Power to the people: how should universities position community in curriculum design?


Since the publication of the theory of communities of practice, much has been written about the potential for participation in a community to enhance learning. Many students now entering university are regular participants in numerous online and blended communities due to social networking, a phenomenon based around participation and information exchange. But upon arrival at university, these students are often confronted with curricula based around the lecture, a transmissive method of teaching at odds with the participatory nature of communities.

This paper reviews the literature that considers the role of community in curriculum design. Using critical pedagogy as a theoretical framework, the research considers the benefits and challenges of three approaches to curriculum design informed by the concept of community: communities of inquiry, communities of learners, and communities of practice. Viewing these approaches through the lens of critical pedagogy permits an examination of notions of authority in curriculum design, and an opportunity to consider how community-based curricula may subvert these notions. The findings indicate that community-based curricula provide a viable and valuable alternative to traditional, didactic approaches to curriculum design, and potentially a more appropriate response to the demands of the knowledge era. However, the research reveals potentially significant practical, structural, and epistemological barriers preventing more widespread adoption of community-based curricula in higher education.

Published on 21st May 2019 | Written by Tony Reeves and Emre Caglayan |Photo by Benny Jackson on Unsplash


A central aim of a university is to produce global citizens who are able to function effectively in an increasingly knowledge-based economy (Duderstadt, 2002; Stearns, 2009; Suárez-Orozco & Sattin, 2007). As society moves beyond the industrial age and into the knowledge era, conceptions of knowledge itself are themselves being questioned and are considered to be broadening to include an understanding of knowledge as both “possession” and “practice” (Cook & Brown, 1999). Cook and Brown highlight the tendency in the literature to view knowledge “as being essentially of one kind” (p. 382), and note that this epistemology often prioritises the individual over the group. A broadening in our conception of knowledge presents potentially significant implications for how universities prepare students for the knowledge society, the demands of which are forcing a re-examination of the traditional role of higher education in society (Alvesson & Benner, 2016; Paloff & Pratt, 2007; Teichler, 2015). Viewing knowledge as both an individual possession and a collective practice forces an examination of the extent to which traditional approaches to curriculum design in higher education accommodate this distinction.

Since it was first introduced in the early 1990s, the theory of communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998) has been widely adopted to explain how and why people share their knowledge, experience and skills. Explaining human activity as varying degrees of participation in numerous communities has proved to be a powerful way of interpreting how we learn. The Higher Education sector has been receptive to the theory of communities of practice, and many professional educators and researchers have used the theory to interpret learning in a university context (see, for example, Anderson & McCune, 2013; Head & Dakers, 2005; Kimble, Hildreth, & Bourdon, 2008; Lea, 2005). But despite the perceived advantages of understanding learning as participation in communities, many curricula in Higher Education continue to be designed around more didactic, tutor-led approaches (Brown, 2010; Brubaker, 2012; Lipman, Sharp, & Oscanyan, 1980). While the former approach operates from a perspective of learning as a social activity, the latter prioritises the transmission of information from the expert tutor to the novice student who is gradually ‘filled’ with knowledge (Freire, 2001).

The nature of the education that university teachers themselves experienced can prevent the consideration of approaches to learning that differ from the traditional format (Head & Dakers (2005). Of greater concern is Head and Dakers’ suggestion that a didactic approach may give rise to “communities of disenchantment” (ibid., p. 38), as students rebel against and attempt to circumnavigate a system of education based around mastery (Freire, 2001). If learning as part of a community has the potential to enhance students’ learning experience and render the achievement of successful learning outcomes more likely (Paloff and Pratt, 2007), then how should universities approach the concept of community in the context of curriculum design? And on a practical level, how does designing for community affect power relationships between tutors and students and change the ways in which learning happens?

By reviewing literature on the relationship between community and curriculum design, this study investigates the benefits and challenges of placing greater emphasis on community in programmes of higher education. Critical pedagogy provides a useful theoretical framework for this inquiry, because it supports both a community-based approach to learning design and a way to rethink traditional, institutional hierarchies. We argue that prioritising community in curriculum design can provide an effective response to the demands of the knowledge era as it enables students to acquire the necessary critical tools to challenge and think beyond existing paradigms. In support of this argument, we propose that critical pedagogy’s aims of rebalancing power and subverting authority in education can be achieved by designing learning around communities.

