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Exploring the effectiveness of learning communities as a source of technical assistance and professional development among Extension educators

Claudia C. Mincemoyer
Associate Professor
Penn State University

Daniel F. Perkins
Professor
Penn State University

Anthony Santiago
Extension Specialist
Iowa State University

Abstract

In this study, the perceptions of Extension educators participating in the PROPSER (PROmoting School-community-university Partnerships to Enhance Resilience) project were examined. The study focused on the success of the learning community model in (1) providing support and technical assistance, (2) helping solve local challenges and problems, (3) allowing for reflection on practice and sharing learning, (4) increasing knowledge of prevention science and evidence-based practice, and (5) facilitating systems change in Cooperative Extension. Extension educators overwhelmingly agreed that the PROSPER Learning Community meetings were supporting their ability to translate research into action in their communities. They felt more credible and comfortable doing prevention education work in their communities as a result of participation in PROSPER Learning Communities.

The authors wish to acknowledge the National Institute on Drug Abuse (1 R01 DA013709-01A1) for their support of the PROSPER project.

Keywords: professional development, learning community, prevention education, reflective practice

Introduction to the PROSPER project

The PROSPER (PROmoting School-community-university Partnerships to Enhance Resilience) multi-level partnership model is locally led by Cooperative Extension Service (CES) educators and is intended to build community capacity to deliver evidence-based family and youth interventions (Spoth, Greenberg, Bierman, and Redmond 2004). The model involves local community teams that are provided with continuous, proactive technical assistance through state land-grant universities. PROSPER’s main goals are to reduce rates of early substance use and problem behavior, as well as to promote positive youth development and family competences (Spoth et al. 2004).

Structurally, PROSPER entails a three-tier community-university partnership model (see Figure 1; Spoth and Greenberg 2005; Spoth et al. 2004). Community-based teams are led by local Extension educators and co-led by school personnel. The Extension educators serve as linking agents between the local team and university-based prevention specialists and resources. Relatively small in size (8-12 people), these strategic teams include representatives from CES, local schools, community agencies, parents, and youth. The PROSPER teams were designed to achieve a focused set of intervention goals across a number of developmental phases, as described in an earlier article (Spoth and Greenberg 2005).


school local community

Figure 1. PROSPER partnership model

[Alt tag content for Figure 1: PROSPER entails a three-tier community-university partnership model]

Research on university-extension-community partnerships supports Extension’s role as collaborative partner in prevention education with other community agencies (Goldberg, Spoth, Meek, and Molgaard 2001; Spoth and Molgaard 1999). In a recent report, a longitudinal comparison of PROSPER communities to matched controls indicated that during the first three years of the project, PROSPER communities showed a significant increase in community leaders’ perceptions of the effectiveness of Extension in providing education and services for youth and families (Mincemoyer, Perkins, Ang, Greenberg, Spoth, Redman, and Feinberg, (2008). The role of the Extension educator is pivotal to the success of PROSPER collaborations, team functioning, and program sustainability. To provide for continuing professional development, solve problems, and reflect on current practice, PROSPER Learning Community (PLC) meetings were established. The purpose of this study was to define the components of successful PLCs and examine their perceived usefulness in assisting the Extension educators in performing their duties as PROSPER Team Leaders.

What is a learning community?

Hiatt-Michael (2001) defines a learning community as one in which “all members acquire new ideas and accept responsibility for making the organization work” (p. 113). Learning communities consist of stakeholders in the group or organization that share in the learning process and work together toward a common goal (Harda, Lum, and Souza 2003; Kong and Pearson 2003). The concept of learning communities actually has its origins in business and organizational management. Peter Senge (1990) in his book, The Fifth Discipline, introduced the concept of a “learning organization.” Senge suggests that problem solving in organizations should shift from a top-down paradigm to using the people in the organization to create their own solutions and learn from each other. From Senge’s paradigm of a learning organization, educators and educational researchers began using the term “learning communities” (Hord 2004).

