Archive for January, 2010

Good CoPs, Bad CoPs

Friday, January 29th, 2010

On his excellent blog, Mohamed Amine Chatti asks ‘Are Communities of Practice Dead?’ I would suggest, to paraphrase Mark Twain, that death in this case may have been greatly exaggerated.

I think a key issue here is that the concept of Communities of Practice (CoPs) has become so widely adapted and translated – particularly within the Knowledge Management (KM) field – that in a sense, the term has become almost meaningless. It is equally important to re-emphasise Etienne Wenger’s early ideas (especially those developed from his original work with anthropologist Jean Lave) which appear to have been either lost or re-imagined in some discourses.

For an excellent account of the ambiguity in CoPs literature read Kimble (2006). Of course, as Kimble acknowledges, theoretical models naturally evolve, and systematic approaches help formulate empirical study and practice; a process in which Wenger himself has been most active as a consultant, of sorts. But for Kimble, this has been “not a linear progression but a dislocation” (p.230). Some interpretations have seemingly disregarded the original complexities and tensions between practice, participation and membership, to present overtly positive and consensual views of organisational CoPs. Citing Mutch (2003), Kimble argues that whilst “we can use familiar concepts in new ways, or take concepts from one context to another and play with them” we must also “pay careful attention to our sources, making sure that we give due care to the consequences that the use of a concept brings with it” (p.231).

Perhaps Mohamed’s reading of CoPs literature has been largely limited to the KM field, as his claim that “CoPs are organised from the top down” would seem to conflict with many of its original principles. Wenger (1998) stresses that CoPs develop naturally through emergent, bottom up processes, coordinated by the community members themselves. What he has increasingly developed over time is the idea that CoPs can be guided or nurtured in some way by one or several significant individuals, which has become manifest in the notion of stewardship.

Mohamed eloquently describes how social media and open resources have brought about a fundamental shift in how many of us increasingly configure and articulate the way we study and work. This shift from community-based structures to a more open and distributed networked individualism has been well documented in the wider socio-technical field by people like Manuel Castells and Barry Wellman. To me, as a PhD student who is currently engaged in negotiating a workable model for analysis, how we conceptualise this shift is a fundamental methodological challenge, and one that I believe lies at the heart of how we should be studying current Web-based learning.

Despite the attraction of personalised and self-directed approaches to learning, we cannot deny our natural inclination to actively form, participate in, and seek recognition in communities. To take a predominantly network-based approach (such as Siemen’s connectivism) runs the risk of recognising such formations purely as clusters or hubs, and such approaches frequently seem to confuse groups – which may be highly structured and institutionalised – with communities. Perhaps Dave Cormier’s upcoming book chapter suggests a way forward in the network vs. community debate.

My gut feeling is that concepts like CoPs and Activity Theory (CHAT) are effective in ‘humanising’ social structures, emphasising the inherent link between practice and identity formation, whilst recognising forms of technological reification and power relations. A key problem seems to be that models such as these are limited by the fact they were initially formalised around the study of essentially ‘bounded’ domains (Mohamed himself highlights this in a discussion on CHAT in an earlier post). Wenger has always asserted the concept of multi-membership – indeed in his latest book, Digital Habitats (co-authored with Nancy White and John D Smith), the notion of ‘extreme multi-membership’ is introduced. Engestrom has been developing his concept of ‘knotworking’ to extend his well-used Activity Systems model, whist Actor Network Theory (ANT) offers further possibilities.

My quest goes on…


Kimble, C. (2006). Communities of Practice: Never Knowingly Undersold. E. Tomadaki & P. Scott (Eds.), Innovative Approaches for Learning and Knowledge Sharing, EC-TEL 2006 Workshops Proceedings. 218-234.

Mutch, A. (2003). Communities of Practice and Habitus: A Critique. Organization Studies, 24(3), 383-401.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Student Voice – The Movie

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

My role as a student intern with the Visual Learning Lab is drawing to a close in the next couple of months. Last year we conducted a series of focus groups in a number of Schools across the University asking undergraduate students about their learning experiences. In an aim to create a visual and innovative dissemination tool, we decided to summarise key findings in the form of a video, which has now been released on the University of Nottingham YouTube channel.

The video has subsequently been central to a number of interactive workshops we have delivered to teaching staff in participating Schools, and a symposium presentation we gave at the SRHE Postgraduate and Newer Researchers Conference in December.

Social Media @ Jubilee Graduate Centre – Session One

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

Yesterday, me and LeRoy Hill ran the first of our sessions on social media at the Jubilee Graduate Centre. We had an interesting mix of PhD students and Early Career Researchers attending from a range of Schools across the University who were very supportive and enthusiastic about using social media in their studies and research. We did run over schedule, particularly as we wanted to engage with the audience and encourage group discussion, though we would like to have had even more time for this. The general feedback from attendees was that they would appreciate more interaction and would be happy for longer sessions if necessary. It was always going to be a struggle fitting everything into three short sessions and we will keep this in mind should we be running these again in the future.

Meanwhile, much of the planning for the second session has been done though we have over two weeks for fine tuning. We are intending to cover blogging, Twitter, content sharing sites and social bookmarking, as well as aggregation and syndication systems. It’s going to be tough to fit so much in if we hope to integrate further opportunities for discussion and interaction!

We also launched the online resource which supports the sessions. This was a key component in our initial proposal particularly as the limited time of the sessions was always going to restrict opportunities to demonstrate specific tools. In addition to the annotated links to key social media we have included a useful selection of tutorials, guides and articles with an emphasis on academic practice. This resource will remain active after the duration of the sessions, and we are hoping it will – along with the sessions – provide a basis for further development in this area.

You read it here first…

Sunday, January 10th, 2010

Making future predictions is great fun, especially in a New Year. So when I was challenged by Virginia Yonkers to predict a new decade, I couldn’t resist. If I get anywhere near with even one of these I’ll be amazed…

  • There will be a tipping point where video blogging – we may not call it video blogging, vlogging, or whatever by then – will become mainstream; probably initiated by the introduction of a killer platform coinciding with the emergence of a cultural or social trend that lends itself to visual commentary.
  • Search engine lists will be replaced by visual mapping formats. These will, by necessity, remain hierarchical, but will incorporate dynamic and semantic forms of navigation.
  • The development and eventual affordability of e-book readers and the increase in social text annotation (see an earlier post) will influence an unexpected shift in emphasis back to formal key texts; serving as a basis for streams of discourse (formal and informal) contextualised around key works. These streams will be increasingly multimodal.
  • The widespread adoption of Personal Learning Environments (PLE) will be realised, in sorts, but only through the reification of tools into competing single platforms as social media become consumed by a handful of companies (Google, Microsoft, the usual suspects).
  • Universities will continue to engage with social media platforms at a ‘just enough’ level; more as commercial branding exercises within the global marketplace than providing Open Education Resources (OER) or Open Access.

Image: Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1958