One of our primary goals for the multi-institution hybrid course I’ve been working on (first discussed here) is to create what Lave and Wenger (1991) call a “community of practice.” In this case, we’re trying to build a diverse community of novice and practicing professionals in order to explore and enable students to create a vision for integrating technology in their teaching practice. In this case, the community will be comprised of three instructors (each with a different area of expertise), additional university faculty and graduate students, a group of practicing elementary school teachers, and four sections of a students in a course in two university’s teacher education programs. The purpose of a community of practice (COP) structured in this way is to provide diverse expertise, experience and points of view centered on a real-world challenge.
In theory, this approach provides a relative advantage to a single course instructor. The challenge, however, is in coordinating the efforts of these individuals in disparate physical and professional contexts. For the instructors, this has inspired the need for close coordination, not only of course goals, objectives, and activities, but also on the particular roles and contributions individuals can make to help build, nurture and sustain the COP. For the instructors, this is pretty straight forward. Each instructor is taking the lead on developing the class session plan, resources, and facilitation of online discussion in their particular area of expertise. For example, I am designing the course content, discussion, and resources for technology in the social studies. In addition to this course planning, I have also recruited an experienced classroom teacher with a strong vision for technology in the social studies.
What’s less clear to me at this point, is how the teacher partners, additional faculty and graduate students, and the students in the courses themselves will help to build the community. