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Building Effective Communities of Practice

Article and Photo by Tom Haymes - ShapingEDU Contributing Editor

“Then I dreamed that we got strategic and began to form cooperative alliances of organizations, employing advanced networked computer tools and methods to develop and apply new collective knowledge. I called these alliances Networked Improvement Communities (NICs)” – Douglas Engelbart

Introduction: The Challenge of Distributed Groups

Communities of Practice (COPs) are central to our humanity. Even in prehistoric times when parents taught their children how to hunt or gather and villages worked together to survive, humans have used communities to share and learn. Early technology visionaries such as Vannevar Bush, Doug Engelbart, and Ted Nelson all perceived the inherent power of computing technology to create networks of shared knowledge as central to its potential. This vision has only been partially realized as true technologically-augmented COP remain an elusive goal. While technology invites us to spread the net of our communities further, it cannot overcome basic human tendencies. The fundamental problems that occur as you increase distance and time are asynchronicity and the intensity of shared interest. Issues that are right in front of you tend to take precedence over issues that are distant in time and space -- no matter how interesting they are.

The Session: Communities of Practice

The persistence of these human challenges was apparent in a ShapingEDU LIVE session held on July 17, 2019. The facilitators were:

  • Samantha Becker | Executive Director, Creative & Communications | ASU
  • Angela Dick | Manager, Learning Design | Penn State
  • Christine Kroll | Assistant Vice Provost & Director, Center for Educational Innovation | University at Buffalo
  • Alexandra Pickett | Director, Online Teaching | Open SUNY
  • Lisa Stephens | Assistant Dean, Digital Education, School of Engineering & Applied Sciences | University at Buffalo
  • Rachel Sullivan | Graduate Student | SUNY System Administration
  • Ryan Wetzel | Manager, Creative Learning Initiatives | Penn State

These participants represented a broad spectrum of COPs, ranging in size and scope from a large university to international organizations. There was a common theme in all of these groups: The primary job  responsibilities of the members of these communities presented a constant challenge to the learning missions of the groups. This was as true for Angela Dick’s faculty programs [LINK: https://tlt.psu.edu/about] at Penn State as they were for Lisa Stephens’s international FlexSpace group [LINK: https://flexspace.org]. Christine Kroll and others emphasized the importance of creating tangible products and the attendant need for capturing and sharing data. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the group emphasized the challenge of creating diverse groups where all voices are truly heard for authentic learning to be able to take place. Exclusionary groups, whether explicit or implicit, shut out entire conversations and stunt the diverse perspectives necessary to foster new understanding.

Emergent Design and COPs

This conversation generated several actionable ideas. First, it was clear that, while there are many human commonalities among facilitators’ experiences, there are many approaches to addressing the challenges of sustaining effective communities. Every COP is an exercise in open-ended design. This is not a traditional design project where a clear end point is evident. Instead, it is an evolving set of human relationships centered on an identified and ongoing challenge, whether that is the development of learning spaces or finding pathways to maintain faculty relevancy in a rapidly changing pedagogical environment.

As outlined in Ann Pendleton-Jullian and John Seely Brown’s books Design Unbound (MIT Press, 2018) [LINK: https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/design-unbound-designing-emergence-white-water-world-volume-1], one of the central challenges of operating in a “Whitewater World” is creating a clear yet dynamic approach to challenges. Technology both expands the potential scope and nature of groups such as COPs, while at the same time creating new and unforeseen challenges for human behavior.

One of the suggestions that the authors use to shift perceptions of a problem set is a mandala originally created by Hollywood production designer Alex McDowell. I have created a version of this mandala that might serve as a repository for resources mentioned in the event. Once these data points are added to the diagram, the group can engage in a design exercise intended to surface unexpected connections and potential strategies for moving forward. In this way we can begin to use ShapingEDU to create a meta-COP to nurture a diaspora of COPs.

Action items: 

1) Create an interactive map of resources for building communities of practice.

2) Build a design process to look for improvement opportunities in sustaining COPs

3) Create more effective mechanisms for sharing and storing information that can be applied to a wide variety of COPs