Community of Practice – A Tool for Reflection on Intercultural Learning

 

By Anja Stofberg

Introduction
The main aim of this chapter is to sketch and guide the potential ways in which a Community of Practice may be considered or developed within one’s own setting as a tool for reflection. It highlights basic and essential aspects as well as points to additional and recommended texts and resources. The chapter is by no means exhaustive however. The final paragraph provides a glimpse of the actual experiences of the project partners in their online community of practice.

So, what is a Community of Practice?

A Community of Practice is a group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do, and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly, with practice meaning…

It was Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (1991) who coined the term and developed the concept. The general idea is that through the process of sharing information and experiences with a group, members learn from each other and have an opportunity to develop personally and professionally.

There are three key components of a Community of Practice (CoP for short), namely community, practice and domain. Wenger conceptualized a CoP as a community of people who are passionate about the issues relevant to their practice and who deepen their domain of knowledge by interacting on an ongoing basis.

The first crucial component of a Community of Practice is the community: members who interact and engage in shared activities, help each other, and share information with each other (about a common domain). They build (informal) relationships that enable them to learn from each other.

The second key component is the practice pointing to the members as practitioners who gradually develop a shared repertoire of resources. These can include stories, practical and useful tools, experiences, methods for doing things in day-to-day work, ways of handling typical problems, etc. This kind of interaction develops over time.

The third necessary component is the domain, or in other words a shared domain of interest or a mutual commitment to a domain, that holds the community together, developing and accumulating expertise over time.

Communities of Practice rely on situated theories of knowledge, in other words the idea that knowledge is a property endorsed by groups of people over time in shared practices, rather than the idea that knowledge is a cognitive residue in the head of an individual learner (Hoadley, 2012).

Communities of Practice come in all shapes and sizes and are in operation in many different (government) organisations and sectors like education, the civic domain, non-profits as well as businesses. Some are local, some are global. Some meet mainly face-to-face, some only online, others operate in a blended mode. Some are really informal, some call themselves a learning network, others refer to it as a learning community. In short, Communities of Practice are everywhere.

Figure 1: A visualisation of CoPs

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(Source: OrthopaedicsOne)[1]

For more background about the origins and theory behind Communities of Practice, visit www.wenger-trayner.com  for further reading to a brief overview of the concept and its uses[2]. An 8 page solid introduction by Wenger & Trayner can also be accessed on their website[3].

 Why Communities of Practice?

Communities of Practice have been identified as an interesting means to connect people and share knowledge across silos and (professional, geographic, or organisational) boundaries and borders. Thus it can reduce professional isolation, as it provides a shared context for people to communicate and share information, stories and personal experiences in a way that builds understanding and novel insights. A CoP enables the members to capture and share existing knowledge to help people improve their practice by providing a joint space (virtual or face-to-face) to identify solutions to common problems, as well as to identify and discuss (and perhaps even create) best practices. CoPs enable dialogue among not only like-minded but also diverse people, to explore new possibilities and facilitate innovative steps. Communities of Practice also stimulate self-reflection, strengthen understanding of the practice and in doing so build further professional competencies.

In many CoPs it is the free flow of ideas and the exchange of information that is considered most valuable and stimulating in finding inspiration for professional activities.

A number of Communities of Practice also help people organise around purposeful actions that develop tangible results, but this does not apply to all CoPs. As some have pointed out (Li, 2009), the concept of a Community of Practice was originally developed as a learning theory that promotes self-empowerment and professional development, but as the theory evolved, it became in certain sectors a (knowledge) management tool for improving an organisation's competitiveness.

Wenger & Trayner state the issue of this tension as follows: Communities of Practice succeed if they provide value to both their members and the organisation. If they do not create value for the members, members will not participate or will soon become disengaged. On the other hand, seen from the perspective of an organisation: if communities do not create value for the organisation, it may be difficult to gain support, access to resources, or influence (Wenger-Trayner, n.d.)[4]. In sectors where continuous professional development is considered highly beneficial and even necessary in order to face the rapid transitions taking place in an ever evolving global society, the concept however is sure to be warmly welcomed due to its potential of cutting across professional, geographical and organisational boundaries.

