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"The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare to let go..." - Richard BachThe Learning College Project clearly has learning as its focus, and as Vanguard Learning Colleges make their journeys toward becoming more learning centered, all participants in the project-college faculty, staff, and students as well as project staff-are deeply engaged in learning. This page highlights some of the lessons learned.

Learning From the Learning Colleges:
Lessons From the Journey

by Kay McClenney

In January 2000, the League for Innovation in the Community College launched the Learning College Project to assist community colleges around the world to become more learning-centered institutions. The core of the project focuses on 12 Vanguard Learning Colleges, selected by an international advisory panel of leading educators and committed to working together over a three-year period to achieve the project goals. The efforts of these colleges will ultimately define model programs and best practices that bring to life the concept of The Learning College.

Between October 2000 and March 2001, three project staff members and the project's external evaluator made one-day site visits to the 12 Vanguard Learning Colleges. These early campus visits, though brief, provide a basis for a preliminary set of observations regarding the challenges involved as colleges make the journey to become more learning centered. Offered at the end of the project's start-up year, these observations will hopefully serve to stimulate conversations among the project participants and to focus efforts in the months ahead.

Several caveats apply:

None of the observations offered in this summary apply to every college.
However, most of the observations apply to many of the colleges.

The observations may not in every case reflect the views of every project staff member involved in the meetings. There was a high degree of consensus, but it goes without saying that different people would articulate the observations in different ways.

Beyond the list of thirteen "key observations," which reflect consensus of the visiting teams, this summary primarily reflects the views of the evaluator.


As context for the observations that follow, some genuine affirmations are appropriate and important. First, the campus visits strongly affirmed that the Vanguard Learning Colleges are leading community colleges where innovation is the norm and where institutional pride is evident and justified. Given the selection process through which they were identified, this comes as no surprise; still, it deserves recognition.

Second, it can legitimately be called understatement to assert that in these colleges, innovation abounds. At every stop, the visiting teams saw multiple innovations underway, led by committed and creative people and aimed almost exclusively at improving student service and student success. Among the numerous examples are outstanding programs in student advising, developmental education, faculty orientation and development, learning communities, project-based learning, applications of technology to improve teaching and learning, electronic portfolio development, Web-based registration and financial aid processes, call center customer service operations, Baldrige quality processes, and partnerships with businesses, community organizations, universities and the public schools. A heartening discovery at one college (Sinclair Community College) was the work of a campus group whose role includes identifying effective innovations and supporting the process of bringing them to scale within the college.

This energy for innovation provided the constant backdrop for the campus visits, during which the project representatives met with the college president, the Learning College Project liaison, the Vanguard Learning College team (8-30 people), the college's evaluation coordinator for the project, and a focus group comprised of faculty, administrators, staff and students who were not part of the project team. Other kinds of experiences varied by campus. From these intensive interactions emerged a number of significant crosscutting themes which are briefly summarized below.

Key Observations: A Baker's Dozen

Observation #1: The journey is long, the tasks are multiple, the challenges are conceptually and politically complex.

The commitment to become a Learning College can best be viewed as a long, arduous, and exciting journey to realign institutional priorities, policies, programs, practices, and personnel to focus on learning as the primary business of the college. This observation is offered not as gratuitous information or rhetorical fluff but rather as an exclamation point. The visitors could not escape the reminder that it is easy to talk and write about major institutional transformation - but very difficult to make it happen.

Observation #2: The commitment to learning is not always a visible priority.

Many community colleges, and all of the Vanguard Learning Colleges (VLCs), have a long history of commitment to learning, but this commitment is not always explicit in policies, programs, practices, and in the way college personnel participate in the educational enterprise. The reasons vary, of course, from campus to campus. In some cases, the focus on learning may still be one of several competing priorities; in others, it appears that the formal language of the institution has not caught up with its intentions and even its daily practice. In still others, disparate projects (as noted just below) have not yet been blessed with an explicit unifying vision.

Observation #3: Innovations and projects abound, but they sometimes lack unifying goals or principles-and frequently spawn "reform fatigue."

All of the Vanguard Learning Colleges, not surprising for leading institutions, are heavily engaged in a great variety of innovations and projects, sometimes numbering more than fifty on a single campus. In some cases, there are no unifying principles or goals for the vast array of institutional activities, a phenomenon that produces a culture some staff members identify as unfocused and frenetic. As one VLC team member said, "This college is pathologically committed to innovation."

Not unrelated to this observation is a syndrome identified by faculty and staff as "reform fatigue." Already "dancing as fast as they can," they seek not only organizing principles and priorities but also ways to reconfigure workloads and - just possibly, occasionally, maybe, perchance to let go of some things, even to say "no."

