I appreciated Wenger’s basic definitions of a community of practice: “Communities of practice 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.” Wenger explains that a community of practice (COP) is not just a club or network, but is a group with a “shared domain of interest,” to which all group members are committed. In addition, group members “build relationships that allow them to learn from each other,” this is the “community” in COP. Finally, group members are practitioners. As practitioners, within the COP they develop a shared practice, a “…repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems, etc. (Wenger, 2006).”
It helped as well to read about how the changing and expanding nature of adult education and life long learning has pushed Edwards (2006) (and others) to expand the definitions and conceptualization of learning contexts. Edwards suggests that some current conceptualizations are “binary” and limiting – informal/formal, everyday practices/educational institutions – and imply that context is a “container” into which learning fits (pp. 3-5). Edwards suggests that we should instead “…focus on relational polycontextualising practices in our discourses of lifelong learning (p. 5),” because it is within these relationships that cognition and learning often lie (not within one individual alone). The article ends with a list of provocative questions; I particularly appreciated the following, “If the boundaries of contextualisations for pedagogy are becoming more porous, what forms of teaching emerge and what is their impact on learners and learning something? (Edwards, 2006, p. 9).” Given the recent expansions in what we consider to be learning environments and events (online, blended, COPs, MOOCs, to name a few), and the expanding platforms and modalities, this is an important question.
I found it interesting that the two Conrad studies involved quite small study samples, particularly the sample of only 10 participants described in “From Community to Community of Practice.” Despite the small size, some of the study findings do seem relevant and resonate with my own experiences. In the 10-participant study, Conrad (2008) notes that despite a certain level of support for learning within participants’ workplaces, participants’ learning (even when directly relevant to their work) did not appear to impact the workplace or work practices significantly: “… learners’ learning experiences did not appear to transform the workplace in meaningful ways. Tolerance and respect were the norm. The encouragement that was reported by a minority of participants took the form of logistical adjustments in the workplace… (p.16).” She also notes, “Although some workplaces encouraged learning more tangibly than others, there was no indication from learners or their workplace colleagues of the existence of a subsequent widespread or renewed energy within the organization. Sharing the enthusiasm of learning occurred in limited ways, often with colleagues who had also participated in online courses (p. 18).”
My experience has been that, even with courses or workshops required or specifically suggested by my employer (which the courses in the study were not), using my learning to create post-course impact on my workplace and work practices is quite challenging. In my most recent job, we were always swamped, and leaders were used to doing things certain ways. I could implement new practices within my team but having a wider impact was almost impossible (even though it was needed, for example in the area of project management). We’ve been learning about necessities and drivers in 624 – the structures, practices, and agreements that must be in place in order to facilitate 1) transfer of new skills and learning to the workplace; and 2) positive impact on the work resulting from the transfer. Examples: mentoring or coaching, changes to job structures or job descriptions, adjustments to projects, etc. If these are not in place, transfer and impact will be limited and short-lived.
In her second study, Conrad (2005) found that in the online learning cohort studied, learners themselves took on a fair amount of responsibility for creating and constructing their online community. She also notes that, while the community “survived” a poor instructor, instructors played a key role in constructing community: “…good instructors created community, poor instructors didn’t. These learners defined good instructors as present, prompt, energetic, responsible, and knowledgeable… [they] gave appropriate feedback and demonstrated a level of passion for their teaching… (p. 12).” This has certainly been my experience in the UMB ID program. We are not one cohort taking all courses together, so the time we have to build community as learners is limited (Conrad notes in her 2005 study the value of time spent together to developing a solid online community). The instructor’s online presence, promptness, feedback, etc. in my courses to date has very much affected the sense of community that I feel. I’ve felt it 602, of course! Part of this is due to our weekly communication and online sessions with the instructor. They go a long way towards helping me feel that 602 is a learning community.