Some studies found that about five percent of those enrolled in massive open online courses (known as MOOCs) completed the course. And those who took the courses tended to be more educated already – 70 percent of survey respondents had bachelors degrees and 39 percent identified as teachers or former teachers. Online courses can be a helpful tool for self-sufficient, highly motivated learners with reliable computers and internet at home, but others may need a little more support. For those who haven’t found success using free online courses, Learning Circles might be an answer.
Learning Circles add a social element to what is otherwise a solitary learning experience by bringing people together in person to take an online course together over six to eight weeks, with the help of a facilitator. Librarians at Chicago Public Library (CPL) partnered with the nonprofit Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU) to make online education more accessible through this program.
Libraries are a perfect setting for Learning Circles for several reasons: they already serve the local community; they are equipped with meeting spaces; many have computer stations, and most importantly, librarians know how to help people find answers.
“Most people take online classes in solitude and that’s when you put on the headphones,” said James Teng, a CPL librarian at who facilitated a course on public speaking. “Sometimes you feel alone. Learning Circles bring people together to work together and develop teamwork.”
Learning Circles aren’t for everyone; some people prefer a more traditional lecture or feel more comfortable having a content expert who has all the answers. But Learning Circles give participants a community, which does a lot to help with motivation. Librarians said it was important to set expectations at the outset, so they developed a Learning Circles contract.
“You come up with this contract: no cell phones, you’ll pay attention, be respectful of your fellow learners,” said Edson “so it gives them a sense of accountability in that first week. How serious they take it, it depends, but I feel like setting some ground rules in the first week is helpful.”
“Public libraries are often referred to as the people’s university,” said Mark Anderson, director of Learning and Economic Advancement of CPL, at the SXSWEDU conference. Library patrons traditionally come in, find resources, and are left on their own to learn the material. But with the P2PU partnership, funded by a Knight Foundation News Challenge on Libraries grant, Anderson said librarians were able to take a more active role in facilitating learning.
“The idea of working and creating these Learning Circles really helped us move closer to that ideal of being the people’s university to help people progress, with some facilitation on our part,” Anderson said.