Anyone who has attended a workshop, conference, seminar or comparable gathering will tell you that networking with other individuals engaged in similar vocational activities is a very rewarding part of the total experience. I recently attended a 3-day workshop in Northern Ontario. The participants of the workshop realized the value in continuing their dialogue, and formed their own online community with a Yahoo group account. More recently, participants at another workshop I attended in Toronto did more than just engage in a casual exchange of business cards. They were eager to collect email addresses in order to further discuss and hopefully resolve a variety of issues that the limited resources and time structure of the workshop could not address in any significant way.
Bound by shared meaning and interest of its members,
online communities of practice (CoP) seem to evolve organically, bringing
together a variety of expertise and experience in order to provide solutions
that are highly relevant and timely for the group. Everyone today should
be familiar with at least one variety or definition of Web-based conversation
spaces, such as bulletin boards, threaded discussion lists, online forums,
BLOG’s or asynchronous conferences. These all have the potential to foster
the type of interaction and collaborative problem solving that has been
long recognized as a key to working in a modern, globally-situated, knowledge-based
society. Without proper structure and facilitation though, these online
conversation spaces may become nothing more than piles of disparate information
that no one uses. By examining some of the proven concepts associated with
online collaboration, we can improve the chances of success for building
and nurturing both formal and informal online communities of practice,
even as parts of larger learning and knowledge-sharing schemes.
Collaboration usually means that people are working together in a certain context to solve a problem or learn something. It can also refer to the lifelong acquisition of knowledge within a certain community, or a developmental process that occurs over years. Dillenbourg (1999) asks if collaborative learning is a pedagogical method or a psychological process. He notes that activities, which trigger learning mechanisms, are evident in both individuals and groups, but that the interaction in groups triggers extra cognitive mechanisms. Collaborative learning relates to these activities and mechanisms. There is no guarantee that that the mechanisms will occur, but designing situations with appropriate activities will increase the likelihood of success. This is not always an easy task, as there are many variables to contend with in any group.
The gap between a collaborative participant’s actual developmental level and potential developmental level is narrowed through interaction with peers of greater capability. This is referred to as the 'zone of proximal development' (Vygotsky, 1978). Real world communities of practice reflect this theory, as in apprenticeship training, where those that are less skilled work alongside a peer or mentor, learning through authentic practice.
Collaboration basically has 3 components, which we can apply to asynchronous online environments:
Cooperative learning is also associated with collaborative learning, but differs in that it provides guidelines on how to organize group learning and related, specific activities. Cooperative learning is not always situated though. Problem based learning environments are also related, but they are not always collaborative. Online CoP can incorporate many of the principles of both collaborative and cooperative learning, depending once again, on how they are designed and facilitated.
The asynchronous nature of CoP solves many problems associated with time and distance. Individuals do not have to be online at the same time to participate, and time away is not considered a detriment. In fact, one of the biggest advantages of virtual CoP is that time away actually affords opportunities for much deeper reflection and processing than normal conversation would. Individuals not only become engaged in thinking about what they are learning, but also in making sense of the whole experience related to their situation. Learning and cognition may be fundamentally situated, and involves making sense of experience, thought, or phenomenon in context (Brown, et al., 1989). Our understanding of a concept is not abstract and self-sufficient, but rather constructed from the social and physical contexts in which the concept is found and used. Contemplating these ideas can help us create better opportunities for learning or knowledge sharing experiences in online communities.
The CoP model suggests that an individual is an integral component of a larger social and cultural structure, which is under continual revision and transformation. Through conflict, argument, interaction, negotiation and compromise, the knowledge and subsequent behaviours of the community's members will develop. Through social and negotiated processes, abstractions and implicit and tacit knowledge congeal and become explicit. This not only creates meaning for the community and its individuals, but an opportunity for organizations or professional practice to capture this meaning into contextual, cultural practices on an ongoing basis. This is an important factor in continuing education and professional development, where there may be skepticism in the practitioner community concerning the value and relevance of academic knowledge and ignorance in the academic community concerning modern best practices (Goodyear and Steeples, 1998).
The knowing derived from belonging to a CoP becomes part of something that individuals and organizations do, rather than something that they have. In other words, organizations should focus more on the types of systems that promote knowing and doing instead of on the ones that simply focus on the types of knowledge required to do something. This improves the actual working practices rather than the performance of individuals alone. In a purely academic CoP however, such as those integrated with college and university courses, creating authentic, situated activities may be a real challenge when professional practice is absent from the environment. The instruction should fit within a context that at least closely resembles professional or authentic practice, being the ordinary practices of the culture.
I think it is important to note here that whether
in education or industry, cognitive apprenticeships alone do not always
address all of the different types of knowledge and related skills that
may be required to understand and perform a task or job, or to learn about
or work in a particular domain. Truly authentic perception and consequential
activities may be difficult to carry out in any wholly online environment.
Creating a CoP
Throwing up a forum or discussion list without any planning or structure will not have a very good chance of succeeding. Factors such as feasibility, analysis and design should be considered in ways that are appropriate for the medium and the content. Here are a few of the things to consider when creating a CoP:
What is the purpose of this CoP?
FAQ’s and customer service resources alone are not a CoP
Organization, flow and content
There are a variety of ways to communicate and construct and share artefacts within a networked community. Online communication incorporates the semantics of conversation and writing. Since most of this communication is written instead of spoken, nonverbal and articulatory cues are not present. The use of symbolism such as emoticons (using keyboard symbols to portray feelings) can help to express these missing gestures. In addition to asynchronous textual dialogue, participants can engage in learning conversations using asynchronous multimedia components. For example, linked or uploaded files can include people, objects or artefacts in audio and video clips, photos, graphics, etc. These modes are becoming more commonplace (consider the inclusion of small video cameras, microphones and audio, video and photo software on most new personal computer purchases).
Validity and membership
Use time to moderate and facilitate
Encourage and allow the community building process to evolve
By articulating their ideas online, CoP members can converse, then consider and reflect upon their own knowledge. This knowledge can be validated, built-on or challenged through sharing with others. In other words, a collaborative environment encourages learners to state their opinions and differences while constructing beliefs, meaning and knowledge.
Technology tools alone are usually a poor excuse
for any solution, and with online communities, they do not always encourage
or ensure adequate collaboration. Appropriate planning and facilitation
is the key to developing a successful online community of practice. A variety
of human factors including fostering useful purpose, and good observational
technique and thoughtful responses by moderators can keep CoP activities
and related dialogue context-relevant, and greatly increase opportunities
for success. Peer review systems can help keep moderators on track.
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Michael Shaw has over 25 years experience in media production and instructional technology, holds an MSc in Advanced Learning Technology, and is presently the Education Consultant for the Canadian Institute of Health Information.