How does the ModPo MOOC enable or create a community?

In this final week of the third iteration of the Modern and Contemporary American Poetry MOOC – Al Filreis (the MOOC convener) has asked ModPo participants how the ModPo community works:

I am now here in Madison, Wisconsin, USA, and will be presenting about ModPo at a conference here. The conference is called “Building Massive Open Online Communities,” and the organizers of the conference believe that ModPo is an instance of a so-called “MOOC” that does indeed make a learning community possible—indeed perhaps even necessary to the success of the course.

I want your help in presenting to the people here about the ModPo community. How does it work? What would you like to say to the people here at this conference about the way we’ve conducted ourselves as an online community of learners? What are some advantages, in your experience, of the collaborative and interactive approach?

This is an interesting question. The evidence suggests that ModPo has formed a community of practice very successfully.

Etienne Wenger in his book Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity has written about the formation and work of communities of practice in detail, and on his website writes: In a nutshell ……

Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.

This is true of ModPo – there is plenty of ‘passion for poetry’ in the forums and webinars, in the Facebook group and even on Twitter.

Here is a recent video of current ModPo students talking about their experience.

This video provides a flavour of the diversity of the community and the shared passion for poetry and for ModPo.

In Wenger’s terms ModPo is a community of practice as opposed to simply a community. ModPo participants (community members) gather together around the domain of poetry and share their practices. In the forums, there are shared interpretations of the poems introduced in the course, shared writing, shared poems, shared readings, shared close readings and shared cultural experiences. Sharing, social interaction and social learning are at the heart of the success of ModPo. Everyone’s contribution is welcome, from novice to expert, and there is a real sense that it is possible, for those who want to, to move from the periphery of the community along a trajectory of increasing competence to the centre of the community. It is also perfectly acceptable to remain as a legitimate peripheral participant. I myself feel very comfortable in this latter location.

Etienne Wenger, also in his book, explains that there are three dimensions of practice in a community:

  • Mutual engagement (engaged diversity, doing things together, relationships, social complexity, community maintenance)
  • A joint enterprise (negotiated enterprise, mutual accountability, interpretations, rhythms, local response)
  • Shared repertoire (stories, artifacts, styles, tools, actions, discourses, concepts, historical events)

Shared history is an important aspect of a community of practice and in ModPo this is evidenced by people returning each year to do the course and through the course materials remaining open during the year. The history of the Kelly Writer’s House, from where the course is run has also been shared with ModPo participants.

This sense of place in ModPo is one of its unique features. ModPo participants are invited to enter this space, either physically or virtually each week and join the ModPo team and teaching assistants for discussion. The place and space feel immediate and real and I think are instrumental in forging a sense of community and belonging.

Returning to Etienne Wenger’s social learning theory, he describes four components of learning in a community of practice, which are all evident in ModPo

  • Learning as doing (practice) – in ModPo doing is related to writing (assignments and peer reviews), close reading the poems, discussion and social interaction in the forums
  • Learning as experience (meaning) – in ModPo learning is a shared experience which is negotiated between community members
  • Learning as belonging (community) – in ModPo, for those who want it, it is possible to become a member of a world-wide community of poets and those who are passionate about poetry
  • Learning as becoming (identity) – in ModPo, the very nature of the domain (poetry) and the personalized close readings inevitably have implications for personal identity development.

Finally, a community is not static, but dynamic. It has been interesting to see how ModPo has evolved and continues to grow as a community. Each year new members are welcomed and this year there seems to have been increased recognition that 30,000+ people cannot effectively communicate with each, but need to congregate in smaller groups. Study groups are encouraged and this year one of the community teaching assistants (Laura Cushing) took it upon herself to create a list of the study groups that were springing up around the world, so that participants could easily locate those in their geographical areas and arrange to meet face-to-face to socialize, share close readings and their passion for poetry.

Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 14.51.09San Francisco Meet Up (Source of photo: ModPo course site)

Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 14.51.39Prague Meet Up (Source of photo: ModPo course site)

Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 14.51.24Washington DC Meet Up (Source of photo: ModPo course site)

So there is plenty of evidence that the ModPo MOOC has created a community of practice around the course. I haven’t specifically answered all Al Filreis’ questions, but hopefully this post provides a sense of some of the ways in which ModPo has done this. I could write more, but I think that’s enough for now.

Learning across boundaries with Robert Frost

Week 5 in ModPo was hectic. With the theme of Anti-Modernist Doubts, it covered Communist Poets of the 1930s, Haarlem Rennaissance Poets, Robert Frost and a brief look at post-war neo formalism. Poets discussed during this week were Ruth Lechlitner, Genevieve Taggard, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wilbur, X. J. Kennedy and, as mentioned, Robert Frost.  It was all fascinating, but one line of discussion caught my attention, and that was in relation to Robert Frost’s poem,  “Mending Wall’.

 Frost-wallSource of image: ModPo syllabus

Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

The story of this poem is of two neighbours who meet once a year to mend an eroding wall between their two properties – to build it up again. They each stay on their own side of the wall, walking along the wall and repairing it. The speaker’s neighbour believes that “Good fences make good neighbours” …. for the relationship to be good, they have to keep separate – there is a necessary distance between people and we try and connect through the gaps.

The suggestion in the discussion about this poem was that the two neighbours are both Robert Frost. One side of Robert Frost is conservative and wants to stick with tradition, keeping the wall up, keeping everything as it has always been, keeping the distance between neighbours, mending the wall when it begins to crumble, and preventing the chaos that might ensue if the wall was allowed to come down. This side of him liked formal restrictions, rules and the distinction between “I’ and “Other”.  The other side of Robert Frost, is the frost itself that does the eroding, that consciously tries to bring the wall down, that wants things to change and nature to take its course, that believes that the natural state of boundaries is that they erode.

This discussion reminded me of Etienne Wenger’s work on landscapes of practice and working at the boundaries of communities. I remember him saying that learning can be very effective at the boundaries of communities, i.e. if you can straddle communities having feet in more than one community of practice at a time.

Robert Frost’s poem suggests to me that it’s a question of balance – we need a bit of distance away from the boundary (i.e. more towards the core of a community of practice, or your own personal and individual ‘space’ for solitude and contemplation) but also the opportunity to meet across boundaries and to work collaboratively at boundaries, for at least some of the time.

Finally, Al Filreis raised the interesting point that in New England walls were not originally built with the intention of marking boundaries, but to get rid of glacial boulders from the earth, so that the soil could be tilled. Walls were formed when stones and boulders were moved out of the way for agricultural purposes. I suspect there’s a lot that could be read into this. We seem to live in a world where we will naturally and sometimes unintentionally build up boundaries, but they will naturally erode with time, unless we consciously maintain them.

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.

Practical benefits of studying the biological evolution of cooperation

Questions that we have been asked to focus on this week in Howard Rheingold’s class – Towards a Literacy of Cooperation are:

1. Are there practical benefits of studying the biological evolution of cooperation?  To what extent does it provide insights that convert into theories and practices that can be used in formal or informal communities and organizations?

2. What other heuristics can we extract from the material and use as simple rules of thumb for extending cooperative interactions in the world?

Howard explains:

I chose these questions because so much of this course is theoretical and there ought to be some juicy practical suggests from a group like this in regard to heuristics for encouraging cooperation.

 Question 1

Are there practical benefits of studying the biological evolution of cooperation?  To what extent does it provide insights that convert into theories and practices that can be used in formal or informal communities and organizations?

In considering the first question it seemed to me that it would be easier to answer from the perspective of a specific context, and the context of a community of practice seemed appropriate, given that you might expect plenty of cooperation in such a community, if not collaboration.

