LearnScope Project 2003


Learning Communities - Discussion with Leonie Wheeler

The idea of learning communities, learning cities, learning regions is a relatively new development in Australia. The inaugural Australian Learning Towns and Cities Conference was held in Albury/Wodonga in October 2000, jointly hosted by Adult Learning Australia and Australia's first Learning city, Albury Wodonga and last year the Victorian Government, RMIT University and the City of Melbourne hosted an OECD conference on Learning Cities and Regions last year in Melbourne. During this time over 36 communities across Australia have declared themselves either a learning community, learning city, learning shire or learning region.

I am really interested in the notion mainly because of the possibilities of forming partnerships and alliances, within a defined region, across educational sectors (HE, TAFE, Adult Learning and Schools) and with business and the not-for-profit and government sector/s to address local needs through learning.

Examples of Learning Communities

1. Buloke Learning Towns -

RMIT Learning Networks has been working with Buloke Learning Towns in Victoria for the past three years.

The Buloke Shire covers a large area of the Southern Mallee in the North Central region of Victoria. The Shire comprises 10 small towns with populations of between 80 and 1200, and a number of dispersed and isolated rural populations.

Over the past two decades there has been significant ageing of the population, retraction of services in areas such as health care, education, banking and transport and the closure of many Government agencies. There has also been a massive decline in the population. and other issues. They also do not have the presence of a local TAFE or University in the region.

The community is tackling these issues head on and three years ago won some funding from the State Government to form a 'learning community'or in Victoria they were referred to as Learning Towns

One of the first projects we did was do undertake a learning needs analysis - we formed a project in partnership with the Buloke Learning Town coordinator and then surveyed a representative sample from across the community. Some of the people we met did not think of themselves of learners. We went into pubs and shops, factories and learning centres and asked people what they wanted to learn, how they wanted to learn and barriers to learning. We got an amazing array of answer from people. They wanted to learn everything from flying to IT. The barriers were the cost of driving to Bendigo/Ballarat or Horsham to study at a local TAFE or University and the fact that because of the sparse population it cost a lot to drive a trainer to the community to deliver training. Also the locals did not necessarily want to learning online because three years ago the connections were very unreliable and some had had bad experiences which had put them off.

Buloke has been very good at forming partnerships with local stakeholders and winning funding from a number of sources, for example, last year they got funding from DOTARS to establish a rural transaction centre in the small town of Wycheproof. Here they were able to have new offices for the local bank (which was able to stay open longer), and they also got new training rooms, offices and a reception area for the local adult training centre. From another source of funds (connecting ACE) they got a satellite download and from other funding (Multimedia Victoria) they were able to get funding to get some community groups online (My connected community programme).

Last year they also partnered with a Flexible Learning Network based out of Sunraysia TAFE (Heather Crawley - another Flexible Learning Leader) to run Workplace Assessment online. This meant that local farmers and school teachers and community members can do this qualification in their location. The technology (TAFE VC) and the connections are fast (so no frustrations with the wait time at their local learning centre) and once these community members have the qualification they can employ young apprentices. I know of one farmer who got the qualification and took on a young person as a farm apprentice.

and.... so now by this example, I hope you can start to draw connections between how an increase in awareness of lifelong learning and learning communities can make a difference in communities and how through partnerships and ingenuity people can work together to come up with solutions in partnership with Government, education and business…

2. City of Geelong -

Another example of a learning community from a Victorian perspective is the City of Geelong. This is also a "learning city".

SmartGeelong is one of the Victorian Learning Towns. It is funding by the Adult, Community and Further Education sectors.

Note the range of activities, note the partnerships - local government, TAFE, University, Local Learning and Employment Networks - all getting together to celebrate learning in Geelong.

Note also the links to an international practitioner - David McNaulty - the Australian Learning Community Network and Smart Geelong are jointly sponsoring his visit to Australia.

Dawn Bennett had a Question for Leone on -
How best to establish a CoP for the Music sector

I am developing the knowledge to establish a CoP in the music sector. The sector is very diffuse even amongst organisations and practitioners in similar fields. At this point it looks as though the result will draw upon the activities of existing groups, and will link them together via a central discussion point/resource room. This way the participants will have roles from the start, and will be able to guide discussions according to the needs of the individual. It sounds great on paper, but I'm not feeling confident about actually doing it! Do you have any hints?

Leone's answer re CoP for the Music sector:
…I have had varying success with developing online communities over the years.

I think first of all you have to have a goal or vision for your CoP. What is it you want to achieve? Do other members of the group share that vision.

What technology are you using to communicate? Keep it simple. I like something with a threaded discussion that pushes out to a mailbox. People who are busy forget to go to the threaded discussion, but others get annoyed so you have to have the ability to turn the mailbox off.