Some of the Vanguard Learning Colleges are attempting to create a common set of principles, goals, and values focused on learning to help integrate and drive their work; and the Learning College concept is viewed by many leaders in the VLCs as an ideal umbrella under which to collect, unify and focus college initiatives.

Observation #4: Greatly needed are effective ways to scale up innovations that demonstrably support student learning.

Conversations about the plethora of projects underway in the colleges also yielded expressions of concern about the need to find effective ways to "scale up" successful innovations that were born through special projects outside the mainstream of the institution. Too often, people at VLCs find that effective approaches remain marginal or even disappear from the institutional map once the inventor burns out or the grant runs out. (By contrast-as previously noted-at least one VLC has established an intriguing process for bringing innovations to scale and will share that process with the other colleges.)

Observation #5: The language of learning a) is increasingly reflected in key institutional documents, b) needs action to match walk with talk, c) is not yet broadly and fully understood, and d) produces resistance and resentment in some quarters.

Many community colleges (and the Vanguard Learning Colleges in particular) are beginning to use the language of learning in mission statements, program descriptions, policy statements, and titles of key staff. It is not unusual for institutions to adopt the language of new movements; neither is it unusual for institutions to talk the language but not walk the talk. The Learning College concept is in danger, as are all new ideas, of being gently co-opted by the appearance of interest and support without the necessary hard and long effort to make the concept come to full fruition.

This observation comes also with a counterpoint. That is, on some campuses there is a notable resistance to the language of the Learning College-among at least a small number of faculty and staff. Explanations of this phenomenon vary from complaints about education "jargon" to objections that "we have always been about learning here!" and a sense that past performance is being unfairly criticized.

Observation #6: There exists a continuing need for organizational teaching and learning-to gain common understanding and define common ground and then to develop new skill sets.

An insight related to the language issue was articulated by one VLC faculty member in this way: There is still a significant need for internal teaching and learning, first to come to a collective and local understanding of the meaning of Learning College and then to develop new skill sets and attitudes. "Don't assume too quickly," he said, "that faculty actually know how to do things differently." That honest reflection can clearly be applied to other campus groups as well.

Observation #7: "Learner-centered" and "learning-centered" are still often used as though they were synonymous terms.

Some of the Vanguard Learning Colleges are still using "learner" and "learning" as if they were synonymous concepts. Community colleges have historically been "learner" centered or student centered, and many of them take great pride in this focus as one of their core values. The Learning College also includes a focus on the learner as a core value but places priority on learning as the desired outcome for learners. This modification of perspective is subtle but can also be transformative in key areas of institutional policy and practice.

Observation #8: People are foreseeing the need to consider significant changes in the roles of faculty and other professionals.

With some anticipation and also a measure of dread, some interviewees noted that a serious focus on learning will bring colleges to consider significant changes in the roles of faculty and other professionals. The shift from deliverer of knowledge to facilitator of learning may be only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, as people consider possibilities as diverse as case manager roles, distance learning specialists, and the potential unbundling of instruction and the assessment of learning. Such changes, they say, should be dictated by evidence of what works in facilitating student learning.

Observation #9: The most challenging task is also the most essential task: defining, assessing and documenting student learning outcomes.

One of the most challenging aspects of becoming more learning centered is figuring out how to define, teach, assess, and document learning outcomes for students. Most community colleges have had experience in this process in selected occupational programs, but the VLCs are finding it quite difficult to apply the process to all college courses, programs, and degrees. A number of the VLCs have defined learning outcomes for many courses and have embedded these in the curriculum-though general education courses and critical across-the-curriculum skills (e.g., writing, critical thinking, problem-solving, and the like) remain a considerable challenge. Few of the colleges are satisfied with their processes to assess the acquisition of skills and knowledge identified in the outcome statements, and none of the colleges have created satisfactory models to document and transcript the learning outcomes. Clearly, there is substantial and important work to be done in this arena, even within North America's leading community colleges.

Observation #10: Companion to the assessment challenge is the work of developing a culture of evidence.

Building such a culture-including the demand for data about student learning, the capacity to produce and analyze that data, and the skills and commitment to use data for continuous improvement-represents a significant departure from community college traditions of justification by anecdote. People in the VLCs are recognizing the value and the power of data-driven decision making, however, and among the colleges there are some fine examples.

Observation #11: Project evaluation at the campus level needs further attention.