Wenger & Trayner also point out that it is useful to think about the value created by communities of practice in terms of both short-term and long-term effects. Communities of practice provide short-term value because they address immediate challenges and issues. But they do this in the continuity of a community and over time develop a practice that becomes a long-term capability for members and for the organisation (Wenger-Trayner, n.d.)[5]. Figure 2 visualizes the dimensions of value creation for an organisation and the members of a CoP:

Figure 2: Dimensions of value creation

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In this complex day and age, given the opportunities of the internet and the social media tools now widely available to all, and given the increasing need for the sharing of knowledge on an international scale, Communities of Practice online (or blended) can provide educators with a potentially valuable means (or space) for reflection and as such provide opportunities for lifelong learning in a more or less informal way.

Especially when it comes to intercultural learning and developing intercultural competences, research has shown that this cannot be done in a short space of time; in fact it is a lifelong process (Deardorff, 2009). Sharing experiences and dilemmas among similar practitioners, as well as reflecting on (sometimes bewildering) intercultural encounters through a Community of Practice is a valuable activity. This may also result in getting into the habit of reflecting on own actions and constructing meaning and novel insights from those experiences, much in line with American philosopher of education John Dewey who said “We do not learn from experience … we learn from reflecting on experience.” In short, a Community of Practice has the potential to develop intercultural learning and intercultural competence, especially in case of an international Community of Practice.

Design and implementation

Now that the potential value of Communities of Practice has been clarified, how does one design and implement a CoP? How to get started? Is it just a question of lumping together people with a common interest? The answer is clearly no, attention needs to be paid to the design and implementation in order to lead to powerful communities of practice. There is however no single recipe for the creation of a CoP. To get a community off the ground, it is important to first understand the questions, issues and options one has in planning and facilitating a Community of Practice.

On the web there are several resources to get a good idea how to get your Community of Practice up and running. Figure 3 below is meant as a quick and easy-to-grasp start-up guide for organisations and was drawn up by Etienne Wenger himself[6]:

 Figure 3: Wenger-Traynor’s Quick CoP Start up Guide

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A more solid (and elaborate) step by step guide providing a practical approach to creating and designing communities of practice can be found on https://library.educause.edu/[7]. Although it appears to be drafted for higher education, it is based on experiences working with corporations, non-profits, associations, government organisations, and educational institutions. The guide aims to clarify the most important design elements that go into defining, designing, launching, and growing CoPs—both face-to-face and online, as well as in a blended mode.

Generally speaking, the design of a community will look different depending on the purpose and needs of the members or participants. Besides, all CoPs are unique and depend on their context. As a framework it is adaptable and it can be as engaging, intellectually stimulating and fun as the members would like it to be. Community members can determine the frequency that best meets their needs and leadership can be distributed, for example.

For any community to kick off, the first step should always be to identify the needs of the members.

Here are some more (general but crucial) aspects to keep in mind:
·         Develop relationships of trust, mutual respect, reciprocity, and commitment.
·         Target the “right” membership and make sure key stakeholders are members.
·         Focus on the value of the community for the members.
·         Try to “cultivate”, not manage, the community.
·         Take care of shared internal rules, a (kind of) code of conduct and communication.
·         Share, generate and discover new knowledge.
·         Make resources available.
·         Take purposeful action and work towards tangible and practical outputs/outcomes.
·         Adapt to changes and needs in the community as it evolves.
·         Pay attention to the participation of members.
·         Keep the energy flowing.
·         Learn and develop a shared practice, utilizing an existing body of knowledge.

In order to get involved in a Community of Practice here is (in an adapted version) an example of how a Canadian website summarised in a very practical way the responsibilities for community members and chairs (moderators or leadership)[8]:

Member Responsibilities
·         Attend and participate in scheduled meetings.
·         Contribute to developing and meeting the vision and goals of the community of practice.
·         Suggest ideas and topics for the community to explore.

Chair Responsibilities
Each community of practice has two chairs. Chairs will serve for 1 or 2 years, allowing one new chair each year and one continuing chair. This process allows for both continuity and change in community leadership.

The responsibilities of chairs include:
·         Identifying important issues, questions and ideas in the common area of interest.
·         Planning and facilitating community events.
·         Creating and fostering informal connections among community members.
·         Coordinating, when necessary.
·         Maintaining a list of members.
·         Calling and scheduling meetings, with at least one co-chair present.
·         Assessing the health of the community by tracking membership and activities, and communicating with members.

Clearly, this list was drawn up for a face-2-face community that can meet in person. For virtual or online-based communities as well as blended communities the principles could be the same, but a number of adjustments would be needed.

Especially in the beginning stages, more support is necessary for virtual communities in order to help members navigate the community platform as getting started in a virtual Community of Practice is more of a challenge. Keeping it running and developing it further also requires more fine-tuning actions and strategies by chairs / moderators. Chairs in leadership should not only provide the overall guidance, nurturing and management needed to build and maintain the community. They should also have extensive virtual community experience and high ICT skills. This ICT expertise is necessary to deal with issues around (member) access to the new digital tools and / or platform, software problems and other technological issues for potentially inexperienced online members. These are bound to come up at the kick off stage but also at later stages in case there is significant reliance on ICT. In short, in an online Community of Practice it is a must to have a clearly and well-identified facilitator who has the right set of abilities, who shows enthusiasm and has solid practical digital experience in solving major issues as they occur, keeping the energy flowing and in contributing to the overall success of the CoP.

An important decision that each community needs to make is to go private or to go public. Another decision to be made is the internet-based channel or platform where the community members interact. There are plenty of web platforms to choose from: Epale, Google Communities, Yammer, Facebook groups, to name just a few, each with its own possibilities and limitations. The right selection depends on the needs of the community.

Every community has its own rhythm, highlights and pitfalls, and also its own life cycle. Just as any organisational entity it goes through different development stages from its creation to its discovery, to an enabling environment, to a commitment stage, to a maturation and growth stage, to a winding down or final phase before it fades away.

Experiences
The six different Erasmus + project partners applied the concept of an online Community of Practice as a tool for reflection on intercultural learning in between the transnational meetings. The CoP started out on the Yammer platform in September 2017 and at a later stage (from April 2018) transitioned to a closed group on Facebook.

These were the main themes that emerged while mapping the experiences via an interim evaluation:
·         Sharing and exchanging across borders
·         Virtual versus face-to-face meetings
·         Deep versus superficial
·         Active versus passive
·         The element of time
·         Familiarisation and exploration of an internet-based CoP
·         Suitability for project purposes

The following is a selection of actual comments made in an interim evaluation on Padlet, where responses were given to the following three issues:
·         I liked (Please tell us what you liked in the CoP)
·         Ideas and Tips (Any tips for keeping the CoP healthy, vital and active)
·         Benefits and Value
(Can you tell us how you have benefitted from the CoP so far and what value it has brought to you?)

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I liked…

I liked the whole idea: being part of a virtual community which shares the same interests and which tries to become more and more intercultural and empathetic.

Getting feedback from colleagues from different countries and organisations.

The new practices that the other partners suggested.

I enjoyed reading everyone’s ideas.

The case studies that the partners brought in.

I liked the links to new information, articles or helpful tips.

I enjoyed having a space to share with other practitioners as often community educators do not have peer learning networks to grow from.

I liked the fact that a CoP is based on sharing: information, feelings, opinions, points of view.

I like Yammer as a platform to work on, as it reflects the close and warm relationships within the partnership.

Ideas and tips

Start with simple fun and small goals. When people are used to the platform, introduce depth / go deeper.

Writing shorter comments. For me it was quite challenging to concentrate on long and many texts.

With twitter-like messages you can’t share deep thoughts, so an in-between length of posts would be ideal.

Reflecting on the comments of other participants.

A group of people can learn to think together if they go for it. Finding a way to motivate participants.

I think it would be great to put our normal ideas and practices here for people to improve and strengthen. I think this allows readers to respond when it suits them and if it is relevant.