Much of the research on learning communities comes from the educational field and examines the effect of professional learning communities on student achievement and instructional reform (Hord 1997; Hord 2004; Rosenholtz 1989; Hiatt-Michael 2001; McLaughlin and Talbert 1993). Astuto and colleagues (1993) define a professional community of learners, where the teachers and administrators in a school continuously seek and share learning and then put into practice what they learned. Rosenholz (1989) found that teachers who felt supported in their professional learning and classroom practice were more committed to teaching and more effective teachers than those who did not feel supported. She suggests that support means establishing teacher networks, cooperation among colleagues, and expanded professional roles. This additional support increased teacher efficacy and teachers were more likely to adopt innovative classroom techniques and remain in the profession. Hord (2004) organized the characteristics of successful learning communities into five themes or dimensions. Although she defines these in terms of the school environment, they are useful as we develop a conceptual framework for PROSPER Learning Communities (PLCs): supportive and shared leadership, shared values and vision, collective learning and application of learning, supportive conditions, and shared practice.

Professional learning communities are also grounded in basic adult learning theory principles and provide several characteristics that adult learners need (Annenberg Institute 2004). Learning communities as professional development support basic assumptions about adult learners, including allowing the adults to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their learning; acknowledging existing skills, knowledge, interest, and competence of the learners; providing learning that is directly relevant; supporting internal motivations for learning; and allowing the learners to receive feedback on progress toward goals (Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner 2007).

What is a PROSPER Learning Community (PLC)?

A PLC is a regularly scheduled meeting of the PROSPER Team Leaders (TLs); prevention coordinators (PCs), who work very closely with local teams to provide proactive and ongoing technical assistance to the TLs; and the university-based researchers and Extension specialists. These meetings are designed with agendas generated by the TLs, the PCs, and the researchers to meet relevant needs and solve current and emerging problems in the PROSPER project. The PLC meetings also provide a venue for the PCs, university-based researchers, and Extension specialists to provide prevention science updates for the Team Leaders. Examples of topics discussed at previous PLC meetings include effective use of data, team development, sustainability planning, media and communication planning, delegation techniques, grant writing, implementation fidelity, building strong relationships with your local school, and evidence-based prevention practices.

PLC sessions are held four to six times a year at a centralized location within the state; they are approximately six hours long. Local PROSPER Team Leaders are the primary audience, with discussions being facilitated by the PCs, the TLs, university researchers, and consultants, when appropriate. Thus far, outside consultants have been used for specific expertise in marketing communications, public relations, and planning for sustainability.

County Extension Directors or Area Extension Directors attend PLC meetings when the topics are relevant. Buy-in and support from Team Leaders’ supervisors can decrease questions and concerns about how PROSPER fits with traditional Extension programming and budgetary issues. Moreover, supervisors’ attendance can increase the likelihood of their support for PROSPER at the community level, thus assisting with both sustainability and systems integration at the local and regional level.

The current study examines PROSPER Team Leaders’ perceptions of the success of the PLC model in (1) providing support and technical assistance, (2) helping solve local challenges and problems, (3) allowing for reflection on practice and sharing learning with colleagues, (4) increasing knowledge of prevention science and evidence-based practice, and (5) facilitating systems change in Cooperative Extension by changing the role of the Extension educator.

Why learning communities for PROSPER Team Leaders?

The PLC is an opportunity for PROSPER Team Leaders to reflect on their team’s functioning, discuss issues that their teams face, share struggles and successes with colleagues, learn from colleagues how to manage issues in team leadership and community development, and gain further information on implementing high-quality, evidence-based prevention programs. The PLC is also attended by prevention coordinators and university-based researchers who may provide some guidance and act as facilitators. The PLC is a professional development experience that provides Team Leaders with a structure for reflection about their experiences. Dall’Alba and Sandberg (2006) note that it is the understanding of practice that forms the basis for professional skill development. More specifically, professionals’ use of new knowledge and skills depends on “their embodied understanding of the practice in question” (p. 390). The learning community environment supports this shift from transfer of knowledge and skills toward developing understanding of the practice being taught or discussed.

Therefore, time is allotted at each PLC session for open discussion among Team Leaders around pre-determined specific issues as well as issues identified by the participants. For instance, an issue identified by leaders involved sharing ideas about how to creatively increase family recruitment to attend evening prevention programs. This opportunity allowed leaders to share successful strategies and use the group to address common problems. This reflective practice experience is one step toward developing Team Leaders into highly skilled prevention educators who are able to promote and support youth and family prevention programming within the Extension system.

