Mar 05 2009

CoP Series #5: Is my community a community of practice?

Published by at 5:35 am under communities of practice

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts I wrote for Darren Sidnick. I am finally getting the rest of the series up. Part 1part 2part 3,part 4, part 5part 6,  part 7 ,  part 8 , part 9 and  part 1o  are all here on the blog.

Many people get worried about making sure their group is a CoP. They ask “How would I know? Does it matter?”

In our first post on Communities of Practice (CoPs) we disabused ourselves of the confusion between a community and the platform that allows a community to interact together online. In this post, let’s wrestle with what a CoP isn’t, and if that really matters anyway. This may also give us insight as to what we are trying to do and perhaps point to a different strategic option when trying to support and extend learning. After all, as much as I think CoPs are amazing, they are not the only thing we have at hand.

  • Is a “class” or “cohort of learners” a community? It might be. If the group continues to learn after the course is over, the course then becomes the catalyst for the beginnings of the community. That said, we can take a “community perspective” when we design a course which would place an emphasis on interaction and making meaning of the material between students. An example might be to have the learners apply their learnings “out in the world” then come back and report on what they learned, questions they had and, if relevant, how application changed their understanding of the material. By doing this WITH others, they get feedback and other perspectives. Often Ufi learndirect learners are working individually through content. So that would suggest the community may be something offered alongside the course. The content also matters – some things lend themselves more to a community model than others. Context matters!
  • Is a group of people who all took a specific elearning offering – at any time, alone or together, a CoP? They could be! When we think about the value of learning, and measuring learning that stays with us, we often think about learning applied in use. So if I use that math in my job and do my job better, or I become a better manager because I have a basic grasp of change management. Application, as noted above, always depends on context, so providing space for cohorts or anyone who has taken a specific course to come back and clarify, ask and answer questions can be a very productive learning environment.
  • Is a team a CoP? Not usually. Teams are focused on an outcome of a task. CoPs are focused on the learning about how to do that task. That said, many teams have a CoP component to their work as a way to continue learning, improving and innovating. Again, if we take a community perspective on our team work, we would include processes and time for learning while doing!
  • Is a CoP the same thing as a (social) network? There is often some overlap. A network is the collection of connections and relationships between people. Right now, “social networking sites” such as Facebook and Meebo are all the rage. They can be useful tools for communities of practice, but they aren’t the same thing. The line between a community and a network is fuzzy in terms of membership, but the difference between a community of practice and a network is that the CoP is interested not just in the connections or relationships, but in the domain and practice. We’ll talk more about the important dynamic between communities and networks in a subsequent post.
  • Is a CoP the group of people who generate content on a website? That is one thing CoPs can do. Some communities have a strong orientation towards creating content that reflects their learning and their domain. For example, writing down/recording/drawing what we know helps us solidify and share the learning. But few communities just create content. The interaction in learning and creating is as important as the artifacts they create. So setting up a site for user generated content can support a CoP, but it is not THE CoP itself.
  • Is a portal a CoP? No. A portal is a website that brings together content and often tools for people to interact. So it has the domain of a CoP. But remember, a community is the people, not the tool. So if you have created a portal, you need to think about how to nurture the interaction between the people. That suggests facilitation, mentoring and other actions that stimulate interaction. The old “build it and they will come” rarely comes true. Portals, however, can be fantastic repositories for content created by a community (or many communities).

In an e-learning context (the context for this series when it was first written for Ufi ), it might be useful to share a few examples and test our understanding of them as CoPs… or not!

Message boards don’t automatically become CoPs
Between 2000-2007 message boards and chat rooms were provided within Ufi’s Learner Management system (called the LSE). These tools can support the conversational aspects of communities. But there has to be a spark. Here is the story Darren shared with me.

“In the initial implementation, there were no community facilitators or educational practitioner driving use whether on a local basis within centres (in Ufi lerndirect speak called the “tutor”) or a national basis. No-one had been mentored or trained to be a “bee,” mentor, coach or friend (more of this in a later blog). There was no guidance on what the message board/chat room was for. Surprise, surprise no-one was using it! In 2007 UFI removed this functionality.”

This is an example of having some missing “legs” for community. Yes, there was the “domain” of the course. But there was no defined community because learners were working solo with no specific path for building relationships and no facilitation for both the socialization and interactive learning conversations. So practice was missing as well. So the question remains, can web based conversational community strategies mix with Learndirect’s elearning “at any pace, any time, any place.” Can learning cohorts be built?

Some domains lend themselves to CoPs
One of the amazing things I’ve seen in CoPs is how well some types of professions are culturally so well suited to a community of practice way of being. Public health nurses in the United States (not sure about the UK!) have a practice that is all about sharing learning with each other and with their clients. Teachers who are isolated in their classrooms often have a hunger to interact and learn from other teachers. One of Ufi Learndirect’s audiences, childcare providers, is another one of those “natural” domains. In 2008 Ufi learndirect is starting a CoP pilot around Childcare.

Darren shared this information with me, which reinforces this idea that some domains are ripe for using a community approach.

“In Childcare a portal has been developed (this will go live in autumn 2008). It is for childcare professionals whether new to the professional or experienced. It is both a portal of resources (just in time training and information) to the more formal vocational qualifications (called NVQs in the UK). We hope to develop an active CoP in childcare as research has shown that childcare professionals do like to share with colleagues and do like to work together. It is a sector based approach so there is a common tie there (quite a bit of learndirect content is generic across sectors where it is felt harder to develop a community). If the Childcare Pilot is successful, Ufi will look to develop CoPs further”.

These two examples help us see that we have to look at conditions that enable CoPs.

So now that we’ve looked at these different forms, what do you think? In your context, is a CoP what you need, or something else? Share your story in the comments!

Want some more examples of communities of practice in an elearning context? Here are a few:

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3 responses so far

3 Responses to “CoP Series #5: Is my community a community of practice?”

  1. […] White grapples with the issue of what is and isn’t a community of practice (CoP), the fifth part of a series of posts on the topic of CoPs. (Her post tells you how to find the other parts). In this […]

  2. Nancy Whiteon 06 Mar 2009 at 8:45 am

    Mike Gotta has a good post reflecting on this issue with some great additional resources. Check it out http://mikeg.typepad.com/perceptions/2009/03/understanding-communities-of-practice.html

  3. Jane Bozarthon 06 Mar 2009 at 7:21 pm

    My dissertation is on CoPs. There’s a link to it in a Workplace Learning blog post by Gary Woodill:
    http://www.brandon-hall.com/workplacelearningtoday/?p=2801

    Much of what determines the ifs of a CoP is whether/how much someone tries to control, direct, or manage it, or “harness” the knowledge it generates.

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