By community of practice, I understand this as defined by Etienne Wenger in his 1998 book – where he defines a CoP as having three clearly identifiable characteristics; a domain, a shared practice and a community of members – who participate in the community through mutual engagement, joint enterprise and shared repertoire.

In thinking about what we might learn about cooperation from a community of practice, I have considered the scenario of a long-standing and successful CoP coming under the threat of ‘extinction’, i.e. changing circumstances within the community threaten its continued success.

What can we learn from what we know about biological cooperation that might inform the continued success of this community of practice? The existing conditions within this community, which might support its continued success are:

  • a community history, with memories of past encounters with individual community members
  • members can easily find each other within the community online environment
  • the online environment offers members the chance of future encounters with other members
  • members are ‘nice’ –  there is a culture of willingness to cooperate
  • cooperation in the community is voluntary
  • members are not envious of each other
  • members do not try to be ‘clever’ with each other – they are not ‘tricky’ – they do not introduce ‘noise’ into the community
  • reputation builds through ongoing interaction and reciprocity
  • increased reputation increases the chance of long term success of  cooperating members
  • there is direct benefit to members from the mutualistic sharing of resources, particularly between the core group members, but also from members on the boundary

Challenges to the community in terms of the biology of cooperation are:

A consideration of how the community might be competing for survival – competing against other online environments for members’ time, competing against members’ diverse and dispersed interests and motivations, and possibly membership of other communities.

In biological terms, competition as well as cooperation is necessary for survival. Some questions arising from this are:

  • Does this community pay enough attention to the challenges of competition?
  • Is the community group strong enough/big enough to fend off the pull of other groups/communities?
  • Is there enough ‘social grooming’ in the community?
  • Does Robin Dunbar’s number inform the community’s future success?
  • Is there enough ‘gossip/communication/interaction’ to establish reputation, prestige, trust and norms?
  • Is there a common community understanding of value associated with future outcomes?
  • Is there a role for fairness and punishment in the community?
  • Is the community worth saving in terms of what it can pass on to future generations?

Question 2

Are there simple rules of thumb for extending cooperative interactions in the world?

My response to this, given that I would have to know the context, would be

  • learn from examples in biology
  • consider the relationship between competition and cooperation
  • learn from research
  • consider the context
  • consider history
  • consider the future

For me, it is not possible to be more specific than this without knowing the context.

Finally it’s worth noting here Stephen Downes’ thoughts about this (which might be thought of as rules of thumb)

Stephen has written on his OLDaily newsletter

If Darwinian processes favour successful competitors why does cooperation exist? The answers appear in earnest as soon as you begin to think about it:

  • molecules catalyze each other to higher levels of complexity
  • co-operators benefit from each other through mutual relationships
  • a group which was comprised of cooperators reproduced more effectively
  • people can achieve by collective action what they never could do alone
  • primates pick parasites off each other

Note that none of this resembles collaboration (much less competition). It occurs at a midway point, where there is interaction and exchange, but not a melding into a single unity. Cooperation – not collaboration – is where we should trace the future of learning online.

I am thinking about whether I agree with Stephen about collaboration. I need to think more about when melding into a single unity might be beneficial. Are there examples from biology where this is the case (Lynn Margulis’ work on endosymbiosis springs to mind)  and if so, what can we learn from this?

If this topic interests you and there is not enough information in this post to make sense of this, please refer to

BETREAT Early Bird Registration

Betreat Website

There are just two more days to catch the early bird registration for BEtreat. There are three alternative types of BEtreat on offer, which I blogged about here. Last year only one was offered, which I attended face-to-face in California – a unique and unforgettable experience – and one I am still learning from.

This year I have signed up for the Academic BEtreat as an online participant. The focus on key concepts and social learning theory will fit very well with a project I will be working on later in the year, and I am really looking forward to experiencing this as an online participant – from the other side so to speak.

