Dodge, L. (2003). Building Academic Skills and Information Competency through Learning Communities. Educational Technology & Society, 6(3), 72-78, (ISSN 1436-4522)

Building Academic Skills and Information Competency through Learning Communities

Lucy Dodge
Title III Activity Director/CIS Faculty
San Jose City College
2100 Moorpark Ave.
San Jose, CA95128, USA



Colleges are finding new ways to incorporate technology skills and information competency into the curriculum. One method used successfully at several campuses involves a coordinated curriculum in which two or more faculty members collaborate to offer a linked group of classes that combine the objectives and course requirements such that students benefit from having an integrated curriculum. This paper describes several of these learning communities and how they benefited community college students and faculty.

Keywords: Learning communities, Information competency, Digital divide, Curriculum innovations, Learning strategies


Although many college campuses agree that a basic level of information competency is important for students to achieve, the specific elements of what constitutes information competency are still disputed. What one college considers adequate knowledge of technology is viewed as minimally acceptable by another college. And, furthermore, even if information competency requirements could be standardized, how could we then assess whether or not students reached this level? The criteria for evaluation remain as vague as the standards themselves. Defining information competency has become one of the foremost issues on campuses today. Providing courses that bridge the “Digital Divide” has become big business among colleges. To address this issue, San Jose City College (SJCC), under the auspices of a Title III U.S. Federal Department of Education Strengthening Institutions Grant, designed and offered several courses intended to help students begin the process of learning how to use computers to enhance their technology skills through the use of learning communities.

In spite of the fact that SJCC is a vocationally oriented community college located in a high-tech area, many students still lack the requisite skills to survive or even obtain jobs in a technologically advanced area. An increasing number of jobs in this area require a high degree of expertise, which students do not possess when they enter the Community College. In fact, as many Silicon Valley managers proclaim, the key to employment longevity rests in the blend of technology with communication and problem solving skills. This paper discusses how several proposed solutions to this dilemma were implemented on a community college campus.


Bringing Technology Skills to the Community College Campus

Designed to alleviate, if not solve, the problem of how to bring technology skills to a community college campus, the following technology-related goals were implemented in an environment referred to as a learning community:

  • Integrate fundamental computer technology courses into the college curriculum
  • Define and promote a common set of technology skills across courses and programs
  • Increase student retention so that students remain to complete certificate or degree programs instead of enrolling in one or two isolated courses
  • Close the gap between technology skills of our students and skills required in the current job market in Silicon Valley


What is a Learning Community?

Designed to blend the instruction of logically related disciplines, a learning community weaves the learning, the skills, and the assignments in two or more classes together into a unified mosaic of educational objectives. Typically, two or more instructors work together to create a course syllabus that reflects the objectives of the learning community. San Jose City College’s learning communities combine courses in the following disciplines:

  • English as A Second Language (ESL) 322, Introduction to College Reading, and CA 303, Getting Started with Microsoft Word
  • Guidance 95, Study Skills, and CA 302, Getting Started with Windows
  • English 92, Fundamentals of Composition, and English 102, College Reading
  • English 335, Basic Writing Skills, and English 322, Introduction to College Reading
  • Chemistry 12A, Organic Chemistry, and Computer Applications (CA) 305, Getting Started with PowerPoint
  • CA 306, Getting Started with the Internet, and French 1A or Spanish 1A


Benefits for Students

As members of a learning community, students have the advantage of

  • Discovering how concepts learned in one class can be applied to projects assigned in another class,
  • Working together to solve class-related problems,
  • Reinforcing their own skills by teaching fellow students,
  • Learning how experts in each field coordinate classroom activities across disciplines,
  • Enjoying a variety of classroom environments,
  • Making friends with students enrolled in a similar group of classes, and
  • Arranging a convenient class schedule.

Given the rise in non-traditional instructional methods designed to serve a diverse educational and cultural college student population, learning communities provide an ideal platform for combining varied approaches to learning (Jamilah, 2002). Because learning communities cluster classes around skills that are useful in various subjects, students are more likely to perceive the relationships or connections among academic disciplines than if they take separate, non-linked classes. For example, in a learning community consisting of Organic Chemistry and Getting Started using the Internet, students discover how the Internet can facilitate research on recent trends in pharmacology. Contrary to the popular, but highly erroneous, belief that using the Internet is simply a mechanical process of finding and retrieving information, students in a learning community experience the serendipity of discovering heretofore unknown relationships and connections that expand their intellectual horizons.

