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!
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.