Wenger-Trayner new website – new BEtreats

In 2011, I was very fortunate to be able to attend BEtreat, in the home of Etienne and Bev Wenger-Trayner in Grass Valley, California. This was a unique and unforgettable experience and one that I am still reflecting on and learning from.

What is BEtreat?  This is what was written on the website last year:

‘In a collaborative atmosphere with a small, strategically committed group, we spend four intensive days developing leadership and facilitation capabilities for cultivating communities of practice and networks.

Together we push our current practice, explore the state of the art, and produce resources to address our respective challenges.

BEtreat is a hands-on, practice-oriented gathering of network and communities of practice professionals, who work closely together in a collegial learning environment. The number is kept small so that we can address in depth the specific issues and challenges brought in by people who are there.

This intensive but collegial learning environment will provide you with a unique professional development opportunity:

You will be the first to hear about the latest developments in the field

You will interact with peers who face similar challenges in a variety of contexts

You will be able to build your own network and expand your horizon by hearing what others are doing

You will be able to bring your specific challenges to the table, engage the collective brainpower of the group, and come back with new ideas and solutions

We end these four intensive days of working and learning with a party.

BEtreat is a unique workshop. If one is in charge of leading or supporting communities of practice or networks, this is the place to be for professional development.’

This year Etienne and Bev are offering three different BEtreat workshops in 2012 and starting a one-year certificate as a professional development program.

  • State-of-the-art BEtreat – covering the fundamentals of the field: July 9 – 13
  • Cutting-edge BEtreat – exploring advanced topics and emerging issues: July 16 – 20
  • Academic BEtreat – for researchers, lecturers, and students: July 30 – August 3
  • Certificate program – intensive one-year certificate: 2012 – 2013

Participation can be face-to-face or online, but for an early-bird discount, you need to sign up before Feb 1st.

For full details see their new website:

And to get a flavour of what it all involves – a lot of hard work, but also a lot of fun – here is a link to the photos I took last year –

Context and culture in communities of practice

A predominant feature of BEtreat was the impact of context and culture on the learning process. There was an expectation that we would share our experience of communities of practice with a view to learning from each other. However, whilst the sharing was easy enough, the understanding of where people were coming from was more difficult. Participants came from very different backgrounds. Large corporations such as Shell, Deloitte and Microsoft represented the ‘for profit’ sector and within the ‘not for profit’ sector there were those who were working with many communities across large geographical areas and those who were working with much smaller more localised communities. The disparity in the amounts of funding received by these different communities was huge.

These differences in contexts led to mismatches of understanding of what we mean by communities of practice and also to different uses of language. I found myself listening to conversations which were quite unlike the types of conversations I usually have about communities of practice and I’m not sure that I ever did really understand what the other participants were doing with their very different communities of practice. There was a lot of ‘talking past each other’.

On reflection it might have been helpful to go further than the descriptive sharing that we did, most of which was not relevant to other contexts, and instead focus on analysing the culture of the different communities with a view to understanding them better and being able to better make comparisons. One possible useful approach to analysing culture is the ‘Culture Web’, which Julia Balogun writes about in her article ‘Strategic Change’ in Management Quarterly Part 10 January 2001. This captures, through stories, symbols, routines, power structures, controls and organisation structure (see p.5 of the article), what the central paradigm of a culture is. If context influences how communities of practice are understood, then could we argue that an understanding of this central paradigm is needed? Maybe this would have helped us to better understand each others cultures and the different issues that each of us are facing in our work with communities of practice.

Etienne Wenger talked to us at BEtreat about learning in a landscape of practice and working on the boundaries between communities of practice, so that we can find new ways to talk across boundaries. At BEtreat the boundaries between the different practices were very evident and, I think, problematic. It was said that there is a need to manage cross boundary working. For me, sharing practice was not enough. We needed to analyse and question the different cultures and it might have helped to use an approach such as the Culture Web.