A significant amount of work still needs to be done within a number of the VLCs to establish clear and appropriate ways to evaluate outcomes of the project and achievement of project objectives. Community colleges have a fine tradition of becoming so involved in the work at hand that they overlook evaluation of its impact. It will take active commitment (and public accountability) to avoid that phenomenon in this project.

Observation #12: Project participation has reinforced college efforts to put learning first in related initiatives (e.g., accreditation, total quality management, and assessment of institutional effectiveness).

The Vanguard Learning Colleges recognize the value of being identified as a key participant in this project and have used their participation to reinforce their efforts to place learning first in related initiatives such as accreditation, total quality management, and measurements of institutional effectiveness.

Observation #13: [reprise] The journey is long, the tasks are multiple, the challenges are conceptually and politically complex-and there is a significant distance yet to travel.

The Vanguard Learning Colleges are accustomed to being recognized in the U. S. and Canada as outstanding community colleges, and they have created a culture of pride and high expectations for their work. They like to succeed, and they like to perform at very high levels of competency. Compared to an ideal model of the Learning College, the VLCs are certainly "best in class." At this point in the journey, however, the participant colleges, each on their own path, have a considerable distance to travel in order to achieve the five major project objectives. The early moral of this story can therefore be appropriately summarized: "A Learning College has a lot to learn!"

Dilemmas of "Leading Colleges" 

When one notes aloud that there can be special challenges attached to recognition as a "leading college," one is likely to hear affirmative but diverse responses from people on the VLC campuses. For example, interviewees pointed to:

The difficulty of "finding outside experts or critical friends who are better than we are"

The lack of existing, ready-for-adoption models of learning-centered policy and practice in higher education-which drives the colleges toward "invention on the fly"

Risk aversion-which is seen both as a potential risk and as a reality in some places-and which people recognize as a threat to their ability to sustain their institution's position "on the leading edge."

Assessment avoidance-an undeniable factor in some quarters on some campuses-which was occasionally pinned on a fear of "not measuring up" in the cold light of data.

The phenomenon of "the shadow college" or "excellence on the margins," which was captured by one college leader in this observation: "All of what we've been recognized for is outside the mainstream of credit instructional programs. We need to get the same spirit going in the mainstream."

"If We're So Good."

A significant-and often poignant-offshoot of conversations about the challenges and dilemmas faced by these pioneers in the Learning Revolution is illustrated in a sample collection of quotations from interviewees who wanted to press both for higher performance and for openness to critical examination of areas in need of improvement. 

"If we're so good," these people said, then (for example).

."why do we lose almost half of our entering students before the end of the semester?"
."why do we attend mostly to feedback about our successes?"
."can we try [within the context of this project, at least] to talk without posturing - and relax enough to share the blemishes?"
."can we use this project to travel "where we really haven't gone and where we clearly need to go?"

This spirit of questioning and critical examination is important to any learning organization and deserves to be nurtured in the Vanguard Learning Colleges, both individually and collectively.

Critical Questions to Guide the Journey

The campus interviews were populated by creative people who are the inventors and sponsors of numerous innovations. They also raised thoughtful questions that may help to guide the further collective work of the participants in the Learning College Project. For example:

How do we include everyone? How do the Learning College principles apply beyond instruction and student services? 
How do we achieve extraordinary learning results with ordinary students? (e.g., 90% success with open-door admissions)
How open are "open admissions?" How can we best serve students with seriously deficient basic skills?
How does the funding and budget development process need to change to support the Learning College?
How should the Board be involved? What public policy supports are needed?
How do we assess "culture?" And how do we change it?
How do we create "a culture of evidence?"
How can we create and share examples of structures ("institutional architecture") changed to support learning?
How do we scale up "what works?"

Help From the Learning College Project

Finally, interviewees were asked to indicate ways that the Learning College Project (meaning participant institutions, project staff, and project consultants) could effectively support their work. Responses included the following:

Interaction with other leading colleges at work on the same issues
Collaborative efforts in proposal development, new grant-funded projects, outcomes assessment, etc.
Role-alike groups/networks beyond VLC teams (e.g., development officers, institutional researchers, etc.)
Information resources related to project objectives
Formation of a VLC Baldrige group
Collaborative work on invention of new structures and processes
Development of skills in change management

Quotations From Fellow Travelers

The project evaluator emerged from these campus visits enriched by her own learning-and with a notebook full of quotations from the Learning College pioneers. Among them are these favorites:

What is the difference between a very good community college and a Learning College? "The difference is when you can provide credible and convincing evidence of learning."

An important goal for us is the planned abandonment of low-priority, off-target, or ineffective programs."

.and the benediction:

"Being learning-centered is like breathing for us."