eLearning: Communities of Practice and the Quarantining of Knowledge

Where I work we have lots of enthusiastic staff who are exploring eLearning/Web 2.0 technologies – some for the first time. We offer professional development workshops and webinars which do a great job of providing required knowledge, but little opportunity for sustained immersive learning within the actual collaborative environment.

OK, I thought – what we need to do is to set up an online community of practice for staff to share resources and discuss issues using forums, blogs, podcasts and wikis and the rest of the Web 2.0 paraphernalia that we all know and love. After all, for teachers, there is nothing like actually using this stuff  to develop a feel for how it might work with students.

Being a member of several such communities, I thought that the best solution for us would be a Ning-powered site and this was duly set up. It was deliberately left open, because my view is that external input is highly desirable for any community of practice – even when that community’s primary focus lies within a more narrow institution-based environment.

And the response from management? Oh my. But it’s on an external site! That means we are at the mercy of an outside provider! What if they go broke? No, no – we have to create a private site on our own in-house system (which incidentally has very few ‘features’, is not accessible outside the institution’s network and is still in beta!) And (gasp) what about our IP? You put this on Ning and other people will be able to read our thoughts and ideas!


The Citadel of Knowledge

So after this shining example of institutional scotoma, I calmed down (just a tad) and got to thinking about what a ‘Community of Practice’ ideally should be, what it is in practice, and what it is seen to be in the eyes of institutional managers. I can see that IP issues can be important where sensitive commercial matters are involved, or where knowledge inadvertently released into the public domain might give a competitor a strategic advantage. I can see that management might have a preference for in-house systems when time and money has been spent to develop them. But I can’t see the point of an in-house re-invention of the wheel when outside providers have products which are free (or very inexpensive), are loaded with features, talk to each other – and actually work.

I fail to see how quarantining collaborative conversations about learning can have any outcome other than the creation of an insular and counter-productive educational climate. Such avoidance of external scrutiny means that we end up with a dearth of critical friends, whose input is vital to the healthy growth of a robust eLearning philosophy. How else can we develop operational fluency with learning technologies if not for the input of a large experienced user base outside our own borders? How can we make valid generalisations about strategies, techniques and technologies when our sample is restricted to those within our walls?

Jay Cross got it in one in a recent blog post:

“If your learning plans don’t embrace the power of networks, go back to the drawing board for another look. Learning occurs in conversations, collaboration, knowledge transfer, focused news, and other network phenomena … In learning, being authentic means admitting that we don’t have all the answers. It’s hooking people up so they may learn from and with one another.”

A community of practice for teachers is no different to one for learners. We are “hooking people up so they may learn from and with one another.” The more people, the more diversity. The more differing viewpoints which enter the conversation, the more learning that will take place. That, to me, is a community of practice.

Anything less is a committee.



7 responses to “eLearning: Communities of Practice and the Quarantining of Knowledge

  1. The educational mechanic

    Not necessarily … if my crowd had objected to a possible Ning community based on the thought-provoking info on your blog, I would have had a different reaction. Or not posted at all.

    But their response was based on distrust of ALL external platforms and a desire to silo “our” knowledge … and that would wipe FaceBook and most of the others off their little map.

    I like your blog – thanks for your response!

  2. We feel the pain Vyt. As you know I’m a great Ning user but believe you need to keep the community vibrant with a little nudge every now & then.

    This article ‘IT to Support Knowledge Sharing in Communities, Towards a Social Capital’ addresses some of what your Masters are concerned about – loss of valuable ‘knowledge’. (It also contains a lot of IT stuff.) Download: http://www.uni-siegen.de/…/paper/2005/huysmanwulf_it_to_support_knowledge_sharing_in_communities_2005.pdf

    Thanks for your link Alan – you’ve now been RRSd!

    I’m now moving the discussion into Twitter ;->

  3. Like Carol, I feel the pain too. Just this week had a request to install a new social software application for a colleague who wants to be to use and be able demonstrate said software (front and back end). Response from the gatekeepers was predictable and the language included; proposal, full support, funding, implications, ramifications, etc. There’s no, What can we do for you? How can we help? When do you need it?

    I can understand there’s a need to a corporate ‘position’ and a line as to what and how things should be done. But I reckon the ‘line’ need to be flexible – not rigid. Any what about some acknowledgment of staff who have this enthusiasm and a willingness to take risks. This all makes for very slow and ineffectual change. Lucky I have a solid network fo people who do want to make a difference and can help in other ways. 😉

    The link to the document that Carol referred to above is broken. Found the correct link after negotiating some German. Here ’tis.

  4. The educational mechanic

    Thanks Colin. You’re right – it’s the networks we have – the PEOPLE in our personal learning networks – that will make the necessary paradigm shift happen. We *will* approach the ideal – albeit asymptotically!

  5. I very much agree with your post and have really been enjoying reading your blog.

    Even though the way we communicate and develop ourselves is changing, as your post clearly shows, organisational expectations around such things are not. They wouldn’t stop us talking at the watercooler or going to a convention… so why stop us doing the same thing in a more modern medium – online? Crazy.

    I wish you the best of luck with “the powers that be” in getting this up and running.

  6. Pingback: Recent Links Tagged With "jaycross" - JabberTags

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