The Team Leaders are on the front line of systems change in helping communities embrace and adopt evidence-based programs and the learning community experience supports them in their systems transformation efforts. Sanders and Heller (2006) identify “communities of practice” (COP) in which members identify themselves and come together frequently for a shared purpose, similar to the learning community concept. Sanders and Heller (2006) refer to knowledge management as a “structured process for the generation, storage, distribution and application of knowledge in organizations” (p. 341.) These “communities of practice” are a key component of knowledge management and essential for the implementation of organizational change (Mertins, Heisig, and Vorbeck 2001; Wenger and Snyder 2000). Roberts (2006) suggested that COPs demonstrate several characteristics including sustained mutual relationships; rapid flow of information and proposition of innovations; absence of introductory preambles; local lore, shared stories, inside jokes, knowing laughter; jargon and shortcuts to communication, as well as the ease of producing new ones; and a shared discourse reflecting a certain perspective on the world. These characteristics can be observed during the PLC meetings in addition to the adaptability and flexibility that allow for growth (Basadur and Gelade 2006) not only for Team Leaders but also for the prevention coordinators and university-based researchers.

Methods

This study is part of a larger project whose aim is to evaluate the processes and outcomes of the PROSPER model (Spoth et al. 2004). The larger project uses a randomized controlled design, involving twenty-eight communities in two states. Communities were blocked (matched) on school district size and geographic location. They were then randomly assigned to community partnership intervention and “intervention as usual” comparison conditions, with seven districts from each of the two states in the intervention condition (N=14) and an equal number in the control condition. The community PROSPER team members (including health and social service providers, school personnel, parents, and youth) in intervention communities were recruited by the county Extension educator (PROSPER Team Leader) and the local school representative (PROSPER co-leader). The PLC meetings began in 2004, approximately two years after the Extension educators assumed their positions as Team Leaders with the larger PROSPER project. This assessment took place in 2006, after the Team Leaders had attended eight to ten PLC meetings. The PROSPER Team Leaders in the intervention communities (N=17) were contacted via e-mail and asked if they would participate in the study. All Team Leaders agreed to participate. One graduate student from each university who was familiar with the PROSPER project was recruited to conduct telephone interviews with the Team Leaders. Interviews lasted approximately one hour and were conducted in the fall of 2006. Participation was voluntary and Team Leaders were not compensated for their participation.

Participants

Ten of the Team Leaders were from one state, and seven were from the other state. Three communities in one state had two Team Leaders sharing the position. Four were male, and twelve were female. All participants were Caucasian/Non-Hispanic. Participants had a mix of Extension program responsibilities including 4-H youth development, family and consumer sciences, community development, and administrative positions.

Measures

Quantitative questions (N=18) were asked of the team leaders using a Likert scale response. Follow-up probing questions were then asked for clarification of the Team Leader’s response when appropriate (N=7). For example, the first question is “Participation in the Learning Communities has assisted me with my professional development.” The follow-up probe is “If you agree or strongly agree, in what ways have the Learning Communities helped your professional development?” Additional qualitative questions (N=9) were asked to obtain open, uncategorized feedback regarding the PROSPER Learning Communities.

Results

The descriptive results of Team Leader ratings of aspects of the Learning Communities are shown in Table 1 using a Likert scale of 1=Strongly Disagree to 5 = Strongly Agree.

Table 1. Perceptions of Team Leaders regarding PROSPER learning communities

[Table 1 Summary: Perceptions of Team Leaders regarding PROSPER learning communities]