Research studies have been conducted for several years on the achievements of LC students (Shapiro & Levine, 1999).Reinforcing current pedagogical trends, learning communities move the focus of classroom learning from content-centered and teacher-centered to student-centered and learning-centered education (MacGregor, 2002). One of the themes running through the majority of the learning community collaborative efforts is the realization that a more intensive participation in educational goals forges creative connections and innovative thinking across disciplines. Once students discover unexpected connections, this joy of discovery may remain with them, leading them to continue seeking pleasure in lifelong learning.


Learning Communities Reinforce Workplace Competencies

Responding to the publicized need to help students develop skills that will enable them to succeed in the workplace, Elizabeth Dole, the secretary of labor, established a commission to define workplace competencies identified as SCANS competencies (Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, 1991). The published list of competencies, developed as a result of information gathered from employers, managers, full-time and part-time workers, describe skills that that enable workers not only to perform their jobs well but also to function as responsible adults in a variety of environments.

Instead of adding more requirements to an already full curriculum, learning communities seamlessly blend these workplace skills into a course, simply by changing the method of instruction and presentation of material. (Kendall, 2000). As an instructor in the Computer Information Systems Department at San JoseCityCollege, the learning communities I have observed and participated in reinforced the following SCANS competencies:

  • Resource management: Although the term resource management can encompass a variety of elements, within a learning community, students are called upon to use the resource of time especially efficiently. Having enrolled in a linked set of classes, they need to effectively coordinate the activities of each class, for example, research on a Chemistry project with anther class, such as a PowerPoint class. They must coordinate their assignments with the availability of the resources, such as the computer lab where they prepare their PowerPoint presentations. Completing learning community assignments on time requires competent resource management on the part of the students. As Miguel Lopez, a San JoseCityCollege student, affirmed, “By taking reading and writing together in one learning community, we learned more rapidly.”
  • Use of Technology: After students acquire the skills necessary to use software packages such as PowerPoint, Word, Excel, Photoshop, and Internet Explorer, they are less intimidated by technology and better able to select the best computer application to use to communicate with their peers and their instructors. In one of the San JoseCityCollege learning communities combining Chemistry and Getting Started with the Internet, students refined their skills at evaluating the authenticity of information displayed on Web pages so as to be able to distinguish between conscientious advice and ill-conceived whining. Rather than bashing the new technologies, either literally or figuratively, students find that having a supportive group of fellow initiates makes it easier to face any frustrations inherent in learning how to use new equipment. The job of introducing new technologies, either hardware or software, to what may turn out to be a group of suspicious, at best, and resentful, at worst, recipients often falls into the lap of a department or project leader.
  • Systems Management: Because of the combined learning community curriculum, the learning activities engaged the students more thoroughly than if the courses had been offered separately. In one learning community combining computer applications courses with English as a Second Language (ESL), students were required to understand the procedures that governed the use of the computer lab, which differed from those in effect in the traditional classroom. For example, to complete their word processing assignments, students needed to use the Microsoft Windows operating system to connect to a networked printer in the computer lab when they need to print a class assignment. Learning to use a computer system competently and confidently may have been what Matt Volkman, a student at San JoseCityCollege, had in mind when he exclaimed, “I never expected to learn as much as I have.”
  • Information Management: While the term Information Management subsumes many different levels of expertise ranging from simply formatting a disk to managing an entire database application, in the SJCC learning community consisting of ESL and Computer Applications, we defined information management to consist of beginning level tasks such as  such as opening, closing, and copying a file from the hard drive to a floppy disk, writing and printing a Word document, saving a page from a Web site. For a complete list of the tasks students were required to complete to pass the class successfully, see the assessment surveys on the Title III page on the SJCC web site. When initially faced with the daunting responsibility of having to learn these tasks, many of the students simply stared at the computer screen or repeatedly begged the instructor to complete the tasks for them. By the end of the semester, however, most students were able to complete a majority of the required tasks successfully after reading the instructions by themselves.
  • Promoting effective communication skills: The ability to translate a confusing amount of information into a well-organized, lucid presentation conveys to the student her ability to control what intially seems to be an overwhelming and defeating amount of information. This feeling of control may help to ameliorate stress-related behavior. As various studies revealed (Marongiu Ivarsson & Ekehammar, 2001), in stressful situations, employees  who are highly motivated to succeed avoid descending into maladjusted responses such as self-blame, wishful thinking, or avoidance. Instead, they use problem-focused strategies arising out of a perceptive assessment of a situation.
  • InterPersonal Skills: In the Chemistry and Computer Applications learning community at San JoseCityCollege, students used PowerPoint slides to demonstrate the main ideas of their research projects. If the material presented lacked focus and clarity, the students in the audience were keen enough to perceive this, and to persist with their questions until the speaker clarified obscure concepts. Without this opportunity to receive feedback, students might not have realized that, in spite of their own firm beliefs in the importance of their research, their message failed to convince the audience. Perhaps this awareness is what one San JoseCityCollege student had in mind when she asserted that she “would recommend this type of class (a learning community) to anyone coming to college because it helps you adjust to the college environment.”
  • Interacting with a wide spectrum of personalities and cultures: According to the San Jose Evergreen Community College District (SJECCD) Population Data Report from Lapkoff Gobalet Demographic Research, ethnicity data for 2000 indicate that the SJECCD population 18 years and older is comprised of 36% Asian/Pacific Islander compared with 30% for the U.S. as a whole; 29% Hispanic compared with 30% for the U.S. as a whole; 20% Caucasian compared with 34% for the U.S. and 8% African-American compared with 3% in the U.S (Lapkoff Gobalet, 2001). Ethnographic data and enrollment figures suggest that learning communities attract a similarly diverse group of students from countries throughout the world. Thus, learning communities give students the opportunity to express their leadership skills in a multi-ethnic environment that will serve them well when they enter the workforce, whether in Silicon Valley or in the majority of locations throughout the U.S. Rather than finding the interaction with various cultures abrasive, students welcomed the chance to interact with a panoply of diverse talents gathered under the umbrella of a learning community. Although it’s difficult to evaluate the long-term importance of the training learning community students receive in working with a close-knit group of culturally diverse team-mates, virtually all the students gained an appreciation of their fellow students’ cultural heritage.


