY ROLES AND IN TEACHING:  Considering changes in faculty roles and pedagogical practices that are made necessary by demographic changes in the country, the evolving job market, technological developments (including the dominant role of social media), and an increasingly fractured/tribal political and cultural environment;

(2) INCLUSIVE EXCELLENCE IN TEACHING:  Reflecting on how to fashion practices of inclusive excellence and culturally relevant curriculum in order to support all our students; and

(3) EVIDENCE-BASED TEACHING AND EVALUATION:  Developing methods of promoting evidence-based practices in teaching and assessment.

Within our Local Communities, particularly given our location in four “rust-belt” states (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana):

(4) COMMUNITY ENGAGED TEACHING AND LEARNING:  Using high-impact, research-based pedagogical practices to encourage local liberal arts colleges to engage more productively and sustainably with the communities in which they are situated; working toward deeper understandings of our local community on the part of students and faculty; helping students negotiate their residence in communities with which, for the most part, they are unfamiliar; and promoting interaction in a manner that responds to community interests and priorities while helping students develop thoughtful and reflective forms of civic engagement.

At a National Level:

(5) THE VALUE OF A LIBERAL ARTS EDUCATION:  Joining and engaging the conversation on the value of a liberal arts education to students and society.  Addressing the importance of higher education in general, and a liberal education in particular, and   encouraging pedagogical approaches based on participation, engagement, respect, community, and critical evaluation as a method of preparing graduates for their post-graduate as individuals and citizens.  Through these means, helping to the future of our democracy and the health of our planet.

You will be hearing more about these LC’s as they are formed, and we will be reporting on them regularly on the CTL’s website. If you have any questions in the meantime, don’t hesitate to contact Steve Volk ( or Greg Wegner (



Kelley E. Matthews, Beth Marquis, and Mick Healey, “International collaborative writing groups as communities of practice,” in Jacquie McDonald and Aileen Cater-Steel, eds., Implementing Communities of Practice in Higher Education (Singapore: Springer, 2016), pp. 597-617.

Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

Martha Petrone and Leslie Ortquist-Ahren, “Facilitating Faculty Learning Communities: A Compact Guide to Creating Change and Inspiring Community,” in Milton D. Cox and Laurie Richlin, eds., New Directions for Teaching and Learning: Building Faculty Learning Communities (Spring 2004), Volume 2004, Issue 97, Pages 1–157.

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