George Roberts, Educational Development Consultant at the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD), has kindly invited me to participate in their latest one-day webinar on Communities of Practice in Higher Education this coming Wednesday. I’ll be presenting briefly on examples of emergent and institutional models of communities of practice within a doctoral education context, before taking part in a follow-up discussion with other presenters including George, Rhona Sharpe and Jenny Mackness. It will be my first time using BigBlueButton, an open source web conferencing platform that looks like a tidy, stripped-down alternative to Eluminate.
Posts Tagged ‘communities of practice’
This is the first post related to my participation in the forthcoming New Research Trajectories event, Contemporary Art of Walking. Curated by Alison Lloyd, it aims to explore wandering and journeying, mapping or the notion of getting lost as a practice / methodology through participant contributions, discussions and performances.
Spatial and geographical metaphors are frequently employed in educational theory, particularly to describe domains of practice and knowledge. There is something instinctive about seeing how we orient our way through these domains as trajectories and pathways. For the purposes of the event, it’s not particularly important how effective these metaphors are per se, but rather, how usefully they may be understood by a non-specialist audience whilst exploring the landscape itself, and how they may create opportunities for participants to reflect and engage in discussion about their own practices.
Etienne Wenger situates practice in specific contexts within particular social and physical environments. I’ve shown this video on here before, but it’s worth another look.
We can easily visualise a Community of Practice (CoP) as a hill, but taking the topographical analogy a bit further, mine has increasingly steep sides giving way to a relatively flat top.
The trajectory described by participation in a CoP addresses not only skill and knowledge acquisition but also socialisation, as we become enculturated in the values, behaviours, and language related to the CoP. According to Wenger, the process of socialisation is at first legitimately peripheral but increases in engagement and complexity. So, it’s easy to get initially involved with a CoP – it’s a shallow climb to start with, fairly easy going, and the top doesn’t seem that far away – but gradually we realise it’s not so easy, as the terrain gets steeper and the climb gets tougher.
Eventually we get to the top, as we become fully participative in the core membership and knowledge production of the CoP. It’s a fairly level plateau, We find it easier to navigate now, and we do so with a new confidence and sure footedness. There’s space to explore, to establish our location and find new routes. However, we are instinctively curious and interdisciplinary. We will, by choice or circumstance, interact with people visiting from other hills, and occasionally, we will gaze over at those hills – some near, some further away – and wonder what it might be like to be on the top of those too.*
We may think leaving a CoP is difficult, but it needn’t be. It’s the same terrain on the way down as it was up. All we need to do is jump right off.** We might get a few bruises, but it’s quicker than the climb up.
But mostly we don’t because it’s easier staying where we are. So instead, we just peer over the edge before turning back…
*Of course this analogy doesn’t accommodate the issue of multi-membership. As Wenger explains, we can belong to many CoPs simultaneously, or at least one or two dominant ones, and others peripherally. But that probably requires some better sketches!
**In certain situations, we might not want to leave, but get pushed off!
I’ve just caught up with all of last week’s activity on Etienne Wenger’s hot seat; part of the online preamble to the Networked Learning Conference 2010. In his initial post, Wenger asked “what do the concepts of network and community mean to you?”
Whilst many of the early responses inevitably resembled kicking a semantic football around – networks as subsets of communities, and vice versa – some very interesting discussions emerged. Interestingly, several contributors assumed networks as personal, despite Wenger’s apparent original context – on two occasions he stressed “given a group” – requiring distinctions to be made between different types of networks. Theoretical concepts help define parameters necessary for research and developmental models, and Elvis Mazzoni stressed that our understanding of networks and communities is dependent on the theoretical perspectives and methods of analyses one adopts. But how useful are these in describing or explaining the messy reality of our academic or professional experiences?
I see myself as an increasingly active participant in what could be loosely defined as a community of practice; namely educational researchers at my University. We reside in different rooms, departments and buildings, and constitute a range of academic roles and foci, yet there is a sense of a collective endeavour defined by our academic discipline, and partly scaffold by institutional support systems. My trajectory is essentially one that started on the periphery, particularly having come into this from a different discipline.
At the same time I am equally, if not more so, engaged – in a largely self-directed way – in developing and maintaining highly distributed connections with students and professionals in my field and its peripheries, through the use of interrelated social media platforms and tools. Not only are these a core element of my studies, but also represent an extension to my immediate learning and research environments, challenging traditional academic practices of peer review and dissemination.
Rather than representing concrete reifications of community and network, I think these more resemble complex, shifting patterns of orientations. I think many of us operate like this, frequently negotiating between domains that are co-located and distributed, bounded and unbounded, formal and informal. In doing so, we are implementing and engaging in what can be loosely thought of as ‘community-orientated’ and ‘network-orientated’ activities. Similarly, Maarten de Laat referred to ‘aspects’ of community and network. These activities are interconnected, flexible and potentially conflicting (I liked Marteen’s idea of ‘convergence’ and ‘divergence’) – I’m not sure we are consciously distinguishing between the two, but they are both crucial.
Perhaps models like Activity Theory, with a focus on activities and processes, can provide workable analytic frameworks that cut across both concepts? Which reminds me that this week’s hot seat – hosted by Yrjo Engestrom – started today and should be just as interesting…
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” (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” (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 (AT) 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 AT 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.
