I recently defended my dissertation which focused entirely on Learning Circles. Coming from a Ph.D. program in Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media, I had many opportunities to look at the intersections of learning and networked technologies through courses, readings, workshops, conferences, lectures, etc. Having this background made me eager to start my own explorations. I wanted to understand how adult learners used open educational resources (OER) in informal learning settings. For this reason, I investigated how interactions among several individuals involved with Learning Circles informed facilitators/learners’ participation in their study groups.
Peer 2 Peer University’s initiative caught my attention because it allowed people with limited access to digital networks to take online courses. This was the type of population that I wanted to study! And I had the privilege to be involved with the project in its pilot round. Students, facilitators, and project coordinators were all shaping the foundations of the Learning Circles at that point. I traveled to Chicago in 2015 and spent two months conducting an ethnography. I observed several groups across the city, interviewed learners, facilitators, project coordinators, joined virtual meetings between P2PU and the Chicago Public Library, and acted as a researcher-collaborator who co-designed research instruments.
Two reports for P2PU and the Chicago Public Library, a dissertation, and an award are the tangible products of these years of work. However, they do not enclose all my personal and professional growth. For instance, participants’ stories and struggles were constant reminders of how humans are complex and fascinating. One of the most outstanding characteristics of learners and facilitators was their self-motivation. Paula*, a student in a Public Speaking learning circle, defined people in these groups as being seekers.
“Someone who takes time to come into learning about their own self-development: those are seekers. They want to specifically make, they are determined to make, they come to make their difference early in their lives”, she told me.
It was stimulating to work with a group of interesting and interested people. I soon understood the great responsibility of authentically representing their voices.
Interactions with these seekers taught me an important lesson. How you collect your data matters. Taking time to know your participants is fundamental for writing an ethnography. There are many debates about quality in research. Among several guidelines, theorists urge practitioners to use their research to improve participants’ lives. My field work taught me that reciprocity can also be expressed through small actions. Taking time to tune in and connect with another human being can have a positive impact. Connecting is different from extracting information from people. It requires genuine interest and respect. It is a form of reciprocating the time that a person is dedicating to you. It is simple, but it can be time-consuming. It is a challenge to adopt this mind frame in our fast-paced society. Thus, you need to be a rebel at heart to create the space to do so. It is not easy, but it is worth.
When striving to be a rebel alongside these seekers, I learned that sometimes they were quiet in their groups because they felt anxious. That some of them were pursuing dreams or dealing with unfulfilled aspirations. That they juggled spouses, roommates, jobs, and others commitments. That they had to make time to be present in their Learning Circles as well. It was a privilege to hear all these narratives and many others. ‘Take time. Tune in.’
I will take this lesson and learners’ stories with me and I will pass them forward.
* I am using a pseudonym to protect the participant’s identity.