Community and curriculum design in education

Communities of practice theory (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998), proposes that communities are a natural aspect of the human experience. Wenger posits learning as a social process, facilitated through an individual’s active engagement with common goals and shared practices, and argues that that social participation in communities plays a fundamental role in how humans learn. But while the theory of communities of practice has been broadly accepted as a useful model for explaining how learning happens, the consideration of community in relation to the more structured, formal learning of higher education requires a careful analysis of the main structural elements of curriculum design. These elements include the organisation of students into disciplinary areas, year groups, and individual modules of study, all of which determine their social interactions as members of specific communities. A consideration of community in the context of curriculum design needs to accommodate both formal and informal online communication channels, as both teachers and students actively redefine and reshape the learning environment using social and other digital technologies (Goodyear, de Laat & Lally, 2006). Such considerations have given rise to concepts such as “blended community” and “blended learning community” to complement the more widely used “blended learning”. These terms incorporate the formal and informal interactions between tutors and students that have a specific educational focus, and which occur both within and across the physical and online space (Garrison & Vaughn, 2008).

Acknowledgement of the growing value of community in supporting student engagement is evidenced through changes to the United Kingdom’s National Student Survey, which from 2017 includes questions that aim to evaluate students’ sense of belonging to a learning community (HEFCE, 2015). UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are increasingly experimenting with ways of leveraging the characteristics of communities to improve student learning and retention. Lincoln University’s ‘Student as Producer’ initiative worked to emphasise “the role of students as collaborators in the production of knowledge” (University of Lincoln, 2013), and embed the practice of students working alongside staff to design and deliver research-engaged teaching and learning. Glasgow and Birmingham City Universities have also explored the potential of ‘Students as Academic Partners’ (SaP), and Cook-Sather, Bovill and Fenton (2014) highlight many other institutions that have implemented SaP initiatives. A theoretical model for repositioning students as change agents developed by Dunne and Zandstra (2011) provides a way of reconceptualising the role of the student in higher education. Bovill and Bulley (2011) propose a ‘ladder of student participation in curriculum design’, ranging from a dictated curriculum with no student involvement through to an approach where students are fully in control of decisions regarding their learning experience.

Despite its frequent usage, the concept of curriculum design is also a problematic educational term as its precise meaning and focus are open to interpretation. Johnson (1969) notes the tendency for authors to blur the distinction between curriculum and instruction, and to disagree about whether curriculum is something to be learned or experienced. Grant, Abdelrahmaen, and Zachariah (2013) argue that curriculum as a concept is largely determined by institutional factors, and that examining its nature directly feeds into debates concerning power structures that exist in the Higher Education sector. They observe that there is no single, agreed definition of curriculum design, and note that curriculum designers tend to interpret curriculum as:

  • a body of knowledge (syllabus) to be transmitted
  • a mechanism to achieve predefined endpoints which can be stated, for example, as objectives, competencies, or outcomes (Grant, 1999, 2012)
  • a process or ‘proposal for action’ which sets out essential features of the educational encounter (M. K. Smith, 1996)
  • praxis or informed committed actions which shape and change the world (Grant et al., 2013, p.13)

Although the areas of community and curriculum design have received rigorous and systematic scholarly attention, the terms are rarely considered in relation to each other. Indeed, while curriculum design aims at facilitating learning, the design aspect often focuses more on methods of instruction than on ways to initiate and sustain a community of learners. We argue that if curriculum design is undertaken with community in mind, learning will happen anyway because communities are environments in which learning takes place naturally (Wenger, 1998). However, designing a curriculum around community requires a rethinking of the traditional hierarchies and structures that exist in today’s education sector. Such discussions are at the heart of critical pedagogy as a distinct approach in the philosophy of education.

