Education

REAL LIFE LEARNING: THE DEVELOPING IMPORTANCE OF FORMAL AND INFORMAL PROFESSIONAL COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE

INTRODUCTION

The working conference has provided many examples of professional, formal and informal communities of practice that rely to a lesser or greater extent on access to and the use of ICT. The working definition we have used is based on the work of Wenger, McDermott and Snyder (2002) which states that a “Community of Practice is a group of people who share a (great) interest in a certain object, theme or knowledge domain. They meet [face-toface or virtual] to exchange, to develop and to make knowledge explicit, which arises from questions and problems they have.”

COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE: EXAMPLES

At the HvU, the University for Professional Education and Applied Science in the Netherlands following a conference on education innovation, interest lead to four CoPs being initiated: ‘Testing and Assessment’, ‘Student coaching and PortfoUo’, ‘Listruments in Education’ and ‘ICT and projectbased education’. The CoPs have approximately eight participants and meet face to face regularly (once every six weeks).

Two CoPs had a relatively clear focus, i.e. a communal question, right from the start (e.g. How can a project-based approach to problems and assignments be best supported by ICT), while one CoP decided to let their agenda be composed of participants’ questions. Another CoP had such a diverse set of questions that progress was severely hampered and eventually only 7 out of 15 participants remained. This CoP did manage to achieve communal results, but there is little remaining drive.

ATTRIBUTES OF THE MODEL

Formality cannot be characterised by one attribute but a crucial characteristic is being more or less rule-based; to what extent are CoP members supposed to follow stricter rules, do they have freedom to determine the rules during CoP interaction or is everything strictly formulated in well defined working methods? Orientation! expected outcome/ targets: CoPs can be oriented towards the individual (personal?) or to the business/ to organisational benefits. Shghtly related to previous aspect, the orientation can focus on operational rather than on strategic needs. Driving factor, problem or ambition? The driving factors for CoPs can be problems, but also the desire to realise something, an ambition, or aspiration. The focus of a CoP can be well defined from the start, but a lot of times focus grows or shifts during the process.

APPLICATIONS OF THE MODEL

The Focus Group has developed a model to represent these ideas about communities of practice and their characteristics. The model is illustrated by a set of axes. Each axis represents one of the characteristics we have listed, with opposites at each end. We include some additional axes marked with question marks to acknowledge that the model may not yet be exhaustive.

The Group is still working on deciding the most useful way of visualizing the model. The axes might be seen as all mutually orthogonal, defining a multidimensional space as is done in factor analysis; then an individual community of practice could be described by a multidimensional profile determined by its position or “score” on each of the axes. Alternatively, the diagram could be viewed as a two-dimensional one; this would allow for relationships among the characteristics to be illustrated by the relative positioning of their axes.

Last word

The increasing importance of Communities of Practice, whether they are formal or informal, for the development of professional and vocational education is reported in this paper. The members of the Focus Group have proposed a model to analyse the effectiveness and to support the development of CoPs. It is at an early stage in its development with many questions still to be considered and answers proposed. It appears that the proposed model can be applied in many different communities, including education, industry, government and social contexts. The proposed model should help answer the three questions of pedagogy, organisation and tools and visualising solutions.

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