Introduction to 2nd Edition

Communities of Practice, Practicing Community

Malcolm Brown, Director, EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative

Learning is inherently a social and an active undertaking. We know from the research on the psychology of learning that we do not passively receive knowledge like a radio receiving radio broadcasts. Rather, we construct our knowledge and build our skills on the basis of our interactions with the world and the people we counter. It is an active process of construction, whereby we take in information and seek to align it with our understanding of how the world works.

In addition to it being a highly interactive process, learning is always embedded in a social context. Even reading a book in a corner of the library has its social context. We now know that learning is strengthened when it takes place in a community. The community can be small and of short duration, like a small group of students debating the answer to a clicker question. Or it can be a team that works together for the length of a course; it can be a group of researchers, geographically distributed; it can be an institution learning how to re-invent itself. Whether large or small, synchronous or asynchronous, a learning community is vital to the learning process.

This book is both a learning community and a community of practice. It is an exploration of the themes of technology-based innovations in teaching and learning but also an illustration of the new model of how we learn: it is a community of practitioners setting about to learn about learning. We at the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI; http://www.educause.edu/eli) have always felt that effective learning depends upon community and therefore welcome this book as an extended learning community, exploring the ever-changing landscape of 21st century learning.

Explorations, such as those contained in this book, are especially timely. We are all, as a community, exploring the ramifications of the move from a “1.0 read” culture to a “2.0 read/write” culture. We know that in the 1990s the Web burst on the scene. In all probability, it has been the single most important factor in moving the Internet from being primarily an academic research network to one of the most powerful cultural forces since the printing press. During those early years, in the run-up to the bursting of the dot com bubble, the use of the new technology followed a familiar pattern: it imitated what had gone on before. Before the web, much of our teaching and information trade was the same, based on the idea of the transmission of content from the few to the many. TV and radio stations broadcast content, the music industry sold pre-programmed, read-only CDs, and much of higher education was delivered as straight lectures.

When the Web entered the scene, it was initially employed to continue this model of transmission. Content was primarily received by audience, not created. There was no long tail of content, no blogs, no wikis, no user-created video, no Wikipedia. For the most part, content was still created, by the few for the many. In the commercial space, providers charged for the transmitted content. Teaching was viewed as the transmission of content, and the task of the recipients—the students—was to receive and master the content, in ways similar to listening to a CD.

This has, of course, changed radically over the course of the first decade of the 21st century. Two factors emerged that have changed the way we think about teaching and learning. One was the emergence of the constructivist model of how people learn, propelled by publications such as the National Research Council’s book How People Learn, which appeared originally in 1999. This book summarized two decades of research on the psychology of learning, and introduced us to the constructivist model of how we learn. The second factor was of course the emergence of the Web 2.0, a Web based on folksonomies, user-generated content, micro-content, participation, social interaction, and a far larger degree of openness.

This development has had significant impacts; the most obvious examples being music, newspapers, and books. But it has also had far-reaching impacts on the practices of teaching and learning, requiring all of us—faculty members, students, staff—to reinvent those practices. This book is a valuable contribution to that effort. The chapters in this compilation cover a broad range of essential topics and themes, all very relevant to the current discussions of teaching and learning in education.

Assessment and evaluation. The question that keeps coming up with respect to the use of technology in learning and the innovations associated with it is: “does it work?” While this question is a natural one, it is also, taken all by itself, somewhat misleading, as it presupposes a binary answer (yes or no) to something that is dependent on a complex cluster of variables. Evaluation and assessment is a complicated and multidimensional subject, and as such is very challenging. Yet it is important that we continue to grapple with it, striving to invent methods, rubrics, and other tools that will enable us to understand all this better. Discussions of quality (raised for example in the chapter by LaBonte) and authentic displays of learning (Bedard-Voorhees) are essential, if challenging, if we are ever to begin to make sense of what has productive impact and what does not. This has emerged as such an important topic that the ELI has made the exploration of the evaluation of impact its major theme for 2011-2012 <http://www.educause.edu/ELI/SEI>.

Blended and e-learning. The blended learning model is emerging as the key evolutionary step for teaching and learning in higher education. As Crichton and Naseem remind us in their chapter on blended work, the term blended learning, following Garrison and Vaughan (2008), is a “thoughtful fusion of face-to-face and online … experiences.” While this is a very broad definition, it can only be made more specific when implemented in a specific educational context. The ways in which blended learning is implemented at a given campus, such as the ratio of face-to-face and non-face-to-face elements, are highly context-dependent.

What is key in this transition to a blended model is that every aspect of the course be re-thought and examined in order to take full advantage of all the opportunities of the new model. Crichton and Naseem make this point, advising us that the key lies in “fundamentally rethinking ways” and “significantly restructuring” the old as we transition to the new. Finally, Naseem’s contribution reminds us of an important challenge associated with this transition: making sure that all participants have the access and the skills necessary to successfully participate. Today some might be tempted to dismiss the digital divide as a thing of the past, holding that ownership issues have been overcome by inexpensive computers (such as netbooks) and Internet-capable devices (such as smart phones). Such dismissal is surely premature. The digital divide is not just about hardware. It’s also about network access and technology skills; without all three, participants will be handicapped in the new learning environments.