Students’ Responses to Learning Communities

Students who have completed learning communities are being surveyed and will continue to be surveyed to determine some of the long-term benefits of their having participated in the SJCC learning communities. On a post-course survey on student involvement for the Chemistry and Computer Applications learning community, students indicated that they valued the learning community environment for 4 main reasons:

  • They were able to brainstorm together in groups.
  • While explaining the information to other students, they were able to learn at the same time.
  • The instructors showed consistent interest in their work.
  • The instructors were available whenever they needed help.

Further research is being conducted to determine if these positive responses indicate a significant relationship between learning community participation and effective communication and problem-solving skills.


Course Success Rates

Given the specific SJECCD ethnographic population, do learning communities motivate students to succeed in greater numbers than students who take the same courses without the collaborative learning structure? At SJCC, the success rates of students in learning communities were compared to the non-learning community sections of the same courses. (See the website at for detailed information about learning communities and San JoseCityCollege courses.) The Fall 2000, Spring 2001, and Fall 2001 data were gathered from Ethnic Grade Distribution Reports and Datatel program records (Kangas, 2001).

As Figure 1 illustrates, SJCC learning communities for Spring 2001 and Fall 2001 had higher success rates (defined as passing a course with an A, B, C grade or Credit) than comparison courses and even higher success rates than baseline figures. The comparison courses are those most closely offered in a semester to those paired as learning communities. However, because of college scheduling and program requirements, the same courses were not always offered each semester. The number of successful students column shows the number of students who passed the class. The number of students indicates those who enrolled and stayed in the class and received a grade whether this is a passing grade or not. The percentages indicating successful completion of a course are derived by dividing the number of students who received a passing grade (A, B, C, or Credit) by the total number enrolled in the class who received a passing grade or W(withdraw), I(incomplete), NC (no credit), D, or F.


