Tag Archives: learning technologies

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.


Where are we heading with eLearning?

I originally posted this on the LTUG site (see links) on 28 April 2008
With the vast array of learning technologies now available, do we run the risk of confusing the medium with the message? Or more accurately, with the purpose?

New technologies can be engaging in themselves, but do not necessarily translate into desirable learner engagement. We often describe them as ‘enabling technologies’ – and then forget to specify just what it is that they are supposed to ‘enable’. Or we seize upon the label ‘disruptive technologies’ as if the mere potential of disrupting older paradigms of learning will automatically replace them with new (and better) ones. And don’t forget ‘social software’, with its implicit assumption that all the lone wolf learners out there will magically be transformed into a happily collaborating learning community by the mere availability of the technology …

Don’t get me wrong – I love this stuff, but much of it might be attractive and seductive only because of its novelty. It may be being adopted for the all the wrong reasons – it’s new, it’s got the bling factor and it’s cool. It’s easy to overlook the fact that it might be presenting ‘solutions’ to as yet unidentified problems.

How many designer/developers recognize this little (actual) scenario?

Course coordinator: OK, we’ve got all the notes and guides and quizzes ready to put online – can we have a blog as well? Developer: Sure. What would you like to achieve with this blog?

Course coordinator: ??!! Umm, well … we don’t know yet. We want to something that the students think is cool …maybe we could have a wiki instead … ?

In the case above I did eventually set up something – but only after gaining a lot more clarity about the actual problem that the Web 2.0 technology was supposed to solve. Just because this stuff is cool doesn’t mean we shouldn’t apply the same rigour in its learning design and deployment as we do with our other learning experiences.

I’m seeing support staff at institutions are becoming more operationally fluent in a wider range of learning technologies and their practical application. But a parallel challenge is to develop a greater awareness of the whole process – the interrelated flow of design, development, production, evaluation and review stages. By doing this, we are more likely to identify the desired outcomes and the nature of any barriers to learning first, and then to deploy the most appropriate solutions from the arsenal of learning technologies at our disposal.

Hopefully, this will result in better learning experiences, greater student engagement and better outcomes – which is what it’s all about, isn’t it?