Building a learning community online

I have been thinking about dissemination and adoption of knowledge as our organization (formerly WSU’s Center for Teaching Learning and Technology) is re-organized to become the Office of Assessment and Innovation (OAI). Our unit’s new challenge is to help the university develop a “system of learning outcomes assessment” in response to new requirements from our accrediting body, NWCCU.

We have captured a discussion about how our unit’s web presence might be changed in a series of notes and whiteboard shots attached to this blog post.

One part of our ideas for this “accreditation system” can be found in this presentation for the TLT Friday Live on harvesting feedback across multiple levels of the university.  We have a prototype of one of the middle tiers running now to test and refine the rubric.

Our system depends on OAI staff working with “Liaisons” for each College and their “Points” in each academic program, and developing skills among the Liaisons and Points so that they can provide useful feedback to programs on the assessment activities that the programs are undertaking. Because of the diversity of WSU, the specific learning outcomes assessment that programs undertake will need to vary by program. What the university seeks is “robust” assessment of student learning. Our method (links above) involves a meta-assessment of the assessment practices of the programs. For programs to understand and develop robust assessment strategies, I believe that the OAI’s, the Liaisons’, and the Contacts’ professional development needs to be a key component of the “system of assessment.” [That is, professional learning in the discipline.]

The challenge is to provide professional development in the context of a multi-campus university, with programs and learners at diverse places in their own learning.
We have advocated that learners find their community of practice and join it and work on their problem in the context of that community. However, that assumes the community of practice exists in an organized way that can be joined. Presently, the COP’s I’m aware of are loose knit collections of bloggers who have developed the skills of tracking one another. Novices would need to learn these skills as an entry requirement to their own participation. That barrier for entry/participation is probably too high for the WSU community we need to reach. I previously wrote a manifesto describing how our unit should change its web strategy. That proposal also included the concept of finding/ building the community of practice online — but it did not solve the problem of how to build that community.

In 2006, Dave Cormier proposed the idea of a “feedbook” of readings that was based on an RSS feed, rather than on traditional paper media. The book was more dynamic because it could be based on blogs or other contemporaneous sources.  In Dave’s later reflections he points to the interesting perspective that the feedbook is (can be) a collaborative effort among a community of learners.

“In addition to the freshness of the material, the multiplicity of voice and perspective and the fact that your textbook will never be out of date, one of the first things that would happen is a decentralization of the instructor. While the instructor would usually be responsible for the basic set of links…gone will be the rabbit out of a hat magic that comes from controlling the flow of knowledge. Students will actually be able to add to that flow of knowledge as their research brings up new sources of course material.”

Dave’s thoughts about multiplicity of voice and perspective seems to fit with Lave and Wenger’s Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation Cambridge U Press, 1991

John Seely Brown summarizes several of Lave and Wenger’s writings in a piece written for Xerox PARC:

“This work unfolds a rich, complex picture of what a situated view of learning needs to account for and emphasizes, in particular the social, rather than merely physical nature of situatedness…

“Next, a few clarifications are probably helpful. First, as Lave (1991) herself notes, the situation is not simply another term for the immediate, physical context. If it is to carry any significant conceptual import, it has to be explored in social and historical terms. Two people together in a room are not inevitably identically situated, and the situated constraints on practice do not simply arise in and through such isolated interactions. The people and the constraints importantly have social and historical trajectories. These also need to be understood in any situated account.

“Second, community of practice denotes a locus for understanding coherent social practice. Thus it does not necessarily align with established communities or established ideas about what communities are. Community in Lave & Wenger’s view is not, a “warmly persuasive term for an existing set of relations” (Williams, 1977). Communities can be, and often are, diffuse, fragmented, and contentious. We suspect, however, that it may be this very connotation of warm persuasiveness that has made the concept so attractive to some.

“Third, legitimate peripheral participation (LPP) is not an academic synonym for apprenticeship. Apprenticeship can offer a useful metaphor for the way people learn. In the end, however, in part because of the way apprenticeship has historically been “operationalized,” the metaphor can be seriously misleading, as LPP has occasionally been located somewhere between indentured servitude and conscription.