Using Baseline Courses as a Point of Comparison

Serving as a benchmark against which other classes are compared, the baseline courses are those courses offered before any innovative programs, such as learning communities, were instituted. Baseline courses comprise a range of courses and are typically the same courses offered at the same time and even the same teacher, if possible, as the learning communities and comparison courses. Most of the Baseline Success Rates were created by adding all the sections of the indicated courses, with the exception of those sections already included in the learning communities and comparison groups, together from Fall 1989 through Spring of 1991 and calculating the average success rates. The exception in this case involves the CA technology skills courses, which were not developed until 2000 and first offered in 2001. As is also the case for the learning communities and the comparison courses, the percentage of students who successfully passed is derived by dividing the number of students enrolled by the number of students who successfully passed the indicated courses with Credit or a grade of C or better (2858/1375=48%). The number of students enrolled includes those who completed the course with a passing grade or W(withdraw), I(incomplete), NC (no credit), D, or F.


Figure 1. Student Success Rates


Detailed Course Success Rates

Figure 2 shows the specific classes involved in learning communities, comparison non-learning community courses, and baseline courses. Within each group, the table shows the number of students enrolled, the number of students succeeding, and the percentage of students succeeding in each section, each class, and each learning community.


Figure 2. Detailed Course Success Rates



A Chi-Square test of the frequencies of success among the baseline classes versus the learning community classes was significant at the .01 level (Chi-Square =25.30, df=7). This conclusion supports the hypothesis students in learning communities differ from those in the baseline group. However, regardless of statistical significance, other issues merit consideration when deciding whether learning communities are a practical and relevant methodology. We are continuing to investigate the variables among students and faculty that distinguish those who participate in learning communities from other instructional groups and students. The results of such investigations may help us to identify the level and content of classes that are most suitable for learning communities and whether certain combinations of classes prove more successful than others.

Highlighting several salutary effects of learning communities in colleges throughout the United States, Stefanou and Salisbury-Glennon (2002) note that students enrolled in learning communities increase their motivation to learn, reduce test anxiety, and reinforce their confidence in their ability to control learning. Coincidentally, the camaraderie among faculty and staff members helps to ameliorate some of the deleterious effects of pervasive budget cuts and staff reduction that occur in academic, governmental, and corporate environments.

In addition, the most impressive benefits in learning and student achievement occur when instructors coordinate efforts to produce a combined syllabus reflecting the unified goals of the learning community (Stefanou & Salisbury-Glennon, 2001). This insight suggests that the success of a learning community positively correlates with having instructors work closely together to blend course objectives so that the resulting creation emerges as more than merely the sum of its parts.


Directions for Future Research

While the baseline courses are used simply as a benchmark against which the other courses are compared, it is obvious that factors, such as differences in student population between 1989 and 2001 may introduce other independent variables that could influence the results of this study. In order to more carefully identify exactly which factors caused differences in students’ performances, we are continuing to analyze the changing demographics of the student population from 1989 to the present.

Despite the documented increase in successful learning communities, additional research needs to be completed to determine if students who enroll in learning communities are already pre-selected in terms of their having had more education and academic success than their peers. That is, do they already possess some of the traits required for academic success when they initially enter the courses? Continuing to implement learning communities throughout the curriculum and at all levels will help illuminate the answer to this question.

However, the intangible benefits of a learning community may not fit into a procrustean bed of statistical data. Although having quantifiable results may bring an element of reassuring validity to a study, the most significant results of participating in a learning community may not be restricted to quantifiable data. Even such a notable management guru as W. Edwards Deming stated that the most important figures for management are elusive and unquantifiable (Holt, 2002).

Toward that end, further research might elucidate whether learning communities promote other non-quantifiable skills such as critical thinking skills and an enthusiasm for life-long learning. These are the results that suggest students have gained a more profound awareness of the value of their education beyond simply obtaining a passing grade in a course. Toward that end, we are in the process of developing assessment tools that will identify whether students gained analytical and critical thinking skills that help them solve problems and face challenges they encounter in their academic, personal, and professional interactions.



Given that the new paradigm in leadership emphasizes the value of being able to adjust to changes more rapidly than before, learning communities strengthen this ability for both men and women. To successfully manage a diverse group of individuals requires a composite set of skills that may be more difficult for women to develop because of societal constraints and ingrained habits. During their tenure in a learning community, students are required to adapt to changes, form new relationships among peers and faculty, and to adjust to the needs of others by rescheduling their time commitments, thus laying down early foundations for the development of altruistic behaviors.

Although additional research needs to be completed in order to elucidate whether students enrolled in learning communities are pre-selected for success in an academic or vocational environment, the structure of a learning community itself affords students the opportunity to develop skills that enable them to become leaders capable of skillfully blending competence, perception, and sensitivity.



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