Friday, 26 September 2008

Community Leadership in Learning - bees, mentors, coaches, experts and friends (Communities of Practice series)

When we dream of community learning, we often have this idyllic fantasy that they just work. Automagically things get organized. Participation happens. But when we open our eyes and think of the wasteland of fossilized or never-really-happened learning communities, of the dead web discussion forums, reality hits. While it may take a village or wider family to raise a child, it takes roles to raise a community. And unless you have endless time or deep pockets to pay someone (or some ONES) these roles have to be distributed across the community. Lets take a look at some possible roles in learning communities or communities of practice. These are examples, and they are in my language. You may very well have different labels and different roles in your community. The point is to be able to describe them. Then a community can begin to step in, negotiate, and fill the roles.

More than tutors and learners

At the moment many people think there is just the educational practitioner (expert; one role); and the learner. Teacher, student. Perhaps there is also the subject matter expert who comes in to create a course or determine the content pieces, and an instructional designer who organizes that content based on pedagogical principles and within the constraints of the technologies in use.

In reality, there are more roles. People often play more than one role or switch between roles. Some of these roles may be played by one person or many. Sometimes they are formalized (as in instructor) and sometimes they are entirely informal and ad hoc. It all depends on the context. Here are some examples. Notice the overlap!

  • Subject matter expert - in CoP lingo, these are the people who have a sharp focus on the domain (see In self paced elearning, the experts made their appearance during the creation of the course, then are essentially gone. A tutor (see next description) may take on this role. In many learning communities, the members themselves are to some extent or another, also experts. This means as a value we explicitly recognize, value and use the knowlege of the learners. This can lead to peer mentoring or peer tutoring. As humans too, we generally appreciate being recognized. So this build social capital in a learning group.

  • Technology steward - when we are learning together online, not everyone is as geeky as they might wish to be. The technology steward is a person who knows enough about the needs of the community and enough about the technology to help everyone use it well in learning together. This might be the person who naturally likes to experiment with web tools, or who is a good "explainer." Tech stewards are often unaware they have this talent, so it is important to notice them and asking them to help. In an organizational setting, we rarely have enough "tech support" so these stewards within the learning communities can be a huge help.

  • Community cultivator - These are the relationship people. In CoP lingo, they pay attention to community (see They welcome people into a learning group. They notice who might be interested in meeting others and makes the introductions. They notice when someone is missing. In an online environment where we lack many of our accustomed social signals (body language) this role is important. Look for the naturals - they love taking on this role. Technology can assist this role through the use of course member directories, social networking tools and even instant messengers.

  • Content scanners and filterers - we talk about information overload. These people see it as a candy store. They scan, notice and often love to share what they have found. Set up tools and places for these folks to bring in external resources into your course. We'll talk more about the HOW of doing this in a subsequent blog post.

  • Content creators - History has shown that between 1% and 10% of participants in online groups produce 90- 99% of the content. In a course situation, we often want to increase this as a way to know if people are participating. (See Lurkers below). In reality, if everyone produced, we'd not be able to consume it. We'd choke. However, look for those who create value. Encourage them, like the content scanners, to lead conversations, share their critical thinking skills and role model active participation. Often just recognizing their skills encourages them.

  • Lurkers - As CoP theory notes, some of us learn from the side, not in the center creating content, or leading conversations. This "legitimate peripheral participation" is often labeled "lurking" in online communities. Lurking means they are reading, but we just don't know it. So we need to encourage people to give us clues if they are happily lurking, or find out if they are disconnected and lost. This takes us back to the tutors and peer tutors.

  • Bridgers out to the world - Most learning within a course is the first step. Carrying that learning out into the world and applying it is the gold standard of success. It is my personal belief that nearly every course that has practical application as its goal should have an explicit activity that bridges out to the world. That may mean pointing out open learning communities interested in the same topic or domain, bringing in external speakers to add a touch of the "real world" or keeping learners connected after a course to support that learning in application. Members of the community can help create those links.

Not all of these roles have to be institutionalised. If you are providing elearning services, think about which ones are most important in your context. Prioritise the ones you can fill, then design your learning communities to support members taking on the other roles. This includes making space to talk about them, and recognising -- even rewarding -- people who take them on. Roles are a way for people to build their social capital. They another layer of identity for members in their communities. They cultivate a sense of ownership. The can raise the visibility and reputation of those who take them on successfully. So while roles most often equate with work, they also have intrinsic value to both the individual and the community.

