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.

Establishing a Community Identity

In my last post I was thinking about some of the issues that surround the sustainability of a community. Thanks to Carmen, John and Keith for their thought-provoking comments. I am still thinking about these issues. I understand that communities need time to emerge and that a community culture is such that members are autonomous and can choose to engage from the core or periphery as they wish. My understanding is that as a ‘rule of thumb’, we can expect about 10% of an online community to be active at any one time (see Nancy White’s website) – so does the level of participation need to be carefully monitored?

In a community I am active in, we have asked the community to discuss what the community identity should be and have set up a wiki to do this.  One member has engaged with this and suggested that the purpose of the community should be to exert an influence on the higher and further education sector and therefore the community should maintain its title as a special interest group (SIG) for those interested in e-learner experiences.  On the wiki she has written:

The reason I thought it was worth keeping as a SIG was because, based on our research, we might seek to influence as a group (although where, and when, and how remains moot, as does what might be meant by ‘political’ decisions).  Describing us solely in terms of people who share a concern or passion seems to disenfranchise us of any potential influence.  I don’t think being a SIG stops us from also being a community of practice.

This wiki discussion has made me realise that if we are to think about a community in terms of one which has a political agenda, it must be a very different animal from one which has, for example, a mutual support agenda, which might be how you would describe some ‘parenting’ communities.

It does seem to be critical to determine the purpose of the community if it is to be sustainable. I can now see that I will have to go and read up on how politics and power work in a community of practice.