. . . when all around are losing theirs?
Iconoclastic rock legend Lou Reed is possibly an unusual starting point for the notion of ‘communities of practice’, yet the eponymous title track of his 1976 album Coney Island Baby contains the revelatory and confessional line that he ‘wanted to play football for the coach’. In early November our lecturer, Mike Cosgrave, cited a slightly more mainstream figure, former England cricket captain Mike Brearly and his book The Art of Captaincy. 1 By all accounts, Brearly was an unexceptional cricketer but an outstanding leader. Lou Reed as ‘linebacker’ was, in all likelihood, only a figment of his own heroin-fuelled dreams.
Sport – be it real (Brearly) or imagined (Reed) – irrespective of whether one loves it or loathes it, offers a concrete example of loose affiliations of individuals who come together as a team for one single shared goal. It need be no more than that, examples of footballers who play for the same team but, when the ‘performance’ is over, hardly bid one another the time of day are legion. So a greater good than that of the individual is a central tenet of developing any community or collaborative practice.
In November around the time our class were immersing themselves in this module I heard an interesting snippet on RTE radio. The Business featured a teamwork consultant, Khoi Tu, a graduate of the London School of Economics, who had just written a book entitled Superteams. 2 Here is a link to a segment of that podcast. His website also contained some interesting ideas about building cohesion and forging common purpose which meshed serendipitously with the content I was grappling with.
One of the core goals of our first term in this fledgeling master’s programme in Digital Arts and Humanities was the challenge of forging twelve people of disparate ages (from early 20s to late 50s), experiences (recent graduates with primary and master’s degrees to people returning to education after many years), levels of ‘digital’ mastery (novice to experienced) and gender (7 women, 5 men) into a group capable of collaboration. A not inconsiderable challenge.
In a collaborative essay project which I undertook with classmates Dan Kenny and Róisín O’Brien I wrote:
I am a novice Digital Humanist, and therein lies the rub. So while my period of probation is in loose community, it is a grouping characterised by no commonality other than a random aggregation of twelve individuals who are ‘tasked’ to become a community of practice – a fascinating experiment.
We were a disparate group, both in the manner outlined above but also, more critically, in our geographic spread. Allied to this was the fact that we tended only to meet in person during the single two-hour mandatory class held once every week. So, perforce, many of our initial attempts to weave a thread of commonality took place in the digital sphere. In their article Global Village or Cyber-Balkans? Van Alstyne and Brynjolfsson write ‘as IT capabilities continue to improve, preferences—not geography or technology—become the key determinants of community boundaries’. While the limitations of geography may well ultimately not prove to be a disadvantage, there was the more immediate concern of getting to know one another to discover what those ‘preferences’ might be. Writing in Science 3 in 1993, William A Wulf, who has been credited with devising the term collaboratory (a portmanteau of collaboration and laboratory), talks of a ‘center without walls, in which the nation’s researchers can perform their research without regard to physical location, interacting with colleagues, accessing instrumentation, sharing data and computational resources, [and] accessing information in digital libraries’.
So many new ideas and concepts to embrace, these new-fangled educational tools so different from the pedagogy of my youth, a veritable pedagogy of the oppressed, albeit a very different one than that envisioned by Freire. 4 Now that the foundations had been laid down, how was one to proceed?
One article I came across in my early reading around communities of practice Strategies for Developing a Community of Practice 5, detailed the experiences of the Internet-Based Master’s in Educational Technology (iMet) Programme 6 in Illinois between 2000 and 2009. It had a number of similarities to our own programme, a major difference, however, being that their students ‘met 25% face-to-face and 75% on-line’. While on-line participation was encouraged in our case, there was no ‘must’ attached, so now eight months after commencement there are still class members with whom I have had no virtual communications. One conclusion of the article which I found resonant was that a physical ‘retreat’ at the commencement of the programme, while looked upon with trepidation, was ultimately viewed as one of the most positive aspects of the programme. 7
Given the short timespan of our master’s programme, it might be worth considering, with future intakes, a similar idea to provide an, albeit forced, catalyst to collaboration.
As our programme is an academic one, the emphasis of our enquiry was obviously geared more towards collaboration in the ‘groves of academe’. Academic collaboration is no new thing. Writing in 1967 in the American Sociological Review, Harriet Zuckerman wrote: ‘Nobel laureates 8 in science publish more and are more apt to collaborate than a matched sample of scientists … comparison of their research output with the output of the matched sample indicate that these patterns hold at every stage of the life-work-cycle’. 9. However, having been set a reading from Wikinomics, 10 I left those calm sylvan pastures and entered the cut-throat world of business and unfettered capitalism. One of my first forays into the world of the weblog was a post entitled After the Gold Rush, which, on rereading, is extremely dismissive of the concept of wikinomics. I would like to believe in the goodness of my species, but with pronouncements such as ‘Today Goldcorp is reaping the fruits of its open-source approach to exploration. Not only did the contest yield copious quantities of gold, it catapulted his underperforming $100 million company into a $9 billion juggernaut while transforming a backward mining site in northern Ontario into one of the most innovative and profitable properties in the industry’. I have to admit my more intemperate side won the day and I did some panning!
