February 17, 2018

Chicago Public Library Gives Online Courses the Personal Touch

Learning Circle students at Chicago Public Library
Photo credit: Chicago Public Library

For over two years, Chicago Public Library (CPL) has brought free online courses to adult learners via its Learning Circles program, partnering with Peer 2 Peer University, a non-profit organization that facilitates learning outside of a brick-and-mortar classroom by cultivating high-quality, low-cost learning. The online program has helped over 225 participants complete classes since 2015, on topics ranging from personal finance to writing skills.

According to Peer 2 Peer University, “Learning Circles are lightly-facilitated study groups for learners who want to take online courses together, in-person. Learning Circles are peer supported, facilitated by non-content experts, hosted in publicly accessible spaces, designed to be taken with few prerequisites, and free for learners. You can think of Learning Circles like a book group for learning.”

The program, which has also been developed for Detroit, was recognized by Next Century Cities and Google Fiber by being awarded a 2017 Digital Inclusion Leadership Award. In the category of “Leader in Digital Inclusion Best Practices,” Learning Circles won “Most Innovative.” Andrea Sáenz, CPL first deputy commissioner, considers the award to be an honor; “We think it’s a wonderful thing, and are very happy that our hard work has been recognized.” she said.

Support to succeed

The goal of Learning Circles is to connect people who are not college-educated with online courses and in-library facilitators that can provide them with real-world skills, such as public speaking, social entrepreneurship, building a website, and more.

“We realized that there are all these wonderful free [online] tools available, [but] very few adult learners were taking advantage. [Learning Circles] helps someone who didn’t finish college, and reintroduces them to skills like writing and other basic things that are important,” said Sáenz.

The classes last between six to eight weeks and each session is up to 90 minutes. Users can access the library’s computers and facilities to participate. What sets Learning Circles apart from other online programs is the use of a librarian facilitator, who guides the student along with weekly in-person meetings.

“The fact-to-face meeting, the one that we manage, is meant to help people have a peer network that supports them and keeps them accountable. What the facilitator does is have a connection among the group,” said Sáenz.

Each weekly session runs between two to three hours at the library. Classes are chosen from among the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that are available to the general public, but retention rates for Learning Circles reach between 45 and 55 percent. That’s many times the rate of users who take MOOCs on their own, which is less than seven percent. And those without formal education quit MOOCs at even higher rates.

According to Sáenz, the reason for the program’s success is the social component.“It’s the social support. People really benefit from those in-person meetings to keep them motivated. We are reaching a set of learners that don’t necessarily do well just on the Internet because they need more support to get through the coursework. If you’re just online then you have no one to help you if you get stuck. Learning Circles works because we offer both people and the space,” she said.

The future of learning circles

The program is currently operating in 21 out of 80 CPL locations, and it will soon be expanding thanks to recently winning an Institute of Museum and Library Services National Leadership grant.CPL has a step-by-step plan for the future of Learning Circles.

“Our main, next-step focus is to get more of our librarians trained as facilitators. That will bring us to more than 50 percent completion rates. Step two is to curate additional offerings, specifically exploring other topics that we haven’t looked at yet,” said Sáenz.

Chicago Public Library is “exploring ways to do more than free courses, perhaps partnering with university partners because at this point the courses are just providing basic skills.”

“We are exploring the notion that if we could build partnerships and take advantage of an appetite [for formal learning], we could offer courses that were credit bearing,” said Sáenz.

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