How are you going to facilitate the group. Some enthusiastic groups have a real need to communicate and discussions emerge. Others need to be trained and there are now plenty of short courses round on online facilitation.

How are you going to publicise your CoP? I remember Stephen Downes talking to us a couple of years ago and saying it is really an extension of your marketing plan. So when you go out to talk about what you do, also talk about the CoP and let people know about it and get people on. This is critical as it is important to build up a critical mass so it is not just relying on you to keep it going.

You can't get away from planning Dawn and then implementing the plan. So you are on the right track. Is is like any project I guess good planning at the start is always the best.

Following on from Leone's examples and Dawn's thoughts about creating a CoP …

1. Sheila Fitzgerald

It is an interesting topic to discuss, there are so many forms of learning communities. The ones Leone talks about in a regional context or Dawn's version for common interest groups. No matter what the type I think the key thing that brings them together and keeps them together is about clear benefit for participants whether it is as individuals or as a local community. In some way there has to be something which keeps bringing people back to the community. Leadership in the establishment phase is really important, it is the framework upon which participant value is built.

It's really easy to get drawn in by the idea of having a learning community, but unless it is of and for that community it won't last. People don't have the time or the interest to participate just for the sake of it. Leadership in this sort of setting is a complex mix of being the driver, the contributor, the listener and the follower. Being able to shift the style of leadership as the community moves forward is complex to understand and even more difficult to achieve the transition over time. Leaders rarely analyse (for public consumption) what they do and when they do it and so it is hard
to work out how they know when it is time to stop driving and to wait for the next step to come from the community members themselves.

People in Victoria like Shanti Wong from the Geelong Learning Town project have lots they could tell us about the processes that they use in both measured and intuitive ways. Complex stuff!

One thing we don't do well in VET is to understand effectively enough what constitutes member/user value. This is a critical part in the establishment of a learning community no matter where or how it forms. We are working through this sort of question right now at TAFE frontiers in the development phase (one of many to come) for the Victorian practitioner networks. Too often the "idea" of a community is the draw card and not what users want/need.

I agree with Leone that we have to expand our understanding and definition of learning to have a concept of how learning communities work. So much is learnt through the interaction, for VET how do we/can we validate that informal learning or is it just enough to accept that learning of some sort is taking place and that defining learning opportunities as part of user value might be enough? Does there always have to be a reason for the learning? Or do those who have learnt define the reason for themselves? Is VET'S role simply to provide the opportunity?

2. Dawn Bennett's Response -

Sheila's posting has prompted me to write again. It is, indeed 'complex stuff' as Sheila said. I have come to the conclusion that not even interested groups are enough to sustain a community - individuals drive communities. My intended community already exists in part, in fact in several parts - people communicate all over the place about different things, from performance to legal issues, education and advocacy. Conversing with a wider community provides the benefit.

On the subject of knowing when to let go, my reading suggests that
participants need to have roles from the very beginning. The current groups exist without me, and will continue to do so. My job is to link groups together and to expand existing roles and ownership (momentum) within the groups to take advantage of the new resource.

The community has to be of advantage to all participants, and so the hub will merely serve as an entry point to discussions, information and collaboration on topics of interest. These discussions etc will be owned by the groups themselves. I hope that facilitation of events will, therefore, come from a number of different sources.

I agree absolutely with Sheila that too often communities are driven by the idea rather than the need. Needs constantly evolve, and so the only way for a community to remain responsive to need is for it to be driven from within…

3. Jo Murray

…I'm thinking over the pros and cons of coordinating/facilitating the Wollemi Ringleaders community as I'm following this conversation about ideas and needs.

We asked everyone what they wanted, and yes...the community (or at least network) was wanted, according to the members...we asked them how to do it,and have a variety of responses, from online forums to listservs to face to face..which we now have all of to choose from. Various people respond at various times to various means of communication. We've gone from initial face to face consideration of structure and focus to organic growth, leaving members to develop the community through participation and minimal facilitation, but cordination of opportunities/prompts for discussion at certain times. We've attempted some facilitated activities and more recently some coordinated activities. We have attempted to discuss shared values,common goals, ground rules community building through online facilitation- style according to Nancy White ie. intensive). We've invited members to lead activities. But I'm personally not convinced that these activities have been very well supported, partly because of inadequate online facilitation.

So I'm thinking, overall, that need to engage (as opposed to want), time to do so (ie. not being split between different communities) and intensive facilitation, all work together to drive and support people's involvement.

I wonder how much supportive facilitation is budgeted for in online communities and how much impact this has on the general activity level?

4. Margot McNeil

Couldn't agree more with your comments about the importance of online facilitation, Jo. In my experience, the facilitation can make or break learning communities, whether they be informal or part of online courses. I keep thinking of a conductor directing the attentions and activities of the orchestra members. It is an onerous task.

