I’ve been seeing a lot of talk around the edu-blogs and at conference sessions about online learning communities, or building a personal learning network as part of a educator’s professional development. Often, these are referred to as “Communities of Practice” – a term coming into common use only a few years ago. Many educators were introduced to the term in grad school through the work of Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, who wrote Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation.Learning in Doing: Social, Cognitive and Computational Perspectives (Amazon link) in 1985.
Their book explored how natural learning that takes place in apprenticeship situations, and profiled several different Communities of Practice (CoPs) from around the world. The “practice” part of CoP is the work they do, and the learning takes place in context, or situated, in the common work. These groups of people learn to do their work not by lectures, but by everyone working together, from experts to newcomers, and most importantly, by talking about their work together.
The concept of “Legitimate Peripheral Participation” is key to the idea of communities of practice. This is when newcomers learn needed skills by doing work that is on the periphery of the community, and as they prove their competence, being invited into more important roles. The other part of legitimate peripheral participation is how newcomers move into the community through talk. The shared stories of the community, particularly war stories told by experts, are part of the experience. Newcomers learn to participate by learning the traditions and vocabulary of the group, first by listening, then by trying out their new verbal skills within the group, and if their words ring true, by moving from the periphery and becoming more central to the shared expertise of the group.
It’s obvious that this sounds similar to what happens to educators as they break down the walls of their classroom and use new technologies to find and participate in new communities.
I think, however, that we confuse different kinds of communities. Specifically, I think that educators who come together in online communities, or even temporary real life groups, are more often than not, communities of interest, not communities of practice.
I’m not just being picky about semantics here – the problem is that calling any community a “Community of Practice” presumes that it will have similar benefits and impact.
In Second Life, for example, a teacher may meet educators from around the world who are doing similar things in their classroom, have similar hopes about the future of ed tech, and share similar frustrations. They may find the interaction refreshing, educational, and maybe even inspiring. These professional collegial interactions are too often missing from teacher’s lives. And Second Life is just an example. This could be Twitter, or a social network, an online group created for a graduate school class, or even people you meet face to face at a conference.
However, just having similar work doesn’t mean that this is a community of practice. They really aren’t doing the same work. Once this interaction is over, they have to go back to their real place of practice, their classroom and school. The benefits of shared vocabulary, shared experiences, shared stories are all gone. Now these teachers have to sit in meetings where no one is on the same page, frustrated that everyone isn’t seeing the light.
In fact, these outside communities of interest may serve to pull teachers away from their local communities of practice, distancing them from the colleagues whose mindshare would be vital to real local change. It’s an all too convenient place to vent about everyone who “doesn’t get it.”
It’s hard for me to imagine any kind of educational change that doesn’t draw on the participants at the ground level, meaning the people in the school. That’s why I advocate for student participation in education technology initiatives. Changing a community means involving the stakeholders, all the stakeholders, in the process. Building a healthy community of practice in the place of the actual practice is a first step to change.