Learning Community Item

N

Mean

SD

Percent
Agree
or
Strongly Agree

Support and Technical Assistance

  1. Participation in the LC has assisted with my professional development

17

4.18

.53

89

  1. Issues or challenges that I present at the LC meetings are taken seriously

17

4.12

.70

82

  1. Issues, challenges, or questions that I presented at earlier LC meetings are addressed at subsequent LC meetings

17

4.24

.66

88

  1. Technical assistance at the LC has been useful

17

4.35

.49

100

Solving local problems and challenges

  1. There is sufficient time at the LCs for open discussion and interaction among the team leaders

17

4.18

.81

88

  1. Participation in the LCs has helped me to do my job as a TL more effectively

17

4.24

.83

88

  1. Hearing other TLs’ challenges/solutions has assisted me in problem-solving similar issues on my team

17

4.53

.51

100

Reflective practice and sharing

  1. I feel a sense of connection or belonging to the other participants at the LC

16

4.69

.48

100

  1. My input is valued at the LC meetings

17

4.18

.64

88

Knowledge of prevention science

  1. I learned something new at each LC meeting

17

4.06

1.0

72

  1. I understand the connection between PROSPER research and programming as a result of the LCs

17

4.41

.62

94

  1. Participation in the LCs has helped me become a more comfortable prevention educator

17

4.18

.73

82

  1. The content of the LCs is understandable

17

4.29

.47

100

  1. The content of the LCs is repetitive

17

3.00

1.1

35

Changing role of the extension educator

  1. LC participation has improved my ability to collaborate with other agencies

17

3.59

.80

50

  1. The benefits of attending an LC outweigh the costs

17

3.82

.73

76

  1. Participation in the LCs is worth the time required to participate

17

4.06

.75

83

  1. I find I learn more through the LC than a typical Extension in-service

11

3.73

.91

64

Support and technical assistance

The Team Leaders overwhelmingly report that the PLCs helped with their professional development. Many noted that the PROSPER Learning Communities expanded their knowledge of prevention science and research trends, supported networking with peers, addressed problem-solving issues and offered new programming ideas. Moreover, in terms of technical assistance, about one-third of the Team Leaders strongly agreed and almost two-thirds agreed that the technical assistance received was useful. Team Leaders’ comments about helpful technical assistance included sharing information on grant writing, sharing ideas in small groups with other TLs, interpreting data and explaining it to stakeholders, and learning how all the project pieces fit together.

Solving local problems and challenges

The PLCs provided an opportunity for the Team Leaders to share and solve problems such that the majority of team leaders (88 percent) report that there was sufficient time allotted for open discussion, and all of the team leaders (100 percent) agreed or strongly agreed that the open discussion helped them solve local problems. In terms of job effectiveness, 88 percent of Team Leaders agreed or strongly agreed that the LC has helped them with responsibilities associated with being a more effective Team Leader and thus better able to address problems and challenges as they surface.

Reflective practice and sharing

In terms of connection to other Team Leaders, the majority of Team Leaders felt that the PLC setting was open, positive, and welcoming. One Team Leader noted, “There is a large amount of camaraderie and willingness of campus staff to make everyone welcome and part of the larger team.” And, “Very open; people are very accepting of all comments.”

In addition, Team Leaders reported that their input is valued. There were no examples given of situations where Team Leader input was not considered important. One Team Leader states, “I strongly feel that they (LC participants) listen to everybody. (There is) e-mail follow-up if they don’t have answers or the topic is brought up again at the next meeting for discussion.”

Knowledge of prevention science

For learning, 72 percent of the Team Leaders agreed or strongly agreed that they learned something new at each PLC meeting. The comments from Team Leaders note a variety of new information learned depending on the topic and the existing experience/knowledge of the Team Leader. As noted previously, grant writing, interpreting data and statistics, marketing, and promotional strategies were mentioned several times as topics about which they learned new information. With regard to content, two variables were measured: understandable content and repetitive content. Most Team Leaders felt that the content was understandable (m=4.29), and only slightly over one-third (34 percent) agreed or strongly agreed that the content was repetitive.

Overall, Team Leaders reported that the PLCs enabled them to be more comfortable prevention educators. Indeed, TLs were able to note several examples of how they feel more comfortable as community prevention educators, such as understanding program fidelity, being able to discuss in practical terms what the research means, and what evidence-based intervention means. Moreover, a mean of 4.41 indicates strong agreement in terms of Team Leaders’ reporting that PLCs helped them translate prevention knowledge and best practices into action within their communities.

Changing role of the Extension educator

More than 80 percent agreed or strongly agreed that the LCs are worth the time and effort needed to participate, and a majority of the Team Leaders reported learning more at PLC meetings than typical Extension in-services (64 percent). The reasons cited by Team Leaders included more time for interaction; similar program goals and program focus; fellowship, camaraderie, and connectedness; true give and take; and interactive sharing among peers that was in-depth and discussion-oriented.