Critical pedagogy as theoretical framework

Critical pedagogy is a philosophical approach to education proposed by Paolo Freire in his 1968 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. A central tenet of Freire’s philosophy is the tension between what he calls the “oppressors,” or those with power and authority, and the “oppressed,” or those with neither. Although Freire’s use of language evokes the ideological and revolutionary fervour of the 1960s, such terms are can be interpreted in the current climate to support a critique of how programmes of learning are created in higher education. Interpreting Freire’s terminology, we take oppressors as referring to members of the educational establishment, whose policies, ideologies and practices are amongst the factors that ‘oppress’ students. For Freire, traditional educational systems follow what he termed the ‘banking’ model of education, in which teachers deposit knowledge in the minds of their students. In this model, students are passive recipients of knowledge and have little agency over their learning activities, while power largely resides in their teachers who are responsible for filling them with knowledge.

Freire criticised the way in which the banking model prevents students from questioning the structures and systems that govern their existence, a problem leading to the persistence of the status quo. Referring to Hegel, Freire argued that insofar as students are deprived of the opportunity to participate in transforming the objective reality which has led to them becoming “beings for another” (Hegel, 1964, p.234), they will in turn become the oppressors of the next generation as they are unable to conceive of a reality different from that into which they were educated. Freire developed what he termed the problem-posing model of education as an alternative to the banking model. He argues that “in problem-posing education…people develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation” (2005, p. 83, emphasis in original). To understand how power and authority are constructed, sustained and negotiated in educational communities, is important to take into account the core principles of critical pedagogy:

  • the repositioning of the student alongside the teacher as a subject, rather than an object, of learning
  • the transformation of the student from a passive recipient of knowledge to an active constructor of knowledge
  • the focus on dialogue between teacher and student, and between students themselves, rather than on the transmission of knowledge
  • the opportunity for students to develop an awareness of how critical thinking can enable them to question the structures and practices of the society into which they were born
  • the opportunity for students to question the forces that determine their learning experience

These principles will be used to evaluate three different approaches to the use of community in the context of learning in higher education.

Three approaches to community in higher education

Community as a concept can take on multiple meanings in the context of education and learning, and here we investigate three of its more widely researched interpretations: communities of inquiry, communities of learners and communities of practice. An analysis of these interpretations through the lens of critical pedagogy is presented in the subsequent section.

Communities of inquiry

The scholarly discussion of communities in relation to learning can historically be traced to the philosopher and scientist Charles Sanders Peirce (1955), whose work used community and inquiry to describe the way in which a group of individuals arrived at results through discussion (Pardales & Girod, 2013). Referring to Peirce’s description of the community of inquiry, John Dewey (1964) perceived inquiry as an inherently social act (Schön, 1992). Schön notes how Dewey described individual inquirers as members of communities of inquiry, in which “the enquirer does not stand outside the problematic situation like a spectator, he is in it and in transaction with it” (ibid., p.122; emphasis in original).

Researchers in online and distance education have paid much attention to the concept of community of inquiry in the last fifteen years and developed a framework that closely resembles the understanding of the concept as used in this study (Garrison & Anderson, 2003; Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000, 2001; Rourke, Anderson, Garrison, & Archer, 1999). Subsequent studies have investigated the relationship between aspects of curriculum design and the development of a community of inquiry, including the impact of course duration (Akyol, Vaughn, & Garrison, 2011), the assessment of metacognition (Akyol & Garrison, 2011), the effects of technology (Rubin, Fernandes, & Avgerinou, 2013), and student engagement (Vaughn, 2010). However, this body of work is limited to the context of asynchronous computer conferencing, whereas its relationship to broader considerations of the role of community in curriculum design is largely overlooked. Bleazby (2012), for instance, challenges the learning benefits provided by online communities of inquiry, and characterises the Internet and online technologies as barriers to the acquisition of higher-order thinking skills as well as to the construction of meaning and community. This position is echoed by Dreyfus (2001), who proposes that computer-mediated learning limits students from using the full extent of their embodied senses to experience risk, a problem which he believes can prevent them from acquiring mastery of a discipline.