That said, it was very stimulating to be able to work alongside people I would never normally come in contact with and the experience has caused me to further reflect on Etienne Wenger’s work on landscapes of practice.

Process versus content in the learning experience

The tensions between process and content were very interesting to observe in the BEtreat workshop that I recently attended California.

The workshop was run over 5 days by Etienne Wenger and Beverley Trayner in their home in Grass Valley. Both during and following the workshop I have reflected on which aspects of it were successful and think that a lot of this hinged on the degree of balance that was achieved between process and content.

The workshop design was ambitious and complex.  There were various parallel themes. This was the agenda for the 5 days. (Click on it to see it more clearly although the font is still small).

Key components of the workshop design were:

–       to integrate, as fully as possible, face to face and online workshop participants and activities (see blog post July 9th 2011). The focus here was on technology – but participants also had to learn new ways of working and communicating.

–       to present our own case clinics in the form of ‘booths’ – we would call these ‘stands’ in the UK. Through these we shared information about the CoPs we work in with other participants, the challenges we face and the questions we are asking. I was only just beginning to feel I knew what other people were working on by the end of the workshop.

–       to daily reflect on the success of the workshop design through the Leadership group activities. These were Agenda Activists (they reported on issues and insights, pushed the agenda forward, and made sure that learning was captured into a collective resource), Critical Friends (who recorded and reflected on what happened), Social Reporters and External Messengers (who kept public and private records of everything that happened in the workshop) and Community Keepers (whose role was to ensure that all voices in the workshop were heard). I was in the community keepers group and these were useful discussions but although each group reported back daily, there was so much going on that I never did get my head round exactly what the other groups achieved. However, each group was expected to keep notes on the workshop wiki, so there is some record of these discussions.

–       Hot topic groups. These arose from an initial World Café activity in which we identified the issues we were bringing to the workshop. These were around evaluation, vision, community readiness, cultural change, online/f2f integration, sponsors, strategy, boundaries, encouraging participation, facilitation, changing leadership and what a thriving community looks like. We then voted for the hot topics we collectively most wanted to discuss during the 5 days and ended up with 3 groups – focussing on online/f2f integration, strategy and evaluation. My group hot topic was online/f2f integration. Again, I never did get my head round what the other groups achieved, and although this activity gave us the participants some ownership of the learning agenda for the workshop, we just did not have enough time to really get to grips with these issues.

–       Tool Share Fare. Four tools were shared, but the only one that I could relate to or felt would be useful to my own work was an open source polling tool –

–       Two presentations by Etienne and Bev. One on Social Learning Strategies and the other on the Value Creation Framework (see blog post July 12th 2011). These were short inputs. I would have liked more.

–       Socialising around shared meals (lunches and dinners), a visit to the Grass Valley Thursday night street market and an end of workshop birthday party. These activities were critical to the success of the workshop and contributed to what made the workshop a unique and unforgettable experience.

Just listing these activities shows a heavy emphasis on process. It also shows how busy the workshop was. We were pretty much flat out all the time and occasional failures in technology meant that we were often ‘playing catch up’. For me it was, on the whole, all too fast and there was little opportunity to explore anything in depth. Four days later I am still trying to catch up when I can stop to think about it (I am currently travelling round California – and am now in Monterey) – but now realise that my notes are not full enough and neither are those of the various groups, who were asked to record their group outcomes on the workshop wiki.

On the other hand I’m not sure whether the workshop would have been so enjoyable and rewarding had it been slower. The intensity and pace meant that it was never possible to control what was going on, nor to predict what would emerge.  It’s not surprising that a couple of people were attending BEtreat for the second time. It would have been interesting to know whether they got more about of it the second time round – but there just wasn’t the time to have this conversation 🙂

So it’s fascinating to observe that in these types of courses, where the course design challenges traditional ways of working and has been deliberately designed as an experiment, there can be no formula or ideal balance between process and content, breadth and depth, action and reflection for a successful learning experience. Learning in these situations is an extremely messy business and it is difficult to capture exactly what it is that makes it a highly stimulating, motivating and memorable learning experience. The sum seems to be greater than the parts. Perhaps this is what makes for a really valuable learning.