The mean for collaboration ability was lower (3.59) than the majority of other items as some Team Leaders reported that they already had good collaboration skills; however, 50 percent agreed or strongly agreed with this statement and indicated that they now have new or stronger relationships with drug and alcohol control agencies, children, youth and family services, new school districts and administrators, and local county endowment agencies. One TL indicated that “I am viewed differently by my community. I have since been asked to sit on a drug task force and the community organizations take me more seriously.” Another Team Leader noted that “The LCs have given me ideas on marketing and representing our Extension office in a professional way.”

Discussion and implications

Overall, Team Leaders participating in this study value the PROSPER Learning Community meetings, they feel that the PLCs help them to do their jobs more effectively, and are worth the time required. As Team Leaders note, there is more time for in-depth interaction, connectedness, and interactive sharing. As noted earlier, 64 percent of Extension educators reported learning more at Learning Community meetings than typical Extension in-services. At first glance, this percentage does not appear to be very large; however, it should be considered in tandem with the other findings, such as the finding that all Team Leaders felt a sense of connection or belonging to other participants and were able to problem-solve local issues and challenges. Additionally, 89 percent found assistance with professional development through the learning communities. Although further study would be needed to address issues of job satisfaction and retention for the Team Leaders, we can look at some indicators of success for PROSPER teams that support the Team Leader self-reports of the effectiveness of the learning communities. All of the teams secured external funding to support local PROSPER programming after the grant-funded period ended, recruitment rates of eligible families was 1 percent compared to 1 to 6 percent for similar prevention programs (Spoth 2004), and the prevention programs are being implemented with a high level of fidelity (97 percent). Poor implementation of the evidence-based interventions (EBIs) frequently diminishes the positive outcomes promoted by the program (e.g., promoting positive youth development and decreasing problem behaviors (Backer 2003; Domitorich and Greenberg 2000). Thus, overall the learning community format seems to be an important part of the ongoing professional development of Extension educators. In our experience, in-services are not designed to build sequentially on each other and, as such, they rarely create an ongoing dialog of learning, whereas learning communities are designed for continuous learning over time.

The Team Leaders who participate in the PLCs appear to be developing their own “community of practice.” These interactions are occurring between the Team Leaders during the PLC meetings as well as through interactions outside of the PLC meetings. Communities of practice as defined are not established by the management of an organization (Lave and Wenger 1991). They evolve over a period of time in which management can support and facilitate their development and operation. With the PLCs, the university-level researchers and specialists initially structured and facilitated the development and operation; however, as the TLs participated, they began to embrace ownership for the development of future PLCs. These communities of practice can assist with knowledge transfer and practice across the organization (Brown and Dugid 2001). PROSPER Learning Communities provide the initial support and basic operational structure for the future development of a community of practice among PROSPER Team Leaders. More research is needed to determine if the Team Leaders view their interaction as a community of practice and to document in what ways their interaction outside of the PLC meetings is occurring. In addition, a larger study is needed to compare the learning community model of professional development versus the traditional in-service model often used in Cooperative Extension. The PLC model of professional development is unique in that it evolves over time with sustained participation over a number of years from a small number of participants who all have similar project responsibilities, concerns, and issues. This structure allows for the building of trust, interaction, and learning.

Communities of practice are valuable to organizations because they allow for knowledge management, that is, the generation, storage, distribution, and application of knowledge (Sanders and Heller 2006). This is important to Extension because of its mission to apply knowledge to increase people’s quality of life. As we strive to implement evidence-based practice into our youth and family programming, the application of research is critically important. The learning community model of professional development is one way to support the application of new evidence-based practice. To reiterate, the Team Leaders overwhelmingly agreed that the PLC meetings were supporting their ability to translate research into action in their communities. This is especially important because at the inception of the PLCs, the Extension educators questioned the time commitment involved and the cost-benefit to them as educators and Team Leaders. As this study confirms, they now fully support the learning community concept. The Extension educator is more credible and comfortable doing prevention education work in his/her community, and thus is being sought after as a local expert.

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Cite this article

Claudia C. Mincemoyer, Daniel F. Perkins, and Anthony Santiago. 2008. Exploring the effectiveness of learning communities as a source of technical assistance and professional development among Extension educators. The Forum for Family and Consumer Issues, 13 (3).

On-line: http://ncsu.edu/ffci/publications/2008/v13-n3-2008-winter/index-v13-n3-winter-2008.php

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