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.

Engestrom, Wenger and Emergent Learning

In a recent great discussion in CPsquare about the changing role of the learning facilitator, Brenda Kaulback posted this video of Yrjo Engestrom being interviewed about his work by Chris Jones

This reminded me of the Networked Learning Conference in Aarlborg 2010, when Engestrom gave a combined keynote (fishbowl style) with Etienne Wenger (See Part 2 flash format).

In revisiting these videos, I have been struck by how much they both have to say about emergent learning, but in different terms.

Engestrom talks about emergent learning in terms of ‘expansive learning’.  At the Networked Learning Conference here are some of the things he said:

‘Learning has to deal increasingly with situations in which the outcomes of learning are not known ahead of time.’

‘Standard learning theories fail to explain processes where learning in radically transformed’.

‘Expansive learning is learning what is not yet there. The object of activity is qualitatively transformed so as to open up a horizon of wider possibilities and new actions.’

Engestrom describes how Gregory Bateson  distinguished learning as

  • Learning 1 – non-conscious, tacit
  • Learning 2 – learning the rules of the game
  • Learning 3 – expansive learning – questioning and deviance, but often thwarted or oppressed, marginalized or silenced. (Watch the video with Chris Jones for details)

For Etienne Wenger, identity in communities of practice, lies at the heart of all learning, i.e. social learning and so a learner needs to be able to learn in a landscape of practices.

‘Each practice in a landscape of practice has some claim to competence/knowledgeability’.

‘Your identity becomes a lived reflection of the landscape as you travel through the world.’

‘Interesting learning (happens) in the interaction between landscapes.’

For me these ideas from Wenger and Engestrom suggest that we cannot predict what that learning might be, so in that sense it will be emergent.

Engestrom also talks about boundary crossing as being risky but important for learning.

‘Working at these boundaries (between multidisciplinary disciplines) can be risky because (you) may end up in no man’s land’ – or as we have discussed in relation to Footprints of Emergence, ‘falling off the edge’ of the learning landscape.

Engestrom says that Level 3 learning  requires very special support and nurturing and like Etienne he talks about having ‘to pay special attention to issues of creating communities within networks’.

All this has implications for designing for emergent learning, although neither Engestrom nor Wenger explicitly mention emergent learning.