Perhaps a set time where people are normally online if available, then those who weren’t can check out the discussion later.

As everyone is really busy in everyday life, maybe more contents like photos and videos can help in the interaction.

Perhaps find a way to have “smaller” conversations that are more one-to-one away from the main question.

Benefits and value

Many interesting points of view on intercultural learning.

The value of the CoP is the value of the whole project: it is the expression of our work on our theme.

Sharing the same opinion and values and search the best practices to communicate with other communities.

Knowing the Yammer platform better, which makes it easier for future work.

For gaining theoretical knowledge and reflection I prefer face-2-face meetings. This means I need to find out how to make working in the CoP more rewarding.

An online space for educators / facilitators outside of a network to grow and participate in peer learning.

A cross-cultural space that can be used across the EU for us to stay in touch beyond the life of the partnership.

More benefits if more active.

I think the value of this experience is intercultural learning and sharing points of view, as the value of the whole project.

I found the ideas and tips on Yammer very useful for critical thinking. The case studies and ideas were useful for the activities with our (pilot) groups.

The output: what was learned?

Here is a concise collection of statements gathered towards the end of the project:

What I have learned in the Community of Practice is the power of reflection – how reflecting can enhance our work, enable better communication and collaboration and provide a platform for discussion and debate.

I learnt that a Community of Practice is a good opportunity to create a safe platform for the exchange of ideas, to communicate between participants interested in learning, developing personal and professional development, being active, involved, motivated and interested.

In the Community of Practice I learned about non-hierarchical learning between colleagues; it’s a way to share knowledge and expertise to become smarter.

I learnt that there is a basic competence that we often take for granted, and it’s not because the culture is there too: namely the language. The Community of Practice allows us to look at a situation from different points of view and in ways that maybe we have never thought of.

I have shared and read articles about various topics, these topics have driven me to research various authors or theories that were new to me, it has deepened my knowledge of learning theories. I have learned different connotations from using theories, as well as different activities in terms of building and developing my intercultural competences. And I have learned how difficult it is to communicate among partners.

What I learnt from the Community of Practice is, how hard it is to get people involved, how important trust is for some people. Also how important common language is, since incorrect English can make for incomprehensible messages.

To be in touch with each other, to share ideas with your friends, participants in the project, to think what you should do in different cases, to learn from other experiences, information about important persons and their contribution in what it means, intercultural learning.


[1] Community of Practice. OrthopaedicsOne Articles. In: OrthopaedicsOne - The Orthopaedic Knowledge Network. Created Sep 11, 2011 18:23. Last modified May 04, 2012 06:04 ver.7. Retrieved 2018-08-22, from https://www.orthopaedicsone.com/x/P4EQB.

[2] Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Traynor. (2015). Introduction to communities of practice: a brief overview of the concepts and its uses. (2015). http://wenger-trayner.com/introduction-to-communities-of-practice/

[3] Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Traynor. (2015). Communities of practice: a brief introduction. http://wenger-trayner.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/07-Brief-introduction-to-communities-of-practice.pdf

[4] Wenger-Traynor. (n.d.) Why focus on communities of practice? Dimensions of value creation. http://wenger-trayner.com/project/why-focus-on-communities-of-practice/

[5] Wenger-Traynor. (n.d.) Why focus on communities of practice? Dimensions of value creation. http://wenger-trayner.com/project/why-focus-on-communities-of-practice/

[6] Etienne Wenger. (2002). Quick CoP start-up guide. http://wenger-trayner.com/quick-cop-start-up-guide/

[7] Darren Cambridge & Vicki Suter. Community of Practice Design Guide: A Step-by-Step Guide for Designing and Cultivating Communities of Practice in Higher Education. (2005). EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative.  https://library.educause.edu/resources/2005/1/community-of-practice-design-guide-a-stepbystep-guide-for-designing-cultivating-communities-of-practice-in-higher-education

[8] Communities of Practice. (2016). Open Learning and Educational Support. Educational Development Team. University of Guelph. https://opened.uoguelph.ca/instructor-resources/Communities-of-Practice