Celebrating three years of community-based online learning with IMLS

Grif visited Wendy and Shaka at Kansas City Public Library in October 2016 to, among other things, work on the IMLS Grant.

2016 was a formative year for P2PU. We wrapped up our learning circle pilot with Chicago Public Library (CPL), marking a conscious move away from building online courses and towards a new in-person peer-powered education model. By the fall, we had completed about 40 successful learning circles, created a community of 20 CPL library professionals, developed resources like a facilitator handbook and curated course list, and built an open-source tool for organizing and promoting these learning groups. Interest and programs started to grow in a handful of U.S. cities—Charlotte, Detroit, Kansas City, and Providence—as well as Nairobi and Nakuru in Kenya.

On the advice of our colleagues in Chicago, we applied for a two-year IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services) National Leadership Grant to pilot learning circles in new cities and improve our nascent model of community-based education in libraries. We put together a successful proposal with Kansas City Public Library to implement learning circles in six cities and build out our community of practice and, given early success, IMLS asked us to invite an additional five library systems in 2018 and extend the project through May, 2020. 

In total, our 11 IMLS partner libraries have led more than 200 6-week learning circles, supporting upwards of 1,500 library patrons in a diverse array of topics like web design, public speaking, English language learning, digital literacy, fiction writing, and resume writing. They demonstrated that learning circles are a successful community-based education model that can serve adults with limited access to higher education or online learning. Their experiences and expertise provided invaluable feedback about our tools, resources, and growing library of free online courses. Most importantly, they’ve stuck around! 10 of our original 11 library partners are still running learning circles even though the grant has ended.

Along with the success in our IMLS partner libraries, this grant had a defining impact on our work by helping us identify and support a global community. Learning circles are now established in 20 U.S. states and eight countries, most commonly being facilitated by teams of people (often library systems) working together in a local setting to offer empowering, community-based education. The highlight of the work for us continues to be helping these communities come together (usually virtually, sometimes in-person) to discuss, reflect, plan, and share with one another. A few examples of what has emerged from our community in just the past few months:

  • When libraries shut down in March, learning circles continued in a number of cities, as facilitators came to our monthly community calls to discuss strategies for transitioning public programming to a virtual space.
  • 35 library professionals from four countries then volunteered to meet over the course of seven weeks in March and April to adapt our facilitator materials for virtual learning circles, leading to new virtual programs in a number of cities that had been hesitant at first to try delivering virtual programming.
  • Library professionals from Los Angeles sat in on the first week of a learning circle in Boston before starting learning circles themselves; as a way of serving patrons without internet access at home, some LA learning circles have been facilitated by conference call. 
  • After watching us do it first, partners in Providence, Pittsburgh, and Warsaw, Poland have each onboarded their colleagues to P2PU by facilitating our five-week “learning about learning circles” course.
  • As an immediate outcome from a community call on anti-racist education, library proessionals in Charlotte and Portland, OR shared their facilition guides and approaches to hosting meetings on these topics, and we’re in the process of transforming their experience into resources that can be used by other partners for both public-facing programs and internal professional development.

This IMLS grant has been a validating and illuminating experience for P2PU. We’re thrilled that many of our partners are transitioning from conversations about pilots and proofs of concept towards questions of maintenance and long-term sustainability. Many of the issues that we identified last year—developing and adapting OER, utilizing learning circles for professional development, and identifying opportunities for volunteer facilitation —are still relevant, and much of that work continues on our side. More on that soon!

P2PU would like to thank the Institute of Museum and Library Services and Kansas City Public Library for making this project possible, Nailah M’Biti for her evaluative support, and each of the library partners for their generosity and willingness to experiment with us: Akron-Summit County Public Library, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, Chicago Public Library, Cleveland Public Library, Mid-Continent Public Library, Onondaga Free Library, Spokane County Library District, Tampa-Hillsborough Public Library, Twin Lakes Library System, and Wichita Public Library.

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