For decades, online learning has offered the potential to deliver cheap, flexible education to a large audience. As the field of online learning has increased rapidly in the past few years, many advocates have claimed that online learning will democratize higher education and even make universities obsolete.

However, there are several barriers that have prevented such a democratization from occurring. In order to succeed in learning online, individuals must already be web savvy, self-directed learners with a great deal of intrinsic motivation and discipline. Given this, it is not a surprise that the vast majority of those who complete online courses already have a Bachelor’s degree.

It is these two phenomena – the volume of high quality online learning resources and the mounting evidence that they have not leveled the educational playing field – that inspired Learning Circles. In early 2015, P2PU and Chicago Public Library started working together to deliver online courses in supportive and engaging library environments across Chicago. Specifically targeting adult learners who do not yet have an undergraduate degree, Learning Circles were designed to equip participants with confidence and motivation, springboarding them into future educational and professional endeavors.

Open Educational Resources (OER)

Online learning has been around for decades. While some instituions pioneered online learning with low-cost degree programs, others worked to publish stand-alone course material online for free. By the early 2000s, many freely-available online learning materials became unified under a banner known as Open Educational Resources (OER), broadly defined as “teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others”.

Around 2008, a few individuals and institutions began to take OER one step further. Instead of just sharing learning materials online, they started “running” free online courses synchronously, where learners from around the world could sign up and work through course materials together as an online community. These experiments were coined as MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

It didn’t take long for MOOCs to catch on, and soon large universities such as Harvard, MIT, and Stanford started designing their own MOOC platforms and partnering with universities around the world to transform university courses into MOOCs and publish them online for anyone to access.

Some MOOCs are digital versions of existing courses, where professors deliver their lectures via video and upload readings to a website. Other MOOCs take advantage of the online medium, and create new types learning experiences for online learners. One thing most MOOCs share is that they require learners to be self-directed and motivated, and to be comfortable working online. Partially because of this, the vast majority of MOOC participants drop out without finishing their course.

To support learners who lack these requirements (or just enjoy learning together), Learning Circles position MOOCs in a social space. Emphasizing peer learning and academic mindsets, a diverse group of learners can now benefit from online learning as they develop cognitive skills, explore new learning strategies, and improve their digital literacy with others from their respective local communities.

Peer Learning

There are three values that underlie P2PU’s concept of peer learning:

  • Everybody is an expert in something.
  • Sharing is how we learn best.
  • Feedback is necessary in order to improve.

By convening a group of learners who are interested in a similar topic, you’ve got the basis for an open, collaborative learning environment that has the the potential to be the support system many learners need. Peer learning can create a rich learning environment in which everyone simultaneously teaches and learns, acts and observes, speaks and listens. This exposes learners of all stripes and sizes to new perspectives, provides an opportunity to develop useful social skills, and allows individuals to achieve something greater than they could have on their own.

Academic Mindsets

Academic mindsets is a term used to describe the beliefs that learners have about themselves, their intelligence, and their abilities. These mindsets influence a learner’s motivation and perseverance, which in turn influences their study habits and overall academic performance. A positive academic mindset is described in four statements:

  • “I belong to this community”
  • “My ability and competence grow with my effort”
  • “I can succeed at this”
  • “This work has value for me”

Learning Circles support academic mindsets by combining group activities with course content. These activities will help learners develop a learning community, set and achieve attainable goals, develop new learning strategies, connect the work to their goals, and reflect and improve upon the Learning Circle model. Many learners have told us that the development of these skills is equally or even more powerful than learning new content from the online course material.

“What was the best thing about your Learning Circle?”
“I liked the accessibility of peers, building confidence in a safe environment. no pressure with our peer group and learning from our peer group.” “There was no pressure to earn a grade or meet a deadline for completing a homework assignment.”
image of people in a learning circle