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.

Recording of Etienne Wenger’s talk

Here is the link to the talk given by Etienne Wenger to Lancaster University, UK last month – Learning in and across landscapes of practice.

This is a long talk and there is a lot in it to digest. Etienne talks about social learning theory, identity, communities of practice, power, knowledge and learning in the 21st century – too much to comment on here – but these are some of the notes I jotted down (for my own purposes – not intended as a report) at the time.


  • Theory in social sciences is a way of talking about the world.
  • Theories that try to explain everything tend to be reductionist. Reducing the human experience to one thing is not very helpful.
  • Theories need to define what they are good for and find plug and play connections to other theories.


  • Identity is a filter to decide whether to invest in a community or not.
  • How do you manage your identity in  world which is so complex and where there are so many mountains to climb?
  • The burden of identity is shifting towards the person. There is a breakdown of the parallelism between identity and community.

Learning and boundaries

  • Any history of learning creates boundaries between those who are part of the learning and those who are not. The world is full of boundaries. They are not avoidable. We need to travel across practices and boundaries.
  • Travelling across hills and valleys of landscapes of practice is what makes the world an interesting place.
  • Boundaries can lead to learning potential, but also potential for misunderstandings.


  • Practice is what brings people together.
  • No practice can fully design the learning of another.
  • All practices are part of the system and have to negotiate boundaries.
  • Practice is a response to design not an output of design.

Communities of practice

  • CoPs have implications for organisations as they might be working under the radar of vertical accountability of the organisation (working on a horizontal dimension)
  • Communities of practice cannot be built. Only members can build communities. But they can be enabled.
  • A CoP is a learning partnership. A group may or may not be a learning partnership. A team is not usually a community of practice.
  • A CoP is a vehicle by which an organisation can place its strategic development in the hands of the practitioners.
  • A classroom is not a CoP. It is instructional design.

Knowledge and learning

  • Knowledge is power. Learning is a claim to competence. Learning is power in both directions.
  • Learning is its own enemy. The paradox is that learning gives you power, but that power also limits your learning.
  • Power and knowledge are always part of the equation. Learning is achieving a state of knowledgeability.
  • The view of curriculum in institutions is ‘to fill it up’. CoP theory view of curriculum is that learning has to follow construction of meaning, not precede it.

These notes do not do justice to Etienne’s talk – so it is good to have the link to be able to listen to it again. Thanks to Lancaster University for sharing the link.

Thumbs up to Big Blue Button

Well – I can give BBB the thumbs up. We had an enjoyable, informative and stimulating webinar today.

That’s not to say that there weren’t things that BBB and presenters in BBB need to think about.

I am used to Elluminate and missed some of the functionality of Elluminate – but not a lot. Three things I missed. These were:

  1. Being able to write onto the whiteboard using a text box and your keyboard. Currently BBB has a drawing type tool, which is just too clumsy for participant interaction and contributions. It is really helpful if participant responses can be typed up onto the whiteboard.
  2. A voting system – which is great for generating interaction. So for example, the presenter can create a slide with a number of contentious or thought provoking statements which participants need to think about and then vote on.
  3. The ability to applause (clap) and smile in the participant window. I think these symbols are very important for gauging the ‘mood’ of participants.

But the advantage of BBB is that its open source. This is so important. Elluminate is very good – but is very expensive, especially for small self-funded community groups. Even HE institutions are struggling to meet the costs of Elluminate – given all the cuts that are happening at the moment.

BBB is developing and there will be increased functionality with time – but this is what I learned about using it today.

  • You do need headphones and microphone to avoid echo and feedback (similar to Elluminate)
  • I’m not sure how well it would work with large numbers – we had a small group and I found it difficult to see all the participants in the ‘listener’ block without a lot of scrolling up and down.
  • We sought participant interaction in two ways 1) We asked participants to take the microphone and speak. 2) We asked participants to summarise discussion and upload their slides. This was a little slow – probably because we were all learning how to do it – but worked well. We found that power point slides saved as PDF worked best.

I was kicked out of BBB a couple of times. By that I mean that I lost sound and had to log out and log back in again to hear again. I did notice that changing and uploading presentations could interfere with sound – but I’m not sure why this happened.

Otherwise, the chat had exactly the same functionality as Elluminate. As yet there isn’t the facility to separate into rooms – but our group wasn’t big enough to do this anyhow.

So all in all it was a good experience – and I’m all for open source – so thanks to Big Blue Button 🙂

Communities, Networks and Groups

A new article by Etienne Wenger, Beverley Trayner and Martin de Laat has just been linked to on Etienne’s Facebook page.

Wenger, E., Trayner, B. & de Laat, M. (2011). Promoting and assessing value creation in communities and networks : a conceptual framework. Centrum.

This is very timely given the online course about communities of practice in HE that I will be working on with colleagues from Oxford Brookes University tomorrow.

The new publication by Wenger et al. is true to its title. It presents a framework and toolkit for assessing value creation in communities and networks. But perhaps of interest to those who follow discussions about the differences between groups and networks in relation to connectivism, will be the introductory section (pages 9-13) where the authors discuss their understanding of the terms ‘community’ and ‘network’ – how these are similar, different, overlap.

I, like many others before and after me, once asked Etienne Wenger – ‘What is the difference between a community and a network?’ His response at the time was – ‘All communities are networks, but not all networks are communities’. It is interesting to see this thinking expanded and further explained in this recent publication.

In line with this evidence of changing thinking over time (which we also see in relation to connectivism), it is interesting to read Chris Kimble’s article – Communities of Practice: Never Knowingly Undersold – written in 2006 – but still relevant to these discussions. This acknowledges the ambiguity surrounding the meaning of the term ‘community of practice’ and discusses the reasons for this and how the term ‘community of practice’ has been interpreted and understood differently over time.

BigBlueButton Challenge

Next week (May 18th 2011) I will be working with a team, George Roberts, Rhona Sharpe, Joe Rosa (from Oxford Brookes University) and Andy Coverdale (University of Nottingham) to present a one day online course bearing the title – Benefits and challenges of communities of practice in HE

This will be interesting because I have never worked in BigBlueButton before, although I had a ‘practice’ meeting today so had a chance to become a little familiar with the technology.  BigBlue Button is an online conferencing platform. It is similar to Adobe Connect, but lacks some of the functionality of Elluminate.

I have been tasked with doing a 10 minute presentation on MOOCs (this might be controversial as I have rather strong opinions about what is and what is not a community of practice – enough said :-)) and also to design a 45 minute activity about the challenges for communities of practice in Higher Education. This will be interesting because, as yet, BBB does not have a voting system and does not allow for participants to write on the whiteboard – so planning for online interactivity is somewhat limited. I will have to put my ‘thinking cap’ on, as I know from experience that the most ‘fun’ sessions are those where participants can take control of their learning. I would like to try and avoid falling into the ‘teacher talks too much’ trap 🙂

So lot’s to think about, especially since I am currently working with two research groups, one on emergent learning and the other on autonomous learning – so hopefully I will have learned something from those which will be reflected in what we do in the online course.

I really need to try and ‘put my money where my mouth is’ 🙂