The (Mis)education of Lennie Godber: ‘Stir’ as a Community of Practice – or – Situation Comedy meets Situated LearningWednesday, December 9th, 2009
Porridge is a prison sitcom originally broadcast by the BBC between 1974 and 1977. Superbly penned by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, it’s arguably one of the best British television comedies of all time. Watching re-runs of the show recently, it struck me that whilst the central character Norman Stanley Fletcher (Ronnie Barker) – an habitual criminal and an old hand at prison – provides most of the laughs, the main narrative arc concerns the learning trajectory of new offender Lennie Godber (Richard Beckinsale).
The value of these two characters as a comedic double act is largely derived from the development and maturation of their master-apprentice relationship; most acutely observed in an early, classic episode A Night In, in which the two first share a cell together.
Lave and Wenger (1991) situate learning within specific social and physical environments. Learning is seen as a process of socialisation into a community of practice that is at first peripheral but increases gradually in engagement and complexity. Identity development and negotiation of meaning are essentially informal; unaligned with – though not entirely independent of – institutional structures.
Over the course of two series we see Godber – young, vulnerable and initially naive of prison ways – learn the ropes; an education not so much shaped by formal prison rules and routines, but by learning how to bend them, and put one over the ‘screws’ (prison officers) – largely under the mentorship of Fletcher. We see him increasingly adopt the prison slang (carefully moderated for the original seventies primetime TV audience), conform to inmate hierarchies, and learn the importance of prison ‘currency’; toothpaste, liquorice allsorts and in particular, snout (tobacco).
Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
There is something instinctive about Etienne Wenger’s concept of learning as a landscape and life as a trajectory, particularly from a student’s perspective. Similar notions are explored in Cussins’ (1992) cognitive trails, where movements of information create traces or trails which are both cognitive (in the mind) and material (in the world), thereby creating both a mental landscape and a material infrastructure. Indeed, geographical metaphor is common in educational discourse. Becher and Trowler (2001; 58) suggest:
“It seems natural enough to think of knowledge and its properties and relationships in terms of landscapes, and to saturate epistemological discussion with spatial metaphors: fields and frontiers; pioneering, exploration, false trails, charts and landmarks.”
Yrjö Engeström (in press) describes the learning landscape “as a terrain of activity to be dwelled in and explored.” The type of exploration is defined by the learning movement, which Engeström (2007) describes as “dominant patterns and directions of physical, discursive and cognitive motion in historically different organizational frameworks.” Engeström refers to movement from periphery to centre – similar to Lave and Wenger’s (1991) notion of Legitimate Peripheral Participation – as ‘craft,’ whilst ‘mass production’ is defined by linear movement (typified by project management structures). He describes new forms of movement associated with Web-based social and peer production as pulsation and swarming:
“The dwellers create trails and the intersecting trails gradually lead to an increased capability to move in the zone effectively, independently of the particular location or destination of the subjects. However, the zone is never an empty space to begin with. It has preexisting dominant trails and boundaries made by others, often with heavy histories and power invested in them. More than that, the existing trails, landmarks and boundaries are inherently contradictory, possessing both exchange value and use value, being both controlled by proprietary interests and opening up possibilities of common good. When new dwellers enter the zone, they both adapt to the dominant trails and struggle to break away from them.”
(Engeström, in press).
Breaking away from pre-existing trails to create new ones requires expansive agency, which partly extends Engeström’s (1987) conceptual framework of expansive learning.
Becher, T., & Trowler, P. R. (2001). Academic Tribes and Territories (2nd Ed.) Buckingham: Open University Press.
Cussins, A. (1992). Content, embodiment and objectivity: The theory of cognitive trails. Mind, 101, 651-688.
Engeström, Y. (1987). Learning by expanding: An activity-theoretical approach to developmental research. Helsinki: Orienta-Konsultit.
Engeström, Y. (2007). From communities of practice to mycorrhizae. In J. Hughes, N. Jewson & L. Unwin (Eds.), Communities of practice: Critical perspectives. London: Routledge.
Engeström, Y. (in press). The Future of Activity Theory: A Rough Draft. In Sannino, A., Daniels, H. et al. Learning and Expanding with Activity Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
I picked up on the short discussion on lurking, views on which hosts George Siemens and Stephen Downes seemed to differ slightly. As it appears this year’s students include a few self-confessed lurkers from CCK08 (who seem resolved to participate more this time), it might be interesting to hear their views. But when does a lurker stop becoming a lurker? Through participation yes, but how do we quantify participation and who measures it? George and Stephen? The individual student? Or is it collectively determined somehow by all the students within the course?
Lave and Wenger’s notion of a linear trajectory from the ‘periphery’ to the ‘centre’ of a community (of practice, if you like) through increased participation and identity formation is one way of conceptualizing this. My PhD is partly concerned with how increasingly distributed learner-centred networks may be challenging such community-based concepts of learning. Wenger recognizes most of us engage in (often overlapping) multi-membership, but when the networks of participation and discourse we create become so numerous, complex and disparate, do models such as communities of practice still hold true?
Whilst encouraging individual tool selection and distributed communication, it strikes me that the proposed CCK09 processes of identity tagging and aggregation also reinforce Wenger’s community-based principles of mutual engagement, joint enterprise and shared repertoire.
The next seminar is at the more Eurozone-friendly time of 4pm CST on Thursday September 17.
Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Wenger, E. (1999). Communities of Practice: Learning, meaning and identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
The latest podcast from the E-Learning Lab at Aalborg University features an interview with Etienne Wenger discussing his forthcoming book, Digital Habitats, and the concept of stewardship in emerging technology-enabled communities. He questions the interchangeability of the terms ‘communities’ and ‘networks’ by stressing the distinction is one of shared identities over connectivity.