Value Creation in Communities of Practice

A key focus of BEtreat was to discuss Etienne Wenger et al.’s most recent work on value creation in communities of practice.

Etienne Wenger, Beverly Trayner, Maarten de Laat (2011) – Value Creation Framework. Promoting and assessing value creation in communities and networks: a conceptual framework, Ruud de Moor Centrum

This was a highlight of the workshop for me. Our discussion focussed around two points:

  1. Levels at which we see value creation
  2. The genre of storytelling

So to start we discussed ‘value creation as a donut’. (The slides below are reproduced with the kind permission of Etienne Wenger, Beverley Trayner and Maarten deLaat.)

You can start anywhere in this loop which means that there is no top down, bottom up consideration. At a certain level of maturity a community takes responsibility for practice – and is forward looking to strategy, which in turn can influence the community. Communities are responsible to each other and for the domain. If you are not covering the full circle then you are not doing knowledge management, but the points of the ‘donut’ can be covered in any order.

Communities are caught between day-to-day strategy and what they want to achieve. Unlike a team where the task is defined in advance, in a CoP narrative evolves and is constantly reviewed. Communities are focussed on capability development rather than a task.

Value in a CoP can be thought of as value for time, i.e. return on investment. This value can be measured quantitatively through the collection of data such as offered by Google analytics, but also through individual and collective narratives. Individual narratives become part of the collective one. Narratives can represent both what is happening in the current life of the community (ground narratives), and also the aspirations of the community. CoPs need to develop narratives of aspiration.

Wenger et al. have suggested that the tension between ‘ground’ and ‘aspirational’ narratives can be explored through 5 cycles of value creation.  These cycles give you a notion of indicators – things that can be measured at that point. The cycles do not necessarily have to be followed through in this order, but they should all be considered. As the community matures – it is able to do more.

Cycle 1 –considers the immediate value (activities and interactions) that people get when they enter a community, e.g. having fun. A lot of communities/people stop here.

Cycle 2 – considers the potential value (knowledge capital), i.e. something you get from the CoP that has potential to change something you do, i.e. knowledge capital. Knowledge capital can take different forms (see p.20 of the paper).

Cycle 3 – considers applied value (changes in practice). In this cycle stories are collected about how people use knowledge capital to change their practice.  It was mentioned that data is most difficult to collect in this cycle.

Cycle 4 – considers realised value (performance improvement) – i.e. the effect of knowledge capital and changes in practice on people outside the CoP – value that can be quantified. This data is often already in the institution.

Cycle 5 – considers reframing value (redefining success) – at this stage a CoP may realise that what they have been thinking of as measures of success may need to change – what they are doing might need changing. It may not be enough to  realise value in the terms that have been defined. This is where is becomes evident that voices from the ‘bottom’ can change the direction of the community.

As communities mature they are able to do more with the evaluation process and the process moves from evaluation as return on investment to the value of engagement etc. As communities move through the cycles they have to touch on more qualitative data, but stories are about causality, not about whether data is quantitative or qualitative and stories are needed from all levels of the framework. In addition, stories can point to indicators just as indicators can point to stories – so, for example, if a document is known to have been downloaded 19000 times, then this calls for stories – but stories might also point to the need to know how often a document has been downloaded.

The framework (p.25) provides examples of indicators for each cycle and of questions that can be asked for collection of data. In the group I was working in at BEtreat we used these to examine the work of communities of school leaders in Singapore and identify gaps in their data collection and whether their picture of  what the communities are achieving is complete. This was a useful and interesting exercise as the gaps became evident fairly quickly and easily, but we only had time to look at cycles 1 and 2, and from what people at the workshop with experience of using the framework said, the process becomes more difficult with cycles 3, 4 and 5.

