Maryann Peterson with EdTech Center Staff
A version of this article first appeared in PROGRESS, Virginia’s adult education and literacy newsletter published quarterly by the Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center.
Learning Circles shape more than just the classroom—they shape the whole student experience. Just as the image of a circle evokes inclusion, the Learning Circle model emphasizes that learning is for everyone. Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU), a not-for-profit organization, pioneered Learning Circles in the U.S. and internationally with the intention creating and sustaining learning communities in public spaces around the world.
Following the P2PU model, World Education, Inc. developed English Now! Learning Circles to be free, open to ESOL students of all levels, and encourage learners to lead. In this spirit, students are encouraged to engage with one another as they build their skills in English language and digital literacy. With funding from Dollar General Literacy Foundation, World Education set up a pilot project first with five New England area programs running learning circles. After its success, World Education launched a scale-up of the model with ten participating programs that serve learners in diverse contexts. They have offered learning circles to 124 learners from January to June 2019. All programs continue to offer this blended learning opportunity with face-to-face meetings and a digital resource such as an online course or a mobile app.
The Thomas Jefferson Adult and Career Education (TJACE) program at Piedmont Virginia Community College adapted Learning Circles to create more opportunities for adult students to strengthen their English and digital skills. By design, the Learning Circles are inclusive and welcoming to as many students as possible: they extend learning for students enrolled in traditional classes, engage students on the waiting list, and provide an alternative option for students who could not attend traditional classes due to time for financial constraints. Enrollment is open, meaning students can join at any time during the term.
As their digital resource to guide the classroom experience, TJACE used the four XPRIZE Adult Literacy apps: Cell-Ed, Learning Upgrade, Codex: Lost Words of Atlantis, and Amrita Create. While the free access to these four apps through the XPRIZE Communities Competition will end on August 31, 2019, the strategies they developed for using apps with learners can be applied to using these or any other apps going forward.
Through some trial and error, the TJACE Learning Circles developed the following strategies, which can easily be adapted to serve the needs of other programs.
1. Take inventory of your space and resources. Staying true to the Learning Circle ethos, arranging the classroom in a circle encourages conversation and connection. Students face each other rather than the facilitator or the board, and the facilitator is able to join students as a member of the circle. TJACE Learning Circles meet in a small conference room with WiFi, where students gather around a large center table.
2. Survey students on access to technology. In order to access the apps, students need to bring a charged smartphone to class each week. TJACE surveyed students using the English Now! Digital Skills Self Assessment and found that all of the students own or have regular access to smartphones and most of the students use smartphones, rather than a personal computer, for computing needs.
3. Establish a sense of community and camaraderie. Because attendance is encouraged rather than required, it’s important to demonstrate a sense of community early on. Facilitators can begin with welcoming and greeting rituals for the first few meetings and encourage students to lead and welcome new students as the circles progress.
4. Set clear expectations. The facilitator can help the students understand how Learning Circles differ from traditional classes. In traditional classes at TJACE, attendance is expected and course content is cumulative. In Learning Circles, attendance is encouraged but not required, learning is flexible and student-led, and the XPRIZE apps, rather than traditional texts, provide content.
5. Prepare meaningful learning activities. In addition to lessons on the apps, which students complete at their own pace, each Learning Circle includes an instructor-led lesson. At TJACE, lessons focus on digital literacy and include a smartphone orientation, which prepares students to use the apps.
6. Designate class time for using the apps. TJACE found that giving students a flyer about the XPRIZE apps and the Communities Competition access code isn’t enough. Rather, they help students download the apps (experienced students can help new students with this), devote class time to completing at least one lesson on the apps, and debrief by asking students to provide written and verbal feedback about their learning experience. At the end of each class, students set a learning goal or intention for using the apps in the future.
7. Encourage student leadership.As the first in their program to try the XPRIZE apps, the Learning Circles students serve as “app ambassadors,” visiting traditional classes and helping their peers launch the apps on their smartphones. They recommend the apps to friends and family outside of class. Students provide valuable feedback about the benefits and limitations of mobile learning.
8. Keep the conversation going outside of class students are encouraged to text the facilitator and each other between class meetings if they have questions or need support with the apps.
Learning Circles are not a replacement for traditional classroom instruction, and apps are not a language-learning panacea. Because students have not completed enough hours for post-testing, it is too soon to say if students who participated in Learning Circles and tried the XPRIZE apps will show learning gains. However, students who participated in the TJACE pilot report that they are grateful for this free and convenient resource, they appreciate the face-to-face support and sense of community, and they feel confident using the apps to support their learning.
For more on the apps used in TJACE Learning Circles, Team WorldEd hosts a variety of resources on finding the right technology to improve access to learning for adults in your community.