Communities of Practice
In The Invisible Key To Success, the authors write:
If the term community of practice wasn't invented at the Institute for Research on Learning (IRL), that's where it's most often bandied about. — (note, IRL, in Palo Alto, was founded in 1987 as a spin-off of Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center. Its mission is to study how people learn.)
The fundamental finding in the work at IRL is that learning is often social — how ever romantic the image of the scholar bent over his desk in a pool of lamp light, learning happens in groups. However, not every group learns. But the groups that do learn form into communities of practice, which have a few things in common:
- They may be formed socially or professionally.
- They collaborate directly by using others as sounding boards.
- They are extremely hard to create as they are composed of people who are informally bound to one another by exposure to a common class of problem. However, they are easy to destroy.
- They are among the most important structures of any organization where thinking matters.
- They have history as they develop over time. They can be defined in terms of the learning they do over time.
- They have an enterprise but not an agenda; that is, they form around a value-adding something-we're-all-doing. For example, it could be a gang seeking to carve a place for itself on the streets, a sales office wanting to be the best office in the company, or programmers who exchange tips at the water cooler.
- They develop customs and a culture.
- They are responsible only to themselves. No one owns them. People join and stay because they have something to learn and to contribute.
The main thrust in a Community of Practice is that most learning is social and that it occurs in groups. This is true, however, deeper learning occurs when we do something with the newly acquired subject matter. We learn in a number of ways, such as reading, observing, and hearing; however, it is not until we do something with it, that we really come to understand it to a greater depth. This deeper understanding can occur from a variety of methods, such as reflection, discussing it with others, experimenting with it, or applying it to a practical situation.
However, it is hard to get new insights when all you have are your own views, beliefs, attitudes, etc. That is where group learning pays the biggest dividends — through the collective and synergic power of groups.
This type of learning was often difficult or expensive as people had to get together in a common environment so they could meet face-to-face. But with the advent of social media tools, the common environment is now replaced by these tools, which are becoming quite inexpensive and readily available.
Communities of Practice and e-learning
One of the powers of elearning is that it allows a large number of people with the same interests to join together in discussions. Some of the largest elearning discussions occurring are through discussion lists, blogs, and other social networks. While most of them are not exact community of practices, many are becoming quite close to the concept.
The most important elearning will be developmental in nature because the combination of training, development, and education over a period of time has a synergic power that grows the individual far beyond any single subject she may learn.
Internet Styles of Learning
According to the four styles of web-based learning, communities of practice would fall under the third and fourth styles (Empowerment through Self-Directed, Web-Based Learning):
- Level One: (Awareness) - Basic browsing and searching by individuals or small groups to find specific information. This level constitutes basic awareness of what is available and how to become a self-directed life-long learner.
- Level Two: (Adoption) - Self-publishing on the World Wide Web by creating graphical web pages using both Internet graphics and information as well as original graphics created using digital cameras, scanners, and/or graphics software. This level constitutes adoption of the economical multimedia self-publishing capabilities of the Internet. An individual can publish globally on equal par with the world's governments, corporations and universities.
- Level Three: (Adaptation) - Project-based collaboration using email, listserves, Internet chat, and other Internet collaborative tools. Project-based learning, working with students in distant classrooms on specific structured problem-solving units, is proving to be highly motivating and exceptionally high quality education. This level constitutes adapting the collaborative potential of the Internet to specific uses relevant to the local school and culture
- Level Four: (Rising Expectations) - real world problem solving quickly becomes a logical extension for motivating students to expand their Internet searching, self-publishing, and collaborative skills to deal with real community problems and issues. This level constitutes a transformational awareness of the unlimited potential of the Internet as a means for serving the local community and culture.