Communities of practice, according to Etienne Wenger, who, along with his colleague the anthropologist Jean Lave, popularised the term, 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’. As Wenger sees it, there are three crucial characteristics: the domain, the community and the practice. In conversation with Stephen Downes, he expands on these characteristics in this blog – ‘in a community of practice, therefore, there are different elements that are important. One is the learning domain. Then the community itself, the qualities of relationships. And then the practice itself, talking about the details, the nuts and bolts, of how do you deal with this stuff. The community becomes alive when people can connect at the level of practitioner to practitioner, of people doing things. This takes time and sustained interaction.’ Downes himself shares some thoughts from the field, literally. In this ‘live’ webcast he demonstrates how, ‘with technology, power and connectivity, we can bring our work in the field into an online environment. This results in a view of learning where we teach as we work, where we share our knowledge as we exercise it, and where communities form around people sharing their learning in this way’.
In his Connectivism and Connective Knowledge: Essays on meaning and learning networks Downes has some further thoughts on ‘community’. It is described as ‘the place in which we have learning experiences, and the environment through which we communicate with each other about these experiences. It is at one moment the place where we learn and at another moment the instantiation, as an artifact, of what we have learned, as a society. It is at one moment the place where we communicate, and at another moment, an expression of what we have communicated’ (Downes, pp. 17–18).
I found a very useful description of some of the key roles in communities of practice in another article by Etienne Wenger, summarised in the list below.
‣ Agenda activists: driving the learning forward
‣ Community keepers: weaving the social fabric
‣ Critical friends: reflecting on the process
‣ Social reporters: creating a shared memory
‣ External messengers: communicating with external audiences
‣ Value detectives: making value-creation visible
‣ Organizational brokers: connecting with organizational stakeholders
I can see instances in the course of the MA where, depending on the group and the context, I played each of the roles outlined above (perhaps with the exception of the last one) in my developing consciousness of community, practice and learning.
In retrospect, I think it would have been useful had I documented the steps of my journey of discovery more rigorously with a daily blog. One of the most enjoyable elements for me in the process was that of writing and while I do not feel that our blogs generated huge comment they helped the first tenuous steps in communicating with people who, in essence, were strangers. It was always heartening when a blog received some commentary, as did this blog Connected, but alone? from late November. I also made a point of making some comment to every blog a classmate wrote. I know that one recurring theme in discussions over coffee was the ‘being first in’ syndrome. Anecdotally, it would appear that people feel that if they cannot come up with something new they feel less likely to contribute, fearing that they are not being original and just agreeing with whatever has gone before. There was, generally, no such reticence on my part. If we are to build co-operation in virtual worlds we need to let people know we are out there.
Brearley, Mike. The Art of Captaincy. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1985. Print.
Brown, John Seely, and Paul Duguid. “Organizational Learning and Communities-of-Practice: Toward a Unified View of Working, Learning, and Innovation.” Organization Science 2.1 (1991): 40–57.
—. “Organizational Learning and Communities-of-Practice: Toward a Unified View of Working, Learning, and Innovation.” Organization Science 2.1 (1991): 40–57.
Buckley, Sheryl. “Higher Education and Knowledge Sharing: From Ivory Tower to Twenty-first Century.” Innovations in Education & Teaching International 49.3 (2012): 333–344. Print.
Cowan, John. “Strategies for Developing a Community of Practice: Nine Years of Lessons Learned in a Hybrid Technology Education Master’s Program.” TechTrends: Linking Research & Practice to Improve Learning 56.1 (2012): 12–18. Print.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. [New York: Herder and Herder, 1970. Print.
Morton, Janne. “Communities of Practice in Higher Education: A Challenge from the Discipline of Architecture.” Linguistics & Education 23.1 (2012): 100–111. Print.
Noon, Edmund Heery Mike. Community of Practice. Oxford University Press.
Shirky, Clay. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Penguin books, 2008. Print.
Tu, Khoi. Superteams: the Secrets of Stellar Performance from Seven Legendary Teams. 2012. Print.
Van Alstyne, Marshall, and Erik Brynjolfsson. “Global Village or Cyber-Balkans? Modeling and Measuring the Integration of Electronic Communities.” Management Science 51.6 (2005): 851–868.
Wenger, Etienne. “Communities of Practice: A Brief Introduction.” (2011): n. pag. Print.
—. “Leadership Groups.” n. pag. Print.
Wenger, Etienne, Richard A. McDermott, and William Snyder. Cultivating Communities of Practice: a Guide to Managing Knowledge. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press, 2002. Print.
Yakhlef, Ali. “The Three Facets of Knowledge: A Critique of the Practice-based Learning Theory.” Research Policy 39.1 (2010): 39–46.
Zuckerman, Harriet. “Nobel Laureates in Science: Patterns of Productivity, Collaboration, and Authorship.” American Sociological Review Vol. 32, No. 3 (1967): pp. 391–403. Print.
- Mike Brearley, The Art of Captaincy. ↩
- Khoi Tu, Superteams. ↩
- William A Wulf, Science. ↩
- Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. ↩
- John Cowan, ‘Strategies for Developing a Community of Practice’. ↩
- iMet is a hybrid master’s programme in education with an emphasis on educational technology. Students in the programme work collaboratively in a problem-based approach to the integration of technology into instruction. ↩
- For example, in one cohort group’s (n=27) reflections, 54% of students disagreed with the statement, ‘Prior to attending the orientation retreat, I thought the retreat would be worth giving up three and a half days of my life’. But in reflection, 100% of the students either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, ‘Having attended the orientation retreat, I think the retreat was worth giving up three and a half days of my life.’ ↩
- Unfortunately, she also summarised: The prize generates strain in collaborative associations so that most of these terminate soon after the award. ↩
- Harriet Zuckerman, ‘Nobel Laureates in Science’. ↩
- Don Tapscott, Wikinomics. ↩