Peer Review, Summer/Fall 2001

Vol. 4, 
No. 1
Peer Review

From the Editor

Among the most visible and significant national trends in higher education today is the development of academic learning communities: thematically linked or clustered courses that enroll a common cohort of students. Marked by the recognition that the production of knowledge is a social process, learning communities are collaborative, interdisciplinary, and learning-centered. And many foster civic engagement either through a direct link to service learning or through an explicit focus on a social theme-"Emerging Global Health Concerns," "Self as Citizen," or "Leadership in a Global Society," to cite three current offerings. Learning communities create an ideal curricular space within which liberal learning can take place, where students can develop strong intellectual skills and capacities while also preparing for democratic citizenship.

Hundreds of colleges and universities of all types currently offer learning communities in some form. So many, in fact, that the trend toward learning communities is increasingly identified as a national movement. Yet some institutions have simply appropriated the term to describe block registration schemes, outcome-centered learning programs, or some other campus effort to achieve one or more of the outcomes produced by successfully implemented learning communities. These more limited models do not promote the deep learning and the strong sense of community that can transform undergraduate education and, with it, institutional culture.

The broad appeal of learning communities is easily understood from the research, which presents mounting evidence of their positive impact on student retention, achievement, and involvement. These outcomes are impressive, but they also are contingent. While these data provide campuses with compelling reasons to adopt the learning communities model, it is important that it not be viewed as a quick and easy panacea. For learning communities to yield these powerful outcomes, a strong institutional commitment and sustained institutional support are required.

As Barbara Leigh Smith points out in the lead article, "learning communities are at a transition point. On the early adopting campuses, they are facing classic second-stage reform effort issues of succession and institutionalization, and the movement itself faces challenges as it becomes larger and more diffuse." Given both the broadening scope of adoption and the potential benefits of learning communities, the question now is whether learning communities successfully can make the transition from innovation to genuine reform. The answer depends, in large part, on how the movement responds to the many challenges it now faces.

The title of this issue of Peer Review invokes a slogan around which AAC&U has organized one of its annual summer institutes: sustainable innovation. At the institutes, participants work together to develop a greater understanding of what is needed to create a culture and infrastructure to sustain innovative educational programs and practices. In the context of an up-to-date briefing on learning communities, this issue explores many of the challenges facing this successful innovation ultimately to ask whether learning communities are a sustainable innovation.

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