Building open communities

Sylvia Currie who manages the SCoPE community at BC Campus spoke to FSLT13   last week on her work as a community facilitator and organizer.

The title of her talk is intriguing, because in some senses communities of practice could be regarded as closed rather than open, in that traditionally they have had clear boundaries. For example, in 2007, Engestrom wrote of the costs of a community of practice as follows:

  • A community of practice is a fairly well-bounded local entity which has clear boundaries and membership criteria.
  • A community of practice has a single center of supreme skill and authority, typically embodied in the master.
  • A community of practice is characterized mainly by centripetal movement from the periphery toward the center, from novice to master, from marginal to fully legitimate participation;opposite centrifugal movement may occur but is not  foundational.

But things have moved on since those early days of communities of practice. Sylvia points out that the term ‘open’ can have different meanings.

Open means many things

Etienne Wenger acknowledges this change in openness in his more recent work on  ‘landscapes of practice’ where he discusses how we are members of different communities of practice and situated in multiple landscapes.

The human world can be viewed as a huge collection of communities of practice – some very prominent and recognized, others hardly visible. Our learning can then be understood as a trajectory through this landscape of practices: entering some communities, being invited or rejected, remaining visitors, crossing boundaries, being stuck, and moving on. In such a landscape, both the core of communities of practice and their boundaries offer opportunities for learning.

He has suggested that learning is often most profitable at the boundaries between different communities, recognizing that community boundaries are permeable.

The SCoPE community is ‘open’ in many senses of the word and Sylvia has recognized that ‘openness’ changes things and requires a different approach in terms of facilitation.

Open does change things


Here is the recording of the session:

And here is a link to the complete recording in Blackboard Collaborate, including the chat and an example, in the second half of the session, of how to manage group work in a synchronous online session. Sylvia points out that this is not without risks, so not everything worked out, but if no-one took these risks then where would be the progress?

Sylvia’s talk reflected her wealth of experience (more than 20 years) of community facilitation and her commitment to open sharing of her expertise.


Engeström, Y. (2007). From communities of practice to mycorrhizae. In J. Hughes, N. Jewson & L. Unwin (Eds.), Communities of practice: Critical perspectives. London: Routledge.

12 thoughts on “Building open communities

  1. Scott Johnson May 28, 2013 / 5:27 pm

    Thanks Jenny, have to reacquaint myself with SCoPE and the boundary lands of open practice. One difficulty I’ve had with the community of practice model is the sense of closed membership being a quality of the community. We hardly need more walled cities and hamlets springing up yet that seems to be the case where I live. Rhizomes might be the way to establish openness as a commitment to change.

  2. fred6368 May 28, 2013 / 6:19 pm

    Hey Scott, we are learning on WikiQuals that achieving a rhizomatic state of being, or learning in open communities, takes some understanding. A key issue is identity. In a closed learning community, especially in formal institutions, your identity is defined within the community. In rhizomatic behaviour you own your identity and take it with you. The link above discusses student-centred v learner-centred learning and identity is a key factor

  3. Scott Johnson May 28, 2013 / 7:52 pm

    Hi Fred, I’ll check the link out. Like the idea of owning one’s identity and have felt uncomfortable with the abstracting, de-personalizing concept of “nodes” within a network that seems to have emerged from Connectivism. As someone who was always last to be picked on anyone’s team I know the negative effects of membership and exclusive communities. Individuality can shrink people to selfishness but can also be quirky museum of the weird and wonderful misunderstandings, unreliable theories and interesting logics directing us down new paths to strange places. I was given the address of someone the other day that I need to contact and the name of his company was “Common Sense Consulting” and it suddenly seemed a bad idea to contact him.

    This is my current favourite song–explanation will come to me eventually.

  4. jennymackness May 31, 2013 / 7:27 pm

    Hi Fred and Scott – apologies for the delay in responding and thanks for your comments which I always appreciate.

    Fred I would like to know more about your thoughts about the links between rhizomatic learning and identity. Unfortunately I couldn’t get your slideshare link to work for me.

    Scott I’m thinking about what your favourite song tells me about your identity 🙂 I’m trying to remember who the song reminds me of. It feels like a blast from the past, i.e. as if I’ve heard it before – and why do musicians so often allow the backing to drown the vocals?

    Thanks both


  5. Scott Johnson May 31, 2013 / 9:52 pm

    Hi Jenny,
    The person who brought me the news that I was fired from my job was someone I “know” from volunteering to help pilot a course on the effects of Hope in recovery from critical illness. She had just moved to our college as the new head of teaching and learning and her first job was to do some dirty work for the VPA. As is natural it felt good the wallow in a bit of self pity and elevate this person to handmaiden of the devil but applying such a simple role for her to play seem to deny her the right to be more complex and interesting (which I think she is).

    People make choices in life and sometimes others get hurt but it serves no one’s interest to turn this into a cheesy morality tale. I find it compelling to imagine what a sweet dilemma it must have been to fire the nice little guy in the end office as a kind of initiation to the bad girls’ club and then how cool it would be for me to accept the whole thing as a learning experience.

    I like redemption stories and also strong people who don’t apologize for the choices they make when backed into a corner. From what I know of Beth Hart she’s had a hard life with much of it self-inflicted and think the Sinner’s Prayer is a good illustration of being gutsy enough to ask for forgiveness without actually apologizing.

    It’s an old blues song and I like the wicked presentation.

    That’s today’s version anyway.

    Identity and affiliation are interesting variables and I sense a connection in the rhizomatic being that I can’t nail down. Relative and contextual approaches to the world seem intellectually timid and limiting but then you can be criticized for making “wrong” choices given advice or evidence. As if all was predetermined and nothing odd or wonderful could emerge moment by moment. What if there were no bad choices? Only everything always came out just so nice and logical? Need more thought on this.


  6. jennymackness June 2, 2013 / 8:28 pm

    Thanks Scott.
    >What if there were no bad choices?
    I’ll have to think about that. I think there probably are bad choices (i.e. mistakes), but it’s not that we make them that is the issue, but whether or not we can learn from them. Some people seem to find it much easier to accept that making mistakes is good for learning, than I do 🙂

  7. Scott Johnson June 2, 2013 / 9:33 pm

    Maybe it comes to there being consequences of bad choices that are minimally damaging over consequences that are devastating or uncorrectable? Can a mistake be undone in a way that restores or even improves a situation or is this playing too near the edge for the sake of seeking a truth that could be discovered by a less damaging means?

    An intelligent person would naturally avoid steering people into catastrophe for the sake of making a point so could say that failures of foresight do happen and deserve caring attention? My concern is we turn away from mistakes assuming they are outliers unrelated to the flow of normal activity when they might reveal faults in perception that could be fixed.

    Somewhere in this is a search for an explanation of how a person can rescue themselves from being overwhelmed by the unfairness of life. A very old question that I might oversimplifying. Just read a small mention of Piaget’s cogitative theory on the power of paradox to induce learning, (the mind seeking balance or new meaning maybe?) and mistakes are often paradoxical. Alternately, a good teacher might be able to make sense to her students by not directly boiling them in oil:-)

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