Collaboration. Perhaps the largest change we have witnessed in higher education over the past decade has been the emergence of collaborative work. It may well be the factor that differentiates current practices most strongly from those of 1970 or 1980. Several factors have been at work, driving this change. The concept of the “wisdom of crowds” has shown us that there is such a thing as collective intelligence, and that the pooling of different kinds of expertise, knowledge, and skills can result in better academic results. In addition, the rapid growth of the Web 2.0 and its participatory services have encouraged the advent of participatory culture; today when shopping online we expect there to be comments and reviews, and are now surprised when they are absent.

Reflecting the new importance of collaboration in all sectors (k-12, higher education, government, corporate), this theme is the most-discussed topic in the book. It is treated in most of the chapters and for many it is the chief topic.

The contribution by Currie, Delich, and Stacey examines the idea of the community of practice and its potential to enable people collaboratively to work on projects. Communities of practice are of course collaborations and that work is greatly enabled by participatory, Web 2.0 technologies. In the chapter by Kaminiski and Hoogbruin, the theme is the co-creation of content. The discussion in that chapter looks at how the co-creation of content can not only enhance learning but also encourage activism and engagement in society at large. They show how “co-creation activities ... not only boost their [students’] own learning, but help them to bring a tangible voice to issues that concern them.” This means greater student engagement, a lynchpin for any course.

Koh and Lim introduce the concept of “collaboration technology 2.0 (CT 2.0),” the second generation of technology-based collaboration tools. CT 2.0 tools are primarily web-based applications, such as wikis, blogs, and web-based productivity applications. In contrast to the first generation of tools, CT 2.0 is open, highly social, and able to support both synchronous and asynchronous modes of communication. This is of great importance for higher education learning, since it enables flexibility, options, and multiple paths through course content, all of which are important aspects of learning-rich environments.

Lambropoulos explores the role of collaboration and dialogue in learning. Here an important point is made: that knowledge and skill acquisition—hence learning—is less the result of how individuals ingest content, but rather is the result of “interactions between learners and their more capable peers.” In other words, it results from collaborations.

Collaboration is also closely linked with openness, a theme that McCabe examines in connection with science education. Here the tool is the wiki. What becomes apparent in McCabe’s account is the dimension of openness that the wiki introduces in the course, not just for all the participants in a specific course, but also across instances of the course from year to year. This promotes the feeling that the student’s work has importance beyond the confines of the specific course instance, which contributes directly to an increased sense of engagement.

Collaboration based on the use of 2.0 tools is not without its risks and hazards. Hengstler reminds us of the need to manage our “digital footprint,” the “traces of a person’s online activities.” “Without professional development or training,” she writes, “many educators blur their personal and professional content and networks—sometimes with disastrous effects.” Hence the openness that comes with collaborative work has potential drawbacks, ones we should be mindful of as we proceed.

ePortfolios. Learner engagement is a core goal for any course, whether it be face-to-face, blended, or online. If the learners are engaged in the content and course tasks, it signals that the learners have taken ownership in their learning processes. It also brings increased enthusiasm to the course, which benefits all course participants. One tool for encouraging and fostering engagement is the ePortfolio. The chapter by Barnstable offers a good starting point, as the chapter identifies key aspects of the ePortfolio: that it is a vehicle to promote critical reflection, review, and self-assessment, and that reflection enhances the learning process. In the traditional course model, it was the instructor or the TA who typically was the source of commentary on a student’s work, for example in the form of written comments on term papers. Using an ePortfolio enables the student to assume a part of that task, hence enabling the student to be a more active participant in the review and assessment of course work. This serves to promote critical thinking, a skill perched high in most all learning taxonomies.

Barrett’s chapter further underscores these points. One of the strengths of the ePortfolio in developing reflection skills is that it is evidence-based. Its content consists of student work artifacts, and the reflection works directly with the evidence contained in those artifacts. Both authors emphasize that the value in working with an e-portfolio lies less in the artifacts and more in the skills developed in the reflection process.

The chapters by Cox and Kelly develop the discussion further to the institutional level. They move the focus from using an ePortfolio in an individual course to that of an institutional program; their chapter examines what is needed to create and maintain an ePortfolio program at the institutional level. Finally Tolley reminds us that the ePortfolio is a resource that spans a student’s degree career and its reflective engagement can be used even after graduation.

The learning management system. Like a student information system or a financial system, most every institution has a learning management system (LMS) to expedite and simplify the creation and operation of course web sites. They have become the “enterprise system” of the academic side, as their operation and support are critical to the institution’s curriculum. If the LMS goes down, in many cases most of the curriculum goes down with it. The chapter by McIntosh serves as a good departure point, describing the LMS and its features, and also providing a comparison of the LMS in both academic and corporate contexts. The chapter by Mindel and Kelly examines the institutional aspects of selecting and running a LMS. There are many stakeholders for an LMS system. This is also a theme in the chapter by Yajnik, a case study of a major implementation effort that clearly illustrates the scope and importance of the LMS and its implementation.

This introduction has touched on only some of the themes and contributions contained in this book. Taken together, the chapters address nearly all of the major themes and issues associated with contemporary practices in learning in higher education. Contributions such as those in the chapters of this book are points of departure, not conclusions. We invite the readers of this book to continue to discuss the topics and themes raised here.

EDUCAUSE hosts a half dozen constituent groups that relate to teaching and learning, and the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative offers events, publications, and other forums to encourage the sharing of insights, ideas, and best practices. We invite the teaching and learning community to take advantage of the contributions in this book as a way to help us sustain our own larger community of practice and continue to explore these issues.
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Created: Feb 28, 2011 8:00 am
Last revised by: ltdproject on: Feb 28, 2011 2:00 pm (UTC)
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.