Daily Archives: December 9, 2011

Hacking education again on OpenStudy: Communities of Practice


Sasogeek put that comment on OpenStudy, unasked and unsolicited.  You can see it for yourself.

As I read his note, I was reminded of Lave and Wenger’s work on Communities of Practice.

I first came across Lave and Wenger’s work in the Gilfus publications (thank you Stephen Gilfus and the smart people at Gilfus Foundation) and we consciously tried to articulate and build these principles into the social learning platform of OpenStudy.

Lave and Wenger explained their concept with an example of tribes gathering to learn some skill like hunting the sabre-toothed tiger. “Communities of practice are formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavor. “ In a Community of Practice, a group of people who share a passion for something get together to learn how to do it better (see the blog, http://www.ewenger.com/theory/).

An effective Community of Practice integrates three elements:  (i) The Domain. The group has a shared domain of interest, which gives it an identity and gives rise to the concept of Membership.  Members are committed to the domain and share their competencies with others in the group. (ii) The Community. Members have to work together, help each other, and share information, interact and build relationships that enable them to learn from each other.  (iii) The Practice. Members of a community of practice are practitioners. They develop a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems—in short, a shared practice. This takes time and sustained interaction (from Wenger’s website).

And voilá, that is what has happened in Saso’s case.

He is now a member of a marvelous, completely online community  of practice, a global, online, virtual community, where no one has seen the other, that transcends geography, race, and politics. Everyday Saso gets online from Ghana to discuss math and computer science with his online friends. Somehow through these unscripted interactions, with no “teacher” or official “advisor”, no College provided “mentor” or Advising Office, he has gained the confidence to take his test.  As an educator, I find that humbling.  This community has empowered its members in the best tradition of the “Houses” of Harvard or Yale or Princeton!

There are 70,000 registered users of OpenStudy in over 500 study groups.  Their call to action is to seek help and to give help.  And though some flit in for an answer and out again, many remain to band together and grow into a true community of practice. They help one another, advise, support, sympathize, encourage, serve as role models—in short, offer everything we would want our students to encounter.  I am convinced the online nature of this environment, the 24/7 availability of this community, the easy informality, maybe even the lack of prominent power figures all contribute to fostering this new manifestation of a community of practice.  But what blows me away is that help is now within reach for all those who cannot go to a Harvard or a Yale, who work two jobs and then go to school, who cannot linger after class to seek the advice of an instructor, or who are taking courses online with no study hall to meet friends and advanced year students.

These Communities of Practice empower the individual learner to create their own academic support, and further hack away at the establishment.  Don’t you agree?