I also agree that there is a huge difference between "wanting" time and "engaging" time. All the best intentions can still be snowed under. We are currently embroiled in the TAFE NSW restructure, so time is a scarce commodity. Having said that, if the group is large and eclectic enough, occasional comments can be enough to keep the community going. Just as in a conventional classroom, many can listen and then comment occasionally.

5. Jenni Harding

Have just come from a community of practice "meeting" (the word does not seem an apt descriptor). This involves Carpentry and Joinery teachers and industry representatives from across our Institute. We had 18 people (out of 20 people invited), and the discussion did not halt, even during information sessions by people from Industry Training Boards, other Institutes and other areas (Community Services).

My question is "does the leadership only come from one person, or will a community of practice work better with the baton being passed on?" Then of course, I properly read Dawn's email and voila, I have my answer. The initial leadership for this CoP was by a very determined person (who also happens to be my mentor for the FLL project), and seems to have been very successful, although he wasn't there today. This probably gave everybody the opportunity to push for actions rather than be "talked" into it, and I believe that this will lead to the current commitment and high levels of enthusiasm continuing. Marlene Manto is currently moderating a discussion forum in the Learnscope Online event, which addresses the idea that communities are like a blind date - it is a great concept, and she has made up a Quandry Maze which is amazing (the one I made up, did not always lead somewhere ;-)

Everybody today, except three people with other commitments, was still there half an hour after we'd finished. The other thing about this community is that everybody is concerned with assessment and the new Construction Training package, so have a common interest. They are interested not only in quality product, but also saving themselves time by sharing resources, between and beyond their own group.

6. Michael Coghlan

After reading the contributions of Dawn, Sheila, and Jo I find myself agreeing with everything they say. I have been a member of an online community for about 5 years, and it's remarkable that it is still alive and well. It is alive and well for all the reasons that have already been mentioned, and I'd like to offer a few more.

1) Refocusing: while there is a central focus for the community that remains constant (the teaching and learning of English as a Second or Foreign Language), at the periphery it refocuses regularly. As groups of members become interested in new trends some of the community go off down the road for a while but always come back to the main group to report on their activities.

2) Changes in membership: the community seems to stabilizes at around 150 members, but there are always people leaving and joining. Some people outlive the community and move on, to be replaced by new blood that invigorates it for the next phase.

3) Collective and individual spaces (pages): this is hard work to manage but every member of the community automatically has a webpage that they can contribute to as much or as little as they want.

4) the communities home pages contain Photos (people, colleges, places of work, family) and writings on individual pages.

5) the community is chock full of Resources found and/or created by the community.

6) there are regular Synchronous Meetings (at last weekly). The impact of voice technology has been a significant factor in bringing many members closer together.

7) regular activities are hosted by group members (trialling new tools for learning as a group exercise, co-delivery of conferences sessions and workshops, inviting each other to take part in their teaching, etc)

8) and last but by no means least, the vision and enthusiasm of one person - the leader. Leadership roles (as has been noted) do, and should fluctuate, but ultimately it comes back to one person (who would hate for me saying this!). But I do often wonder what would happen if they decided to call it a day. Would it survive? In a way, I hope I never find out.

I'm not saying that all of these are essential or possible in all online communities, but they have certainly been cornerstones in the long term viability of the Webheads community. To view some of the webheads pages have a look at and

Can anyone see how any of these activities could be incorporated into communities they are part of? Or maybe you're already doing them?

1. Learning Communities

When I refer to 'learning communities' I am not necessarily talking about online communities of the variety that Stephen Downes and others talk about. I thought I was when I started managing and studying the Victorian Flexible Learning Network (RMIT LearnLinks - in 1999. I soon came to realise that the type of learning community I was referring to is one grounded within a community development framework (or one that we now within the area that I work within RMIT University ie, Community & Regional Partnerships) we now call community engagement. However, this does not exclude an online community or a community of practice.

During my time as a Flexible Learning Leader in 2000, I had an opportunity to visit both England and Canada. I saw many examples of networks of learning centres and talked to many practitioners who ran these networks. Many of the practitioners saw the networks of learning centres as being part of a much larger economic development and social inclusion agenda within their locality.

I also came to realise the importance of partnerships and alliances and while it is not easy to define learning communities, I found the following definition is quite useful.

A learning community is one that addresses the learning needs of its locality through partnership. It uses the strengths of social and institutional relationships to bring about cultural shifts in perceptions of the value of learning. Learning communities explicitly use learning as a way of promoting social cohesion, regeneration and economic development which involves all parts of the community (Cara & Ranson, 1998).