Numerous studies explore communities of inquiry in the context of teacher education (see, for example, Brubaker, 2012; Darling, 2001; Green, 2012; Papanikolaou, Evangelia, & Makri, 2014). Brubaker (2012) describes the cultivation a community of inquiry in a higher education teacher-training course based on the democratic principles proposed by Freire. The case study concludes that despite the tutor’s efforts to design and conduct the course curriculum around democratic principles, students struggled to free themselves from their expectations of traditional, authoritarian classroom practices and to take responsibility for negotiating and making decisions about their learning. Green (2012) highlights the way in which a community of inquiry approach can empower pre-service teachers and develop skills in critical thinking by providing opportunities for metacognition. However, Green also concludes that, in order for these pre-service teachers to develop communities of inquiry in their own classrooms, they require sustained exposure to the practices of working within a community of inquiry.

Communities of learners

Understanding classrooms as “learning communities” or “communities of learners” (Peterson, 1992; Short, 1998) has provided another way to imagine the dynamics and activities of the classroom and move beyond  “hierarchies of control” (Short, 1998, p.34). Ramsden (2008) has argued that establishing learning communities in higher education provides a way of involving students in quality assurance and enhancement processes through engagement in dialogue around teaching, learning and assessment. Importantly, Ramsden believes that attempts to move the student experience forward are only likely to succeed if higher education is understood as a joint venture between students and universities, and such a position can be interpreted as aligning with several core principles of critical pedagogy.

A substantial body of research has investigated the pedagogical potential of learning communities, and has shown how their structure and function can vary significantly (Moser et al., 2015). Research has revealed that participating in a community of learners can bring improvements in student retention, achievement and progress (Stassen, 2003). Moser et al. cite the four key characteristics of a learning community identified by Bielaczyc and Collins (1999) as 1) diversity of expertise in the group, 2) a shared objective to construct knowledge within the group, 3) emphasis on the process of constructing knowledge, and 4) methods for sharing knowledge within the group. For Smith (1993), the numerous models for structuring curricula around community seek to improve curricular coherence, provide greater opportunity for teamwork and increase interaction between tutors and students. Fetterman, Deitz, and Gesundheit (2010) highlight the benefits of a community-oriented approach to curriculum design in the context of medical education.

However, the authors identify two problems: the need for medical curricula to evolve in response to advances in tangential fields, and the difficulty in reaching consensus among educators regarding the optimal content of the curriculum. Wilbur and Scott (2013) also suggest that a learning community model may lead to students blaming teachers for a perceived relinquishing of responsibility for their learning, acknowledging the difficulty of reimagining the traditional power relationship between teacher and student. Lei et al. (2011) also note how substantial research in the area of social cognition has also demonstrated that learning is most effective when it involves interacting with others and sharing experiences (see, for example, Wesson et al., 1996; John-Steiner & Maher, 2003). In their analysis of the benefits and drawbacks of communities of learners, Lei et. al. observe how group cohesion aligns with Vygotsky’s (1978) second level of the zone of proximal development, which indicates how social interdependence supports individual goal achievement.

The link between social interdependence and academic performance is also noted in a case study by Smith and Bath (2006). Their large-scale study of 2,600 final-year students at the University of Queensland revealed a strong relationship between students’ perceptions of their involvement in a learning community and the learning outcomes they achieved. Data for their research was obtained from the University’s Student Experience Survey, which included questions pertaining to several scales including the Good Teaching Scale, Learning Community Scale, and Discipline-Specific Knowledge and Skills Scale. Of particular interest to the current research were the factors evaluated by the Learning Community Scale, and Smith and Bath (2006) note that this scale covers three key aspects of learning communities:

  1. “students’ sense of belonging in, or identity with, the community,
  2. learning-focused peer-to-peer and peer-to-staff interactions, and
  3. students having an input into (unspecified) aspects of their degree program via feedback to staff” (ibid., p.278).

A key finding from their investigation was the significant role played by students’ sense of belonging to a learning community on their academic outcomes. The authors highlight that the learning community and teaching quality were the strongest predictors of outcomes in students’ discipline knowledge and skills after taking account of their school context. Learning community was also the strongest predictor of outcomes for students’ communication and problem solving skills, and ethical and social sensitivity. While patterns of predictors varied across school contexts, Smith and Bath note that “the learning community was the most consistently recurring significant predictor” (2006, p.275).

