Appalachian State Faculty Explore True Meaning of Community


Dr. Tracy Smith explaining a concept to participants from the departments of Psychology, Biology, and Nutrition and Health Care Management.

Dr. Tracy Smith explaining a concept
to participants from the departments
of Psychology, Biology, and Nutrition
and Health Care Management.

Learning communities come in all shapes and sizes, but a group of Appalachian State professionals now have increased awareness of what makes them truly successful. Forty-five faculty, staff and administrators recently completed the five-day intensive "Designing and Leading Powerful Learning Communities Institute" led by Dr. Brian Smentkowski, Assistant Director of Faculty and Academic Development at Appalachian State University.

Learning communities are trans-disciplinary groups of administrators, faculty, staff, and/or students who share a common interest and work together to accomplish a specific goal. They can either be cohort-based or topic-based.

Cohort-based learning communities are typically based on the identity, experiences or needs of a particular group such as international faculty or a particular student demographic. Topic-based learning communities focus on a specific common theme such as new and emerging instructional technologies, global learning or social justice.

"An important characteristic of a learning community," Smentkowski said, "is that it exists, in large part, to maximize and promote the individual and collective learning of its members. So an effective learning community not only advances a topic, but it enhances the professional capacity of its members as teachers, scholars and leaders."

During the five-day Institute, participants learned how to develop, lead and sustain different types of communities.

Dr. Ben Powell (Management), Ms. Debbie Poulos (Communication) and Dr. Lisa McNeal brainstorm ways to engage students in and out of class.

Dr. Ben Powell (Management), Ms. Debbie
Poulos (Communication) and Dr. Lisa McNeal
brainstorm ways to engage students
in and out of class.

"I had avoided faculty learning communities in the past because I was told they had to do this, look like that and be done by whenever," wrote one participant. "But through this institute I learned about type, composition, and duration, but also about diversity, inclusion, and personal growth and development.

"I was put off by the ‘rules’, but after reading both of the books, the related materials, and participating in the institute, I know that a learning community must be flexible—structured but flexible," the participant continued.

During the Institute, special attention was give to the role powerful learning communities can play in enhancing engagement, morale, individual success and organizational effectiveness.

"I feel more connected to and part of the university and its mission than I have in my entire career," wrote one participant.

"The scope of my day-to-day work tends to be extremely narrow and confined to the mission and goals of my unit," said another participant. "I was able to meet and re-meet folks from across campus and got to read material outside my usual area of focus. All of this confirmed my own personal and professional goals to broaden my participation and knowledge across the App State community."

Participants in the Institute had time to develop their ideas for new and existing learning communities.

"I signed up because I thought it would make me a better teacher. Specifically I wanted to continue incorporating technology in my classroom. I joined with a learning community proposal on this and let go of mine—great networking," one participant reported.

"In the coming weeks and months, we will track the growth and development of learning communities by number, type, new partnerships, and topics," Smentkowski said. "We already have a strong read on follow-up, workshops, and intensives, as well as new presenters and topics."

The Institute was supported by Appalachian’s Office of the Quality Enhancement Plan and College STAR (Supporting Transition, Access and Retention), a project of the University of North Carolina system designed to support students with learning differences and to disseminate best-practice teaching methods to faculty members for promoting the success of students of varied learning styles and backgrounds.

College STAR is currently funded by the Oak Foundation of Geneva, Switzerland and the N.C. GlaxoSmithKline Foundation.