Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Community - because without people, you just have a pile of content. Or worse... nothing!

This is the third post surfacing a bit more about Community, Domain and Practice mentioned in the series on communities of practice (CoPs). This time we'll "go social" and talk about the community aspect. From the "no duh" perspective, there is no community without people. Here is Wenger's explanation of Community in the context of CoPs.


The community: from http://www.ewenger.com/theory/
In pursuing their interest in their domain, members engage in joint activities and discussions, help each other, and share information. They build relationships that enable them to learn from each other. A website in itself is not a community of practice. Having the same job or the same title does not make for a community of practice unless members interact and learn together. The claims processors in a large insurance company or students in American high schools may have much in common, yet unless they interact and learn together, they do not form a community of practice. But members of a community of practice do not necessarily work together on a daily basis. The Impressionists, for instance, used to meet in cafes and studios to discuss the style of painting they were inventing together. These interactions were essential to making them a community of practice even though they often painted alone.

Right off there are the practical implications of Community in the context of elearning.

  • You have to find the people and, if they aren't already connected or convened, make that happen. Is there an existing community you can tap into, or do you have to actually set one up? Are you ready for that?
  • Members have to have some sort of relationship with each other - so there needs to be conditions for not just information exchange, but social interaction. How does that fit with your mission and role?
  • Social interaction is neither linear, nor is it always neat and within the confines of structured things like "courses." Are you ready for a little unorder?
  • Relationships develop over time. Courses end? What are the boundaries you need to set and what can be open ended? How will that be supported?

These questions might give you pause - and for good reason, but lets also look at the benefits of community. From a learning theory perspective, a lot of learning is social, meaning it happens between us, not always as a solo activity. In fact some of us seem to need social learning more than others. When Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave coined the term communities of practice, it was part of their work on understanding learning and the importance of social learning. Again, from Wenger:

Social scientists have used versions of the concept of community of practice for a variety of analytical purposes, but the origin and primary use of the concept has been in learning theory. Anthropologist Jean Lave and I coined the term while studying apprenticeship as a learning model. People usually think of apprenticeship as a relationship between a student and a master, but studies of apprenticeship reveal a more complex set of social relationships through which learning takes place mostly with journeymen and more advanced apprentices. The term community of practice was coined to refer to the community that acts as a living curriculum for the apprentice. Once the concept was articulated, we started to see these communities everywhere, even when no formal apprenticeship system existed. And of course, learning in a community of practice is not limited to novices. The practice of a community is dynamic and involves learning on the part of everyone. from http://www.ewenger.com/theory/

Community as curriculum -- for me, that is a pretty juicy concept. So let's just end this blog post at the edge of the cliff. What does that mean to you? How might you imagine your learners as cummunity and thus as a way to extend and deepen your curriculum?

This is a series of blogs with Nancy White

Monday, 18 August 2008

What the heck is a Domain and why should I care? (CoP with Nancy White)


In the first in our series on communities of practice, (CoPs) I briefly mentioned Community, Domain and Practice (http://darrensidnick.blogspot.com/2008/08/communities-of-practice-cops-with-nancy.html). In this blog post I want to dive a little deeper into Domain. Because Etienne Wenger does such a great job of defining domain (and he really helped me understand it) I'll start with his definition, and use his definitions later for Community and Practice as well:

The domain: from http://www.ewenger.com/theory/

A community of practice is not merely a club of friends or a network of connections between people. It has an identity defined by a shared domain of interest. Membership therefore implies a commitment to the domain, and therefore a shared competence that distinguishes members from other people. (You could belong to the same network as someone and never know it.) The domain is not necessarily something recognized as "expertise" outside the community. A youth gang may have developed all sorts of ways of dealing with their domain: surviving on the street and maintaining some kind of identity they can live with. They value their collective competence and learn from each other, even though few people outside the group may value or even recognize their expertise.

So Domain is what we care about together. It is what is important enough for us to make time to participate, to learn these crazy online tools if that's how our community connects, and makes us prioritize it over the many other things we have in our busy lives. So it has to matter! So if a learner is taking a course because they "have to", we need to think carefully about if a community is the right approach.

Domain is not static

Domain is also one of those things that seems obvious at first -- we are interested in learning about how to become entrepreneurs -- but ends up being a bit more subtle.
In large communities, there may be a big, overarching domain, with smaller, more specialized subgroups. In some communities, the domain may be relevant for only a short period of time and then the community naturally comes to the end of it's life. The domain may shift when new people join or initial core members leave. Not all domain's are "eternal!" So the first lesson about Domain is that it is not static and it has to reflect and respond to the interests and needs of the member. So we might start a CoP on entrepreneurs coming out of a business course offering, but it may turn out that the core of the group is really interested in marketing for small businesses, or developing a horticulture business. Then you get to that "ignition" point where the interest and passion is sufficient to get the community going. That "commitment" that Etienne describes in his definition. Over time, the domain focus might shift again -- and responding to that shift is critical for community sustainability.

Community and personal identity

Domain also has to do with something else important in communities of practice: identity. The domain gives the community as a whole an identity, and it also is part of the identity of individual "members." Shawn Callahan from Anecdote often says a useful test of a domain is to be able to identify with it personally. So in a community of entrepreneurs, you would say, yes, I'm an entrepreneur. But it may have a lot more personal meaning if it was "yes, I'm own a small horticultural business" and thus the more specific domain has more meaning.