The term learning community is also used to encompass terms such as learning cities, learning towns and learning regions (Faris & Peterson, 2000; Henderson, Castles, McGrath, & Brown, 2000; Yarnit, 2000). Faris & Peterson (2000) also identify the development of learning communities as a way of creating sustainable futures for communities. It is about capacity building individuals and groups in communities to enable sustainable economic development, promote social inclusion and cohesion and encourage civic and social participation. Faris & Peterson (2000) say it is a model that says educators do not have a monopoly on the production and distribution of knowledge, rather it is a coming together of various sectors (education, economic, government, health, environment etc) to work out solutions for their community. Much of the work of Faris arises out of rural and remote areas of British Columbia. Communities in these regions were facing a decline in traditional industries, ie, forestry and a growth in unemployment.

Here within Community & Regional Partnerships, at RMIT University we have recently had the opportunity of listening to Professor David Charles. Professor Charles holds the David Goldman Chair of Business Innovation and is Director of Research in the Newcastle Business School of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in England. He plays a leadership role in the Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies (CURDS). He is a leading authority on learning regions and regional planning. In his address to he indicated that a region or town does not have to be 'labelled' a learning town, region or community to be one talked about the following in relation to the concept of learning regions:
§ learning processes take place in all regions
§ it is about common cultures, institutions and language to facilitate translation of information and ideas
§ it is appropriateness of learning systems
§ learning is more than education and training
§ it is about networks of institutions and the building of social capital
§ it is about processes rather than strategies, and
§ networks rather than infrastructures.

From a Higher Education perspective he talked about how Universities in his region (Northumberland) had a long standing history of collaborating on issues of community engagement and economic development in their region.

Learning takes place in many forms, but increasingly many Australia communities are labelling themselves as learning cities or communities and thinking seriously about how their particular location can use learning as a way of building a knowledge-based economy.

Francesca Beddie, Exeuctive Director of Adult Learning Australia was quoted in The Age recently as saying:
"There are now over 38 learning communities in Australia, some of which receive state or local government funding, and the number is growing." In particular the ones that have been publicised well are:
o 10 funded Learning Towns in Victoria, and the
o 10 ANTA Case Studies on learning communities across Australia

Adult Learning Australia is launching a Learning Communities Catalyst Website as part of EdNA on 1 September in Adult Learning Australia. This will showcase the learning communities in Australia.

(Kearns, 2002) says:
§ learning communities build up human and social capital
§ promote industry/education partnerships and networks of small firms with learning as a key requirement
§ learning communities need to find ways to broker partnerships and networks
§ employers can benefit by building a culture of learning in firms
§ modern technologies can facilitate on-going learning in firms
§ learning is central to the generation and use of new knowledge and for innovation and success in the knowledge-based new economy.

Starter Questions:
1. What makes the geographic region within which you live and work a learning community? Do you know if it is labelled as one?
2. How do you successfully build partnerships and alliances to promote lifelong learning across a range of sector groups (ie, business, TAFE, Adult Education, Local Government….) and achieve real learning outcomes for your community?
3. How relevant is this to flexible learning anyway?

Web References

  • Adult Learning Australia
    Home page explains a little about the Learning Communities Catalyst Web Site to be launched on 1 September.
    You can download key reports and resources on learning communities
  • Adult, Community & Further Education - Victoria
    Tells you a little about the learning towns project within Victoria
  • OECD Conference Learning Cities and Regions held in Victoria (2002):
  • Learning Network Queensland
  • Read especially the mission of Learning Network Queensland which is to meet the challenge of ensuring a better quality of life for all Queenslanders by helping to build learning communities so that individuals may have informed and effective participation in every sphere of life.
  • The Western Australian Telecentre Network:
  • Established in 1992, it has a long history of, through the network of learning centres, responding to local needs through affiliations and strategic alliances.
  • Community Builders NSW
    - a great web site developed by the New South Wales Government, with lots of resources about community building.
  • Web site of Ron Faris:
    links you to further material on learning communities and service learning
  • Learning Towns and Cities Network - UK
  • Other References:
    • Cara, S., & Ranson, S. (1998). Learning Towns and Cities - "The Toolkit" - Practice, Progress and Value - Learning Communities: Assessing the Value They Add. Birmingham: DfEE.
    • Faris, R., & Peterson, W. (2000). Learning-Based Community Development: Lessons Learned for British Columbia. Victoria: Ministry of Community Development, Cooperatives and Volunteers.
    • Henderson, L., Castles, R., McGrath, M., & Brown, T. (2000). learning around town: learning communities in australia: Adult Learning Australia (ALA).
    • Kearns, P. (2002). Key Strategies and Activities for Building a Learning Community - Cities, Towns, Regions, Networks. Kambah, ACT: Global Learning Services.
    • Yarnit, M. (2000). Towns, cities and regions in the learning age - a survey of learning communities (Report). London: LGA Publications, DfEE, LCN.