Etienne Wenger: Scroll down to the section on leadership
Bronwyn Stuckey and John Smith, Sustaining Communities of practice

Image Credits on Flickr/Creative Commons
view photos Uploaded on September 20, 2008
by Jose Kevo

CoP Blogs

This is a series of blogs on Communities of Practice with Nancy White.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Is my community a community of practice? How would I know? Does it matter? (CoP series with Nancy White)

In our first post on Communities of Practice (CoPs) we disabused ourselves of the confusion between a community and the platform that allows it to interact together online. In this post, let's wrestle with what a CoP isn't, and if that really matters anyway. This may also give us insight as to what we are trying to do and perhaps point to a different strategic option when trying to support and extend learning. After all, as much as I think CoPs are amazing, they are not the only thing we have at hand.

  • Is a "class" or "cohort of learners" a community? It might be. If the group continues to learn after the course is over, the course then becomes the catalyst for the beginnings of the community. That said, we can take a "community perspective" when we design a course which would place an emphasis on interaction and making meaning of the material between students. An example might be to have the learners apply their learnings "out in the world" then come back and report on what they learned, questions they had and, if relevant, how application changed their understanding of the material. By doing this WITH others, they get feedback and other perspectives. Often Ufi learndirect learners are working individually through content. So that would suggest the community may be something offered alongside the course. The content also matters - some things lend themselves more to a community model than others. Context matters!

  • Is a group of people who all took a specific elearning offering - at any time, alone or together, a CoP? They could be! When we think about the value of learning, and measuring learning that stays with us, we often think about learning applied in use. So if I use that math in my job and do my job better, or I become a better manager because I have a basic grasp of change management. Application, as noted above, always depends on context, so providing space for cohorts or anyone who has taken a specific course to come back and clarify, ask and answer questions can be a very productive learning environment.

  • Is a team a CoP? Not usually. Teams are focused on an outcome of a task. CoPs are focused on the learning about how to do that task. That said, many teams have a CoP component to their work as a way to continue learning, improving and innovating. Again, if we take a community perspective on our team work, we would include processes and time for learning while doing!

  • Is a CoP the same thing as a (social) network? There is often some overlap. A network is the collection of connections and relationships between people. Right now, "social networking sites" such as Facebook and Meebo are all the rage. They can be useful tools for communities of practice, but they aren't the same thing. The line between a community and a network is fuzzy in terms of membership, but the difference between a community of practice and a network is that the CoP is interested not just in the connections or relationships, but in the domain and practice. We'll talk more about the important dynamic between communities and networks in a subsequent post.

  • Is a CoP the group of people who generate content on a website? That is one thing CoPs can do. Some communities have a strong orientation towards creating content that reflects their learning and their domain. For example, writing down/recording/drawing what we know helps us solidify and share the learning. But few communities just create content. The interaction in learning and creating is as important as the artifacts they create. So setting up a site for user generated content can support a CoP, but it is not THE CoP itself.

  • Is a portal a CoP? No. A portal is a website that brings together content and often tools for people to interact. So it has the domain of a CoP. But remember, a community is the people, not the tool. So if you have created a portal, you need to think about how to nurture the interaction between the people. That suggests facilitation, mentoring and other actions that stimulate interaction. The old "build it and they will come" rarely comes true. Portals, however, can be fantastic repositories for content created by a community (or many communities).

In the UFI context, it might be useful to share a few examples and test our understanding of them as CoPs... or not!

Message boards don't automatically become CoPs
Between 2000-2007 message boards and chat rooms were provided within Ufi's Learner Management system (called the LSE). These tools can support the conversational aspects of communities. But there has to be a spark. Here is the story Darren shared with me.

"In the initial implementation, there were no community facilitators or educational practitioner driving use whether on a local basis within centres (in Ufi lerndirect speak called the "tutor") or a national basis. No-one had been mentored or trained to be a "bee," mentor, coach or friend (more of this in a later blog). There was no guidance on what the message board/chat room was for. Surprise, surprise no-one was using it! In 2007 UFI removed this functionality."

This is an example of having some missing "legs" for community. Yes, there was the "domain" of the course. But there was no defined community because learners were working solo with no specific path for building relationships and no facilitation for both the socialization and interactive learning conversations. So practice was missing as well. So the question remains, can web based conversational community strategies mix with Learndirect's elearning "at any pace, any time, any place." Can learning cohorts be built?

Some domains lend themselves to CoPs
One of the amazing things I've seen in CoPs is how well some types of professions are culturally so well suited to a community of practice way of being. Public health nurses in the United States (not sure about the UK!) have a practice that is all about sharing learning with each other and with their clients. Teachers who are isolated in their classrooms often have a hunger to interact and learn from other teachers. One of Ufi learndirect's audiences, childcare providers, is another one of those "natural" domains. In 2008 Ufi learndirect is starting a CoP pilot around Childcare.
Darren shared this information with me, which reinforces this idea that some domains are ripe for using a community approach.