So if you are thinking about a communities of practice approach with your e-learners, ask yourself, what might be the domain of my community? Try it out on some of your learners. See what they tell you. If it resonates... keep going. If they look at you like you are crazy, keep refining your ideas about domain WITH them. Because after all, it will be THEIR community. If you do this little experiment, leave a comment here and share a story of what you learned!

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Communities of Practice (CoPs) with Nancy White

This is a series of blogs on Communities of Practice (CoP). I'm excited as I've teamed up with CoP guru, Nancy White http://www.fullcirc.com/wp/. Nancy is a regular keynote speaker on the conference circuit and expert practitioner. For me, it's like getting on the same football pitch with Manchester United's Ronaldo (or should I say my favourite football player Paul Gascoigne! I'm a Tottenham Hotspurs fan).

Nancy is writing, while I'm editing and doing the odd football/soccer trick (ie. doing a bit of writing). CoP is a hot topic in Ufi learndirect at the moment and an area we are piloting and testing. For me, Communities of Practice take love and attention to get right! They are about people and communities, not about technology or platforms. Anyway, here's blog 1...............

What is a Community of Practice and Why Should I Care?
You've probably heard the term bandied about ... "communities of practice" ... and in the same breadth someone says "the email list" or the "website." So what the heck are they talking about and how can a piece of software be a community? Read on...

What is a community of practice?

I like to start with the definition of a community of practice from the guy who coined the term, Etienne Wenger. Here is his definition. Note the last part - that is the important part:

Communities of practice are formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavor: a tribe learning to survive, a band of artists seeking new forms of expression, a group of engineers working on similar problems, a clique of pupils defining their identity in the school, a network of surgeons exploring novel techniques, a gathering of first-time managers helping each other cope. In a nutshell:

Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.

There are three important things in this definition: groups of people (community), domain (a passion for something) and practice (do it better as they interact regularly.) CoPs are not one shot deals that happen at meetings or conferences. They grow and develop over time. In subsequent posts, we'll talk more about community, domain and practice - because they can be really useful terms as we think about launching and sustaining communities of practice. (CoP).

How are CoPs useful in learning?
But first lets get practical and think about the role of CoPs in eLearning. How can CoPs enhance learning?
  1. They offer the chance to making meaning of our learning as we apply it to our lives/work/tasks. When we learn something in a course, it can go in one ear and out the other. You know the old adage of the power of application. Even more powerful is how much we learn when we have to teach someone else. So the sharing of the application - what is working or not working, asking for help and teaching others what we know - makes our learning in a community of practice deeper and longer lasting.
  2. They connect us with people who can be resources for continued learning, opportunities for practice or even job leads. Communities can offer people access to networks which are particularly important if their learning is to support employment.
  3. They allow us all to use our expertise. The "teacher" or the course content may be the initial source of learning, but the learners themselves can be great sources of knowledge. Communities of practice may create things that capture and share their learning. They may bring in local context that deepens the learning. Together we know more than any one of us alone.

Wait a minute!

So does that mean you should rush out and start a CoP? It all depends... We need to ask ourselves a few questions before we go "launching a community" because CoPs are not always what we need. And that's ok. So here we go:

  1. The value to participants. Is there a group of people who want to and will interact and learn together over time? If not, maybe there is another form we should be looking at, such as a network. Or a site where people can go for related content. Communities have to be of enough value so people will take the time and effort to participate.
  2. Time and access. Do these people have the time and access to interact, particularly online since we are talking about an e-learning context? Are they already meeting face to face - and if yes, do you even need the added online layer? If not, don't bother!
  3. Is there an existing CoP that fills the need? If yes, think hard before you try and create a new community. It is easier to build on what exists than to start from scratch AND compete for attention.
  4. Support. If there is a group of people who want to learn together over time, is there sufficient conditions to nurture the community such as leadership and facilitation? Online CoPs , we've learned, really benefit from facilitation. Is that in the plan and the budget? If not, think twice.

The tool is not the community
If you still think a CoP is useful for your context, let's clear up one more issue. Web based tools, sometimes called "Web 2.0" tools allow us to "be together" as a community even if we are not in the same location. The internet has radically reshaped what a CoP can be. But it is VERY IMPORTANT not to confuse the community with the platform. Communities are made up of people. Platforms support their interactions. Just because you provide a platform does NOT mean you will auto-magically have a community. But these tools will allow you to support people connecting across distance, allowing a greater diversity of thought which can enrich a community. They allow communities to share what they know and connect to other communities and the world, which can deepen their learning. So technology has become an important part of the community toolkit.

If you are already using CoPs for yourself or for your learners, leave a comment here and tell a story or share a URL ... how is it working for you?

Want to know more about Communities of Practice? Here are some great resources:

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Email is so yesterday! (Social media for the young)

Here are two quotes from a recent study of “young people and the social media” that I saw quoted:

1) Email is “something that older people use”. Many are using social networking and other social media to communicate.

2) “Twitter is like walking to school with your friends and hanging out, while reading blogs is like homework”. (Twitter is a micro-networking site; often used on mobiles; you are limited to just 150 characters)

Many of the trends of the young and geeks are now mainstream. Will this? I like email! Though I do like communicating via social networks and communities.