Virtual Pathways from Training to Practice in Rhode Island

Graphic showing title of case study and logos for P2PU, RILA, and OLIS

In May 2021, the P2PU team wrapped up a unique collaboration with two Rhode Island organizations eager to support creative professional development opportunities for local library staff during pandemic closures. This successful project built off P2PU’s traditional in-person facilitator training, transitioning the program to virtual meetings with a new component: a fully-supported learning circle pilot based on a community-created course.

Like many organizations around the world, the Rhode Island Library Association (RILA) and Office of Library and Information Services (OLIS) were looking for creative ways to keep their community of library staff connected to each other and their patrons during unprecedented COVID-19 closures. The orgs’ traditional professional development practice of bringing people together from across the state to learn from subject experts wasn’t possible during the pandemic; as such, they sought an alternative that was inexpensive, community-oriented, flexible between in-person and online, and—perhaps most importantly—didn’t add too much to their workload.

Learning circles are free, lightly-facilitated study groups that meet in public spaces and use open online courses and peer learning to create meaningful and accessible educational opportunities. Because learning circles don’t rely on subject experts or teachers to be effective, many libraries have found success using the model as a way to flexibly support community interests, staff passions, and internal training needs. Since 2016, staff at Providence Public Library, the largest public library in Rhode Island, have used learning circles as a way to bring their patrons together around common topics of interest like digital literacy and U.S. citizenship exam prep. 

Well aware of PPL’s experience with learning circles, RILA and OLIS reached out to P2PU about running learning circles for staff development on topics of importance to both library professionals and the broader community. The idea was to begin with training a cohort of library staff on the learning circle model, then provide a supportive environment for participants to introduce learning circles to their colleagues throughout the state. Ultimately, all participants would finish the program feeling equipped to run learning circles for the public. To align with their existing strategic and continuing education initiatives, RILA and OLIS selected diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as the focus topic for training and the subsequent learning circles. 

The course materials selected demonstrate another value of P2PU’s vibrant peer-learning community: Amrita S. Patel and Denise LaForce, former colleagues from Charlotte Mecklenburg Library (CML), initially designed the content as an in-person workshop to help library staff run reflective and responsible programs that address racial inequality. Unable to run the workshop due to the pandemic and inspired by seeing the learning circle model in practice at CML, they came to P2PU during the summer of 2020 to adapt the materials into an open course designed for learning circles. The result was a five-module open-access course called How to Talk About Race, built using P2PU’s open source tool Course-in-a-Box and ready to use in learning circles without much modification.

With an audience and a topic in place, P2PU ran a 6-session training for 20 staff from public and academic Rhode Island libraries. The training followed materials from Learning About Learning Circles, P2PU’s learning-circle-fied introduction to facilitation, with the addition of a new module focused on managing difficult discussions. (These materials are not in the online course but have now been merged into the Facilitating Peer Learning section of the P2PU Handbook.)

Once the training was complete, participants divided into pairs to co-facilitate 8 How to Talk About Race learning circles for groups of colleagues statewide. This was an unplanned but welcome change to the project: co-facilitation was a great way to build support systems and solidarity between new facilitators as well as grow relationships across institutions.

The learning circles were widely regarded as successful by both facilitators and participants: most appreciated the blend of the course’s topic expertise with opportunities to discuss the content in the context of local issues facing Rhode Island library staff. When asked to reflect on their experience, it was clear that many participants took away more than just memorizing information from the course readings:

  • I’m better able to assess when it’s worth it to keep the conversation going, versus “agree to disagree”
  • I will use what I learned in daily conversation, as a reminder to speak up when I should, and when running programs where the topic leads to conversations about race.
  • I felt supported and challenged to learn something new on a complicated and challenging topic.
  • I’m already applying in everyday situations, constantly mindful that my perception of the world and going through it is not others’.
  • I intend to step back and be a better listener. I also learned to recognize that discomfort is okay and does not need to be avoided.

With learning circles established across Rhode Island, library staff are now able to take what they learned with their colleagues and run learning circles for the public. Two have already taken place—Foundations of Mindfulness and American Sign Language—and more are on the way!

Given the success of this project, RILA and P2PU have decided to continue their collaboration in two directions over the next year: identifying additional topics to introduce as professional development learning circles and working together with College Unbound to bring academic-credit-bearing learning circles to Rhode Island. For more information on this next project, check out the press release and keep an eye on the P2PU newsletter for updates.

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