Communities of practice

The perception of learning as a social process forms the basis of the theory of communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998), a theory that has been widely applied both within higher education and corporate contexts. The theory proposes that:

  • learning is a social process
  • knowing is the result of active engagement with the world
  • meaning is produced through learning as a result of involvement in “valued enterprises” (Wenger, 1998, p.4)

Wenger’s argument that knowing results through engagement with the world provides an appropriate way to approach the crisis of legitimation which Lyotard (1984) identifies as a growing concern in the knowledge era. Lyotard argues that this crisis is being driven by the problem of defining what counts as knowledge, a situation that has been exacerbated by the exponential increase in user-generated content made possible by new technologies such as the Internet. Cormier (2008) highlights the growing unsuitability of established mechanisms of legitimation, such as the academic peer review process, to validate additions to the accepted canon of knowledge in less traditional areas of curriculum. Citing Horton and Freire’s (1990, p.101) observation that “if the act of knowing has historicity, then today’s knowledge about something is not necessarily the same tomorrow”, Cormier argues that the increasing unsuitability of formal mechanisms of legitimation stems largely from the length of time taken to validate new knowledge.

From such a perspective, the value of knowledge is increasingly determined as much by the speed with which it can be negotiated and accessed as by its official recognition as belonging to the accepted canon of knowledge in a given discipline. This shift is in part being driven by the need to access the latest thinking on a given subject, a need which is being increasingly thwarted by the length of time required for validation by peer review and publication. Such a situation is consistent with the prediction by Lyotard (1984) of a narrative turn, in which the belief in scientific legitimation as the only accepted way to contribute knowledge to a discipline increasingly gives way to an acceptance of more narrative, negotiated knowledge such as that generated by communities.

To support this position, Cormier notes how documents that have been constructed collaboratively by communities have the capacity to be more current than those available through traditional publishing routes. Whereas more traditional disciplines are characterised by long-accepted knowledge and easily identifiable experts (Banks, 1993), Cormier argues that in less-traditional areas of curriculum the rapidly shifting nature of knowledge is increasingly challenging the dominant model of education based on expert-centred planning. In these areas, accepted knowledge is increasingly the result of negotiation between a broad collection of interested parties (Farrell, 2001) – or to use Wenger’s words, knowledge is socially constructed by actively engaged participants in a community.

To support this argument, Cormier provides the example of a higher education course in educational technology based on a ‘rhizomatic’ model of education. Such an approach is based on the metaphor of a rhizome to explain how learning happens first proposed by Deleuze and Guattari (1987; see also Grellier, 2013). Cormier describes how students began by creating their curriculum based on their negotiations of knowledge and mapping this to their own personal networks to indicate their sources. The students then combined their knowledge with information provided for them by their tutor, before going on to discuss this knowledge with members of the tutor’s professional network. The role of the tutor was to facilitate the students’ successful entry into his community of professionals and provide a way for them to shape the knowledge of that community through their contributions. Cormier argues that when following such an approach, “the community is not the path to understanding or accessing the curriculum; rather, the community is the curriculum” (emphasis in original), a view that is consistent with Wenger’s belief that “the curriculum is the community of practice itself” (1998, p.100). Enabling students to negotiate both their curriculum and the knowledge produced through their endeavours can be understood as legitimation by what Lyotard terms paralogy, in which the role of participants is to seek out and test new ideas that challenge and transform the status quo.


Table 1 below summarises the ways in which the three distinct interpretations of community meet the criteria for critical pedagogy as outlined in the previous section. In this comparison, both the concepts of a community of learners and a community of practice seem suited to the practical application of critical pedagogy, although none of the three approaches to community provide students with the opportunity to critically question the larger forces of the society into which they were born.