"In Childcare a portal has been developed (this will go live in autumn 2008). It is for childcare professionals whether new to the professional or experienced. It is both a portal of resources (just in time training and information) to the more formal vocational qualifications (called NVQs in the UK). We hope to develop an active CoP in childcare as research has shown that childcare professionals do like to share with colleagues and do like to work together. It is a sector based approach so there is a common tie there (quite a bit of learndirect content is generic across sectors where it is felt harder to develop a community). If the Childcare Pilot is successful, Ufi will look to develop CoPs further".

These two examples help us see that we have to look at conditions that enable CoPs.

So now that we've looked at these different forms, what do you think? In your context, is a CoP what you need, or something else? Share your story in the comments!

Want some more examples of communities of practice in an elearning context? Here are a few:

* Bronwyn Stuckey's site on CoPs in Education, Community Capers - new stories of education CoPs each month! Writing Matters
* Webheads in Action. An amazing community of ESL/EFL teachers who can share both how their own community has enhanced their teaching, but how their use of communities has worked with their learners
* TappedIn a community of teachers that makes use of virtual worlds
* Teachers using blogs share their students' work with other teachers and students.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Practice makes perfect (Communities of Practice series with Nancy White)

The is the third post exploring more about Community, Domain and Practice mentioned in the first post of this series on communities of practice (CoPs). This is the "where the rubber meets the road" leg of the stool, Practice. CoPs are not about learning things in the abstract. They are about learning and putting that learning to practice, and learning from that practice in an ongoing cycle of learn/do/learn. This is why businesses and organizations have been so interested in CoPs -- they see them as a way to improve practices in the context of work. While a "to do list" gets you to "done," it does not surface or share the learning of that task for the next time around. But by linking practice to learning, improvement and innovation is more likely. Here is Etienne Wenger's description of Practice:

The practice: from
A community of practice is not merely a community of interest--people who like certain kinds of movies, for instance. Members of a community of practice are practitioners. They develop a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems—in short a shared practice. This takes time and sustained interaction. A good conversation with a stranger on an airplane may give you all sorts of interesting insights, but it does not in itself make for a community of practice. The development of a shared practice may be more or less self-conscious. The "windshield wipers" engineers at an auto manufacturer make a concerted effort to collect and document the tricks and lessons they have learned into a knowledge base. By contrast, nurses who meet regularly for lunch in a hospital cafeteria may not realize that their lunch discussions are one of their main sources of knowledge about how to care for patients. Still, in the course of all these conversations, they have developed a set of stories and cases that have become a shared repertoire for their practice.

Implications of practice
Practice in communities of practice that are not in the same place is invisible unless we find ways to talk/show it to our fellow members. So in thinking about practice in CoPs related to eLearning, what do we need to consider?
We each can't "know it all" about our domain, but by tapping into our community members, we as a whole know and learn a whole lot. The trick is to start to make that knowledge and learning available and encourage the practice of sharing our practice! Here are a few possibilities:

  • Telling stories of our practice - is there both a compelling invitation and a place to tell stories of applying learning out in the world? Oddly, people often think their story is not "important enough" to share, so it is not enough to put up a forum and say "share stories." Role modeling, acknowledging and encouraging -- all forms of facilitation, are critical to nurturing storytelling.
  • Sharing "stuff" - tools, resources, links to other people. Is it easy to post resources to a community website, or to share a "tag" that identfies useful materials on the internet? See for a definition of tagging.

  • Asking and answering questions - again, both the invitation and the process for this matters. Sometimes it is the "senior" or "expert" members we need to hear from, but it is important to make space and value contributions for all members. Newbies know a lot as well, and bring in fresh perspectives into our communities.
  • Mentoring - is there a mechanism to pair or create small groups of people to mentor and closely follow each others' practice? This can be REALLY important in large communities where it may be harder for this closer and more intimate form of learning to occur. It also builds the community side of the "three legged stool!"
  • Events - people lead busy lives, so time-limited events (online or offline) can focus attention on the community's practice and learning.
  • Ongoing conversations - little streams of conversation that connect and keep the community heartbeat going in slower times. This may be the conversations of a small subset.

The exciting thing about Practice in CoP is there are so many things we can do. That is also the problem. So focus on a few things and then grow from there. Don't overwhelm at first and let the community lead with the practice activities that mean most to them.

If you are a member of or are a CoP leader, share a story about successful practice activities in your community in the comments section.