Saturday, July 5, 2008

Communities of Practice: just another buzz word?

This week I went to a workshop led by Etienne Wenger about communities of practice. Etienne was one of the first people to come up with the concept of 'community of practice', which is a "group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly". In other words, learning is essentially a social activity facilitated all the more effectively if it is shared with people.

Why I attended the workshop
It has seemed to me that the phrase 'community of practice' is banded about without little thought or appreciation about what it means. It is used to describe any group and network, but as Etienne says, a community is not necessarily a community of practice. Nor is a website. So I attended the workshop to try to gain a clearer idea of the concept.

I am also very interested to think how the concept of e-mentoring can be carried out in an online community setting as opposed to one-on-one relationships.

What did I learn?
The workshop was really full on, and even now I have not completely processed everything that was discussed. Etienne was a wonderfully approachable and enthusiastic speaker. I particularly enjoyed the way he used stories to get his point across. So if nothing else, the session emphasized three key presentation elements:
  • enthusiasm for subject
  • using stories as illustrations
  • being human, warm and approachable which includes admitting when you do not know the answer to a question.
Communities become communities of practice when they have three elements in place:
  • domain - common interest
  • community - the group members help each other, share information and engage in group activities
  • a shared practice - this is more than just a shared interest; it is shared experiences, resources and stories or tools.
Natural or constructed?
I have been a little confused about the idea of constructing a community of practice - I have always thought that these communities only occur naturally. However, Etienne believes they can also be constructed and it does not matter how they arise, as long as the outcome is learning. However, they cannot be imposed on people and they will only work if they are perceived as useful by the participants.

Power within the group can be an issue for example, can a COP work effectively if it contains both teachers and students, one with 'power' over the other? Whilst this can be problematic, it is not insurmountable when learning drives the group.

What makes a COP work?
What Etienne did make clear is a community of practice needs support, both from within the community, and externally in the form of sponsorship. The community must find its own practice - it cannot be micro-managed. This means that if you have set up a COP, you must be prepared that the outcome may not be the one you expected or planned for.

For a COP to be truly effective, it needs participation and commitment from its members. At the same time, with an online COP, it is important to remember the 1% rule - 99% of the community will lurk whilst only 1% of people will actively participate. In order to encourage participation, there needs to be community members who take on the role of nurturing or leading the group. These are people who have a strong vision about the group and its domain.

Network or community?
In thinking about my own learning, I am still a little confused about the difference between network or community? Do I learn through my network, or is my network a community? For example, is my Twitter network actually a community of practice? After all, we share ideas and resources. I'm still getting my head around these concepts so if anyone can help provide some clarity, please let me know.

In the grand scheme of things, isn't it all semantics? Does it matter what we call what we do as long as we recognize that learning is a social activity and the outcome of our interactions is learning?

Image: 'Street party' qwertyuiop


Sue Waters said...

I think that Twitter and your blog are part of your Personal Learning Community (PLC) and not a COP because not everyone has the same shared goals for learning. Where you have your community of midwifes networking and sharing their learning would more likely reflect a COP. e.g. your Elluminate sessions with midwives etc.

Sarah Stewart said...

Hey Sue, thanks for that - it makes things a lot clearer.

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach said...

I agree with Sue. Twitter is one of the small pieces loosely joined that make up your learning community, however that is different from a situated community of practice where trust is developed and meaningful experiences shared- as I imagine would occur between practicing midwives who regularly shared about their craft in an effort to improve.

Thanks for highlighting Etienne's session. Wish I could have been there.

Sarah Stewart said...

Thank you, Sheryl. You and Sue have really helped me get my head around this concept. Cheers

Carolyn said...

Thank you for keeping me informed about this Sarah.
I am still sad I missed this day but you outline here has helped me to understand a little better. I am interested that Wenger felt that COPs could be created and not always self generated. I do think the ownership of the community is very important and we need to work hard to make sure that such a community is valued and owned by those who participate in it. Members would need to have a clear idea of the functions and usefulness of the community to them as individuals and as a learning community.
Is it possible to have one community encompassing students lecturers and practitioners or will the power imbalances make this impossible? Would it be necessary to have three separate interlocking communities. Would this reduce or enhance the value and usefulness of the whole concept of a community of practice?

Sarah Stewart said...

I don't know what to think, Carolyn, about combining midwives, students and lecturers. I think students need to have their own community where they feel uninhibited by the presence of lecturers. But otherwise, I do not see any problem with having a community where we all join together. I think it would be good learning for us all to have a forum where we discussed ongoing issues in an open way.

My question is: will students use a community space that we make or will they stick with spaces they make for themselves?