Criteria of critical pedagogy CoI CoL CoP
repositioning of the student alongside the teacher as a subject, rather than an object, of learning Y Y
transformation of the student from a passive recipient of knowledge to an active constructor of knowledge Y Y Y
focus on dialogue between teacher and student, and between students themselves, rather than transmission of knowledge Y Y Y
opportunity for students to develop an awareness of how critical thinking can enable them to question the structures and practices of the society into which they were born
opportunity for students to question the forces that determine their learning experience Y Y

Table 1: An indication of which criteria of critical pedagogy are met by communities of inquiry (CoI), communities of learners (CoL) and communities of practice CoP)

Freire’s theory of critical pedagogy challenges educators to move beyond authoritarian models of education by renegotiating traditional conceptions of the teacher-student relationship. Reimagining a course as a community aiming to solve shared problems is consistent with Freire’s notion of problem-posing education, as the purpose of the community can be interpreted as articulating, defining, negotiating and resolving problems by means of “critical discovery” (Freire, 2005, p.48). All three approaches to community-based curricula described above provide a way to shift students from being passive consumers of knowledge and towards being active participants in the learning process. Using the core principles of critical pedagogy, it is possible to argue that both a community of learners and a community of practice provide ways to reduce the traditional dominance of the tutor.

But by repositioning students alongside tutors and offering students the opportunity to co-construct their curriculum in collaboration with tutors, communities of learners and communities of practice provide students with greater opportunity to question and shape the forces that determine their learning experience. These two approaches to community-based curricula empower students by enabling them to work with tutors to actively and continuously rewrite the curriculum, rather than passively follow it. Under such a model, the “oppressed” students would need to be presented with the factors that constitute the objects of their oppression and allowed to reflect on them (Freire, 2005). These objects might include the power of the tutor to determine their destiny, the learning activities that students are required to undertake, the assessments created by tutors, and the topics to be studied. By repositioning both tutors and students as “subjects” in a community, the oppressive power of these objects over the students is removed as the latter have the opportunity to shape and change them rather than simply being subjected to them.

Of the examples identified above, the rhizomatic approach described by Cormier (2008), in which students are actively encouraged and supported to negotiate their way into the tutor’s professional community of practice, provides a clear example of the concept of community as curriculum articulated by Wenger (1998). This example constitutes a valuable alternative to traditional conceptions of curriculum design in higher education, and can be viewed as an appropriate approach to learning in the knowledge era in which existing approaches to legitimation are struggling to meet the rate at which knowledge is changing. By empowering students to negotiate and renegotiate knowledge with an informed community of peers, the concept of community as curriculum potentially offers a way to respond to the concerns of Paloff and Pratt (2007) regarding the inadequacy of current educational approaches in preparing students effectively for the knowledge era.

An analysis of the literature on community and curriculum design from a perspective of critical pedagogy permits a consideration of the potential role of community-based curricula in reconceiving notions of power and authority in higher education. Prevailing notions of curriculum suggest that it “is not the student’s concept, but the teacher’s or institution’s”, and that, “where a subject is to be mastered, it cannot be otherwise” (Grant et al., 2013, p.13). Similarly, Carlile and Jordan (2005) highlight that a standard view of curriculum involves students acquiring the correct epistemology of their chosen discipline. This idealist approach to education constitutes a structure that Freire identifies as responsible for perpetuating the status quo, as it does not encourage students to think outside the boundaries of their discipline.

In this respect, designing curricula around community, as opposed to around specific disciplinary needs, could redress the balance of power in the teacher-student relationship. However, the findings of Brubaker (2012) suggest that traditional views of power and authority in educational structures are deeply ingrained in society, with “high stakes accountability and standardisation” (Brubaker, 2012, p.240) presenting a formidable barrier to more progressive models of teaching and learning. Brubaker’s observation that his teacher trainees struggled to free themselves from their belief in traditional, authoritarian teaching practices echoes the language of Freire. A conception of curriculum as negotiated is also at odds with the conventional interpretations of higher education curricula described by Grant et al. (2013). Orsmond, Merry and Callaghan (2013) note that curricula in many universities are designed according to Biggs’ (1996) model of constructive alignment through which students participate in tutor-defined learning activities. Merry and Callaghan warn that attempts to situate constructive alignment within a social theory of learning may be problematic due to the reduced dominance of the tutor and the increased emphasis on students constructing and aligning their own learning activity.

