AAHE president discusses learning communities
By Sandy Broughton
Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 28 - April 16, 1998
During a busy two-day visit to Virginia Tech, Margaret A. Miller, president of the American Association for Higher Education, took time to meet with a group of faculty and staff members, administrators, and students who are exploring the emerging concept of learning communities, and how it might apply to Virginia Tech.
"Learning is a communal activity, a social activity," Miller said. "Learning communities are culture specific--they will develop around what people are interested in, and that will differ from campus to campus. The point is to get people working together and to take learning seriously."
Learning communities is one of the seven Cross-Cutting Initiatives that the university identified in its Academic Agenda as strengths that address critical needs and hold the potential for significant external resources and partnerships. Each initiative is being explored by a committee appointed by the provost.
One strategy for developing learning communities and active-learning experiences is through group work. Simply put, Miller said, "students learn more collaboratively than they do in isolation. Issues of competition disappear when students are engaged in a group project of consequence. That way, there don't have to be winners and losers--all students can learn." As added incentive, Miller says employers are demanding that students be able to work effectively in teams and to learn associated skills such as negotiation, organization, and effective communication.
Miller also introduced the concept of "system breakers," initiatives that cut across traditional boundaries and practices to make the learning environment more flexible and responsive. She suggested cross-disciplinary activities, curricular and co-curricular activities that provide students with credit, and the free flow of information.
She admitted that changing existing university structures will not be easy, and that faculty members may be unwilling to embrace a concept which has no clear place in the rewards system. "How do you change a culture?" she asked. "We need to learn to be followers as well as leaders. We need to try things, and be willing to abandon what doesn't work. Higher education is changing radically, and everyone is struggling for footing. Remaining competitive means finding new ways to make the learning experience meaningful."
Miller's career in higher education gives her a unique perspective on new trends in academia. She was an English professor and campus administrator at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth for 15 years. From 1987 to 1997 she was chief academic officer for the State Council for Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) and was responsible for the approval, review, and assessment of academic programs throughout Virginia.
Miller has published and presented widely on such topics as indicators of institutional effectiveness, restructuring, new teaching technologies, and changing faculty roles and rewards. As president of AAHE, Miller supports the organization's goals of bringing together thoughtful constituents to address the major challenges currently facing higher education. Miller was at Virginia Tech as part of the "Impact of Technology on the Learning Environment" conference. The topic of her keynote address was "The Land-Grant College in Cyberspace."
The term "learning communities" typically refers to curriculum innovations which involve linked courses or courses organized in clusters around a common theme. But at Virginia Tech, the term is used to include a range of learning environments and experiences, in academics as well as in student life. Current examples under discussion include the Design Consortium which brings together students from six different departments to work together in a studio setting, The Great Duck Pond Project in which pre-schoolers through university students focus the study of varied disciplines on the Tech Duck Pond, the orientation-leader experience offered by the Dean of Students Office, the emerging alliance of faculty members who teach first-year students now being sponsored by the Provost's Office, the academic practices envisioned by designers of the Math Emporium, and a new student-leadership program jointly designed and operated by Student Affairs, the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, and students and staff members from the University Honors Program.
"We want to stress that this is an initiative in which the entire university should feel welcome to participate," said Terry Wildman, director of Virginia Tech's Center for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching and chair of the Learning Communities Committee. "We are just beginning the dialogue on learning communities and are excited by the concept and what it could do for Virginia Tech." Wildman and Associate Provost Ron Daniel will be visiting the colleges to discuss how the learning communities initiative might enhance their work.