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Saturday, November 8, 2014

Exploring a Learning Community: The Somerville Road Runners

This is an assignment (Assignment 4.1: Amateur Ethnography) for the MOOC I'm currently taking: MITx: 11.132x Design and Development of Educational Technology. We were asked to observe and reflect on teaching and learning within a learning community. Ideally, it would be one in which we were not a participant, but that was not possible for me. Thus I chose a learning community with which I'm very familiar.



As soon as the idea of a learning community was introduced, I immediately thought of my running club, the Somerville Road Runners. While I’d never thought of it as anything more than a social and competitive running club, I began to realize, it is indeed a learning community as the members:

are diverse: The club includes old and young, experienced and beginner, sprinters to ultramarathoners.

have shared goals: run in general but also: run further, run faster, run with more fun, get fit, meet people involved in running, etc.

come together regularly: There are three or sometime four “official” events per week which members ,and those who want to explore membership, can attend: track practice, two fun runs, and a formal or informal long run.

knowledge sharing: There are lots of informal chats during warmups and long runs; some include experts and apprentices and others are peer to peer interaction.

I’ve been in the club for about 10 years, so my observations stem from my own participation.

Experts and novices are hard to spot until the running begins. Everyone slowly learns who the fast men and women are as they win our fun runs and are called out for achievements on our Yahoo or Facebook groups. But there is also a culture that encourages more experienced participants to link those with questions to the “right” person. If you are considering running the Chicago Marathon, you will be pointed at those who have run it before.

There is far more informal mentoring than direct instruction. Sub groups that form at track practice and for long runs (those who run at roughly the same pace) become environments for mentoring. It’s certainly not called “mentoring,” and most participants probably think of it as “taking about one of my favorite things: running.” Direct instruction occurs at track practice when the coach describes the workout and how to get the most out of it. “We are doing 6 x 800, so don’t due the first ones too fast. The goal is to get them all done close to your goal time.” There is also direct instruction for those who choose to ask for input from the coach or other more experienced runners.

Questions run the gamut from: How do I train for a marathon? What race should I pick for my first marathon? How fast should I run my long runs? What do you eat before a marathon? What are the best shoes for trail running? My foot hurts; should I see the doctor? I’m exhausted; when can I take a day off running? How many calories per hour do you need to run 100 miles? The answers typically include a response from recipient but more often than not, a referral: “You should talk to x, he just ran a 100 mile race. Let me introduce you!”

The level of engagement varies. There is a core group that appears regularly. Other members 
 come and go. Some members are very social and have lots of questions and want to chat, others attend runs just to have companionship.

The "Aha" moment for me was in the first readings about learning communities. That’s when it occurred to me that this running club is indeed a learning community. As I noted above, I’d never thought it that way before!

Learning Theories

While I’m sure there are more than just two learning theories represented in my running club interactions, I want to focus on social learning and simulations.

I’ve detailed many of the kinds of interactions that involve social learning above, but have some specific examples. Social learning ideally involves all participants and offers a safe environment to try something new. At track practice the 60 (+/-) attendees typically break into groups of five or ten who run about the same pace. The runners in each group work together to complete the workout. Most workouts involve several repetitions (short runs) with a break in between. To share the load, different individuals will lead each repetition. Newer runners are often nervous about leading, fearing they’ll “do it wrong.” The community builds a backstop by having a more experienced runner provide some perspective: “Only two things can happen: you can run too fast or run too slow! I’ll run behind you and help you adjust the pace.” With that help nearly every first time “leader” is successful, which helps him or her move confidently into being an active community member.

The expert/apprentice model, part of social learning, pops up quite a bit. I had an experience several years ago that confirmed its value to me. I was warming up for track practice with one of our most experienced (65+) members. He’d asked how I was doing and I explained I was depressed, craved carbs and was not running well. I was “not myself.” “Hmmm.” he replied. “It’s October, the days are getting shorter, I wonder if it’s the lack of sunlight, seasonal affective disorder.” I went home and Googled it and found I had a classic set of symptoms. I bought a “wake up light,” which gradually wakes you up  in the morning, like the sun would. I’ve not had the problem since! 

I’ve been on the expert side of the equation, too. A first time ultrarunner approached me about nutrition during a 50 mile race. His first one was the next week. I shared my experience and helped him place in the top ten. To be fair, he was talented to begin with, but clearly he felt there was value in my input. I felt valued as an expert which perhaps tied me closer to the community.

The other learning theory we use within the running club is simulation. Many longer runs are meant to simulate, at least in part, the longer races we do (marathons, 50k, 50 mile and longer races). We’ll plan a long run to start about the time of race, have water and fuel when we expect to have it in the race, and attempt to cover terrain (hills, trails, flats) just the race course. Those of us who run through the night try to include at least one “night run” to gain experience for the challenges of running at night after being on one’s feet for 12 hours or more.

Reflection on Experience

While I did not consciously and formally observe the Somerville Road Runners, just thinking back on my experience helped think of it in a new way. I think it’s interesting that this club. and I suspect many other clubs related to sports or arts or other topics, have characteristics of learning communities though none of them set out to instill them. 

I’m curious how those of us who are trying to create learning communities can learn from these groups that seem to have its hallmarks in their DNA.

I’m sure being a researcher/participant skewed what I saw and how I reported on it. In an ideal world I would have tried to visit with another community and act solely as an observer.