By emphasising the importance of “critical and liberating dialogue” (Freire, 2005, p.65), community-based curricula could provide a way for learners to develop what Freire terms “the pedagogy of their liberation” (ibid, p.48). Community-based curricula have the potential to dismantle the traditional perception of the teacher as “master,” and instead create an environment in which tutors and students are repositioned as “subjects” working alongside each other. But despite the potential benefits in adopting a more community-based approach to curriculum design, many higher education curricula continue to perpetuate traditional, largely didactic approaches to pedagogy. Brown (1994) questions why pedagogic practices continue to be informed by out-dated theories of learning when contemporary theories are better suited to educate and prepare students for the complex knowledge systems of contemporary society. In a somewhat pessimistic note, she offers a reason as to why educational institutions persist in drilling students in the mastery of decontextualised skills: because it is easier to do this than to reimagine learning in light of newer theories and create learning environments that foster independent thought. For Freire, this reluctance to change is characteristic of the “fear of freedom which afflicts the oppressed” (2005, p.46), and highlights the difficulty of transforming the dominant, tutor-led approach to curriculum design in higher education. Indeed, the lack of attention to community in curriculum design, and the prevalence of studies seeking to interpret learning activity within existing models of curricula, indicate a potential inability to consider alternatives to traditional conceptions of the teacher-student relationship.


This study has examined community-based approaches to learning and curriculum design through the theoretical lens of critical pedagogy. The analysis suggests that designing curricula around community can provide a valuable alternative to the dominant model of teaching and learning in universities, albeit with significant practical, structural and epistemological obstacles. But while community-based approaches can support active, dialogic and student-centred learning, our analysis indicated little or no opportunity in these approaches for students to critically question the structures and practices of society. Of the three community-based approaches examined in the study, communities of learners and communities of practice provide students with greater opportunity to question the forces that determine their learning experience. While studies have explored community and curriculum design as distinct concepts, few studies examine the two in relation to each other. We believe this constitutes a gap in the literature, and there is a need for more research into the pedagogical value of community-based approaches to curriculum design in higher education.

Viewing the literature through the lens of critical pedagogy has also highlighted that there are both practical and epistemological difficulties in imagining a more student-centred and less didactic approach to curriculum design. Reconceptualising learning as a primarily social activity presents a potential conflict with Biggs’ model of constructive alignment, a model which now informs the design of many university curricula (Orsmond et al., 2013). Community-based curricula could therefore clash with the prevailing structural model of curriculum design in higher education. In view of the growing debates about the future of higher education (Barber, Donnelly & Rizvi, 2013) and the way in which technology is enabling a more student-centred approach to learning (Herrington & Herrington, 2006), it is time to revisit the factory model of mass education and consider how higher education curricula might be reimagined in response to more student-centred pedagogies and technologies. This paper has argued that designing curricula around community can provide a way to subvert the traditional power relations in the teacher-student relationship and empower students to take greater control over their learning. Subsequent studies would examine the relationship between Freire’s problem-posing education model and the literature on problem-based learning to determine whether there are similarities between these two pedagogical approaches. The transferability of the rhizomatic approach to curriculum design to other disciplinary areas beyond educational technology also warrants greater investigation. Further research would also explore how community-based curricula can provide greater opportunities for students to develop their critical thinking skills, which according to Freire is essential in attaining the ability to question assumptions and transform society.

Tony_2016_2_colour-round.pngTony Reeves is the Managing Director of learning design agency Ding Learning. He is a self-confessed learning theories nerd and an ardent believer in the power of community in transformative learning experiences. He formerly led the Postgraduate Certificate  in Creative Education at the University for the Creative Arts. His research examines the effects of digital technologies on learning and collaboration in organisations, with a particular focus on complexity dynamics and organisational learning.

emrecaglayan.pngEmre Caglayan holds a PhD in Film from the University of Kent and is a Fellow of Higher Education Academy. His research broadly examines global art cinema in its aesthetic, political and industrial context, with a particular attention to contemporary slow cinema. Emre is the author of Poetics of Slow Cinema: Nostalgia, Absurdism, Boredom, published in November 2018 by Palgrave Macmillan. His other articles and reviews have been published in Projections: Journal for Movies and Mind, The New Soundtrack, Film Quarterly, Film-Philosophy and Cineaction.


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