Creating communities

By Jan.17, 2010

For some years now I have been working in the field of learning technologies, where the concept of communities of practice has become quite popular. Although the term was not first coined to refer to learning communities online, with the development of the web, though, it soon became attached to the idea of people congregating online.

The idea not only became widely accepted amongst the educational community, it achieved fame! In such a way that for a while any opportunity to bring people together was automatically a ‘pretext’ to create a community of practice. ‘Why don’t we create a community of practice’, ‘we need a community of practice’, etc were phrases I have heard quite often. Now, that networking seems to be the new buzz word, people are shifting their attention to other possibilities the web can mediate.

Indeed, the web is a great channel for connection and congregation of social capital. But the web, just per se little value adds to human experience if not used appropriately and in context. Furthermore, the fact that we may own the best technologies available brings little significance to the experience of the ‘so called’ community, if no facilitation of the learning relationships is provided. That’s where the trick lies.

A community of practice is not, cannot, be established from day to night. It’s something that grows and has to be grown. A group of people with similar interests or sharing identical problems, etc, can emerge as members of a community if they are willing to ‘stick around’ and achieve their learning goals together. Often in times, additional learning goals emerge from such interactions and that is what keeps the learning community relevant and going. In a broad view, a community of practice can be seen as a group of people with whom the individual¬† shares an identity and a repertoire, and whose practice is characterized by a joint enterprise and mutual engagement. Hence, the social and learning bonds amongst people are crucial. They emerge and are maintained by the learning relationships that are developed throughout times and shared practice. Just like in any relationship, it needs to constantly be nurtured and developed to be kept relevant. All parties involved need to work at it for it to remain meaningful and interesting to them and to the others.

In the video that follows, Etienne Wenger, the father of communities of practice, refers to this, and also to the idea that no tool is a community. The tool does not awake much interest in the learners if there is noone there to promote the interactions it can mediate. In short, the community is the people, not the tool. Additionally, the community is the curriculum, as community members are the ones who develop their goals and decide on the content of their learning on a daily basis.

Communities are extremely important as part of our lifelong learning. They provide meaningful alternatives or complementary opportunities to learning with and from others. In the case of PhD students and researchers they are also an important source of information and support, which can help us feel less isolated during our research programme. Here at Salford, we are committed to support learning in community, and in helping network our learners.

Recently we have been engaging with a very special group of learners and lecturers, whose research is anchored in a inter-disciplinary approach. The LitSciMed group might still not be a community – it is still early days – but they are definitely trying to make the most of the networked opportunities the project leader is encouraging.

[ more about this project here]

I also worked on the issues of Community and Curriculum as part of my MPhil. The presentation of the study can be found here.

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