My first impressions are that this will be a very useful framework for evaluating the work of CoPs and maybe for thinking about evaluation in general. My big question would be around how to use the data once it has been collected. What I have written here is a description of what I heard (in brief) at the workshop and how we briefly had a go at using the framework – but I wonder whether we can assume that people have the skills to accurately interpret the stories that have been collected. Does accuracy matter – or is the process the key ingredient?

Integrating online and face-to-face participation in a community of practice

Here at BEtreat in California – this is one of the key purposes of this five day course for leaders of communities of practice, where Etienne Wenger and Beverley Trayner are ‘shaking the mix’ as they like to express it – of our understanding of what is possible.

There are 15 face-to-face participants here in Grass Valley and four online participants (from Canada, Mexico, the UK and Germany). We work from 7.00 am to 4.00 pm – the early start is deliberate to ensure that our German and UK online colleagues can get some sleep. 4.00 pm here is 12.00 and 1.00 am for them. Our online colleagues are with us all the time. For whole group activities and presentations we are connected through Adobe Connect where we see them on video (projected on to a large screen), and can use the chat room and their sound comes to us through Skype. When we break out to small groups we connect via one of our lap tops through Skype and Skype video. Every effort has been made to ensure that they are fully included in all activities – so when we are on the move they are carried around  (i.e. on the laptops with video on) so that they can see where we are physically – and we turn the laptop round to ensure that they know who they are speaking to. In this sense the online and face-to-face participation is integrated and it has been noted that it has taken us all less than four days to get used to this way of working.

But what is the reality?

The technical challenges have been considerable. Bandwidth has been an issue so that the original idea that we would all be able to be connected via Adobe Connect all the time in small and whole group sessions didn’t work. The sound system has been enormously complex to set up and needs a knowledgeable and experienced sound engineer. When the technology fails – as it has done from time to time – then time is wasted as we wait for it to be fixed, and sometimes the online participants have been left out in the cold not knowing what is going on behind the failed system. It took us a while to realise that we could overcome this by maintaining contact by email.  But despite the difficulties, this week has shown that in these locations at least the technical challenges can be overcome. It might be a while before we can integrate online and face-to-face participation with colleagues in Africa, for example, where bandwidth and download times make synchronous online interaction very difficult.

With time the technology will become easier – but a much more interesting question for me is what effect does this way of working have on the learning of both the face-to-face participants and the online participants? Is it possible to integrate the learning?

My feeling is that to some extent the learning of both groups is compromised. The online group have to work hard to make their voice heard – they have to be pro-active in saying what they want, assertive and even forceful. My sense is that in doing this their voice is not the same voice they would have in the face-to-face group. Sometimes their voice is too dominant as we the face-to-face participants try to ensure inclusivity and bend over backwards to accommodate them, often by deferring to them and allowing them more voice than they might have in a face-to-face situation. At other times they have to shout to be heard – particularly when there is a lot of background noise from the f2f group. And at yet other times they have no voice at all – for example in the lunch break or when we meet socially – and much learning occurs at these times. They may need to take breaks themselves at these times or sleep!

The f2f group have also had to adjust/find their voice in this attempt to fully integrate online and f2f learning. We have had to be careful to speak one at a time and only into a microphone. We have had to learn to try and treat our online colleagues as if they are in the room – making sure we look at them when speaking, and include them in our questions and discussions. This has slowed up the natural flow of discussion across the f2f group and again it has been the more assertive (and possibly less sensitive to the complexities of balancing voices) who have ensured that their voice has been heard.

Finally – my perspective is that the concentration on the technology and including the online group has for me meant that I have not heard as much as I would have liked from the one voice that I have come all this way to listen to, i.e. Etienne’s. Ironic really!

More to come. This has been an absolutely fascinating learning experience.