“As Lave and Wenger put it:
‘Legitimate peripheral participation is not itself an educational form, much less a pedagogical strategy or a teaching technique. It is an analytic viewpoint on learning, a way of understanding learning. We hope to make it clear that learning through legitimate peripheral participation takes place no matter which educational form provides a context for learning, or whether there is any intentional educational form at all. Indeed, this viewpoint makes a fundamental distinction between learning and intentional instruction.’ [1991: 40]

This quote above is one that I’m still trying to fully absorb [np]

JSB continues:

“One of the powerful implications of this view is that the best way to support learning is from the demand side rather than the supply side. That is, rather than deciding ahead of time what a learner needs to know and making this explicitly available to the exclusion of everything else, designers and instructors need to make available as much as possible of the whole rich web of practice-explicit and implicit-allowing the learner to call upon aspects of practice, latent in the periphery, as they are needed.”

“… The workplace, where our work has been concentrated, is perhaps the easiest place to design [for legitimate peripheral participation] because, despite the inevitable contradictions and conflict, it is rich with inherently authentic practice-with a social periphery that, as Orr’s (1990) or Shaiken’s (1990) work shows, can even supersede attempts to impoverish understanding. Consequently, people often learn, complex work skills despite didactic practices that are deliberately designed to deskill. Workplace designers (and managers) should be developing technology to honor that learning ability, not to circumvent it.”

Applying these ideas to OAI/WSU

In the process of becoming the OAI we are re-vamping our website and proposing that it contain several elements:

  • a branded page that provides a basic OAI presence within the university
  • an archive of the former CTLT site, with its various linked resources (many of which retain some value and the URL has some reputation in search engines)
  • a university portfolio space (a showcase)  where we assist the university in mounting is publicly viewable and assessable evidence for accreditation (the system demonstrated above)
  • an assessment workspace for collaborations on assessment activities with academic units (these collaborations may require managed authorizations)
  • a “social” space for collaboration around professional development related to the problems we are working on

It is the last space that presents interesting design challenges, an opportunity to facilitate LPP, and is the cause of this reflection.

Given that the social space will be closely linked to the OAI’s main university presence, we have a requirement that it be “professional.” Dave’s comment above about multiplicity of voice and perspective is the opportunity/concern to manage. Its possible that in a community of learners, some members (perhaps more novice ones) will make contributions at a lower level of professionalism or with less insight. The community, and the visitor, should have ways of both hearing, and not over-valuing, these comments and the community should have ways of responding to these comments that can facilitate learning for multiple players in multiple ways.

In face to face environments, there are various protocols for making contributions, and cues that give an observer orientation to the hierarchy of expertise and authority within the community. An observer can use these cues to conclude which contributions carry the greatest authority in the group. Protocols for responding to contributions can also help organize the group dynamic. In online settings, these cues may be absent and a visitor may sense immaturity or cacophony (e.g., in a feedbook’s content) where in fact what is happening is that novices are exploring their (partial) understanding by sharing within the community.

The problems as I see them:

  • How can an open online community that embraces legitimate peripheral participation maintain a coherence that allows members and visitors to appreciate its professionalism/maturity while still making space for novices participation?
  • What mechanisms can be employed to create “emergent” authority in a web-based learning community without a central oligarchy?
  • Much of the literature on LPP was developed in the context of face-to-face communities. How can an Internet-based community exploit “incidental” (e.g., drop in) participation by experts, who would not have appeared in face-to-face settings? This question is a recognition that via a feedbook mechanism an item from an expert outside the community can be routed into the stream of the community’s readings (thus ‘incidental’).

3 Responses

  1. […] conversation about the OAI’s web presence/strategy and my thinking about how to develop a professional learning community as part of that web strategy.  As I’m writing this, I’m also connecting to the nascent […]

  2. […] worth noting is this thinking about how an online community might be created that would expand the interest in, and ability to […]

  3. […] Nils wrote this blog post trying to think thru the”Blue Zone” part of this strategy […]

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