Building a Community Learning Laboratory Through Digital Initiatives

How can digital initiatives help to build a community of life-long learners? How can we build partnerships that create opportunities that lead to new methods of teaching, learning, and digital collaborations? It begins with creativity, trust, and some play!

About 3 years ago, Stephanie Carmona, who leads the Community Education Program Initiative (CEPI) out of the Education Department at Whittier College and I met to think about how we might create learn-by-doing assignments for her computer skills class. Her classes are made up of adult learners which include parents who’s children attend local K-12 schools.
Mostly informal and born out of our friendship and willingness to help the many Spanish-speaking parents that we had been interacting with, we started to lead some community-based workshops on building digital literacies. These workshops were guided by topics that our participants suggested: social media and the apps their children are using, how to manage the vast amounts of photos they are collecting on their mobile devices, and Internet safety. The workshops were successful because our adult learners were invited to help in the design process and of course it helped that they bonded quickly and became friends, some even comadres. We also had an undergraduate student intern that helped with the workshops. While trying something new at the computer, our adult learners would summon our intern by calling out, “teacher, teacher!” Although we didn’t necessarily plan for it, we soon found that we were building a community learning laboratory- where we all interchanged roles as teachers, learners, and creatives. Some workshops on managing photo storage and archives turned into a traveling photography exhibition we call “Nuestro Arte”. We also created a Story Map based on this Photovoice project.

Our community learning laboratory has grown in so many ways! Participants continue to learn new computer skills by trying new software and applications. They now have email addresses that they use to correspond when signing up for online services or job applications or to simply communicate with friends and relatives that live far away or in a different country. Although–their preferred method of communicating is to use WhatsApp– which they showed me how to use!

One recent project on learning typing skills turned into an assignment that included writing personal narratives. These narratives were then recorded as a podcast series and were then published in a book that participants shared with their family, their friends, and the greater community. Part of the discussions we have as a learning community engaged in (public) digital initiatives are issues of privacy and security. Some of the stories our participants share are personal and told in the effort of increasing understanding of diverse populations. We always offer the option to keep their identity private or anonymous and not all digital projects are shared on public platforms. The participants that do elect to share publicly also have the option to have their work removed from public sites at any time.

Our learning laboratory also creates digital stories that we showcase each spring at the Whittier College campus. There is rarely a dry eye in the audience! The shared personal narratives are filled with stories of love, friendship, family, and struggle–and we always feel more connected after each screening. But, the effort our participants have taken to learn how to edit their words with pictures and music and put them together into a video that profiles their success is also a highlight of these digital story screenings.

An upcoming project will bring our community of adult learners and undergraduate students together to build a digital map that will showcase migration and family histories. This collaboration gives our undergrads opportunities to interact with, learn from, and gain experience and knowledge in working with members from diverse backgrounds. Challenges include language barriers, various learning styles, and digital divides. As part of this process, undergraduates interchange roles as teachers and learners. The adult learners gain digital fluency as they work in online environments. They help to transfer these skills to their peers as well as to their school-aged children. Some of our adult learners are now parents of first generation college students. Inspired by their children working to be the first in their families to obtain a college degree, a group of adult learners has been motivated to re-enter formal education and obtain their GED.

This learning laboratory provides opportunities for all involved to be engaged and invested in a learning community that they have helped to build by contributing to digital platforms and the diverse populations that will use them to continue the cycle of life-long teaching and learning.
We invite faculty, students, and community members into this creative partnership. It is a process that helps to give our learning community a set of transferable skills, confidence, and an experience of working with (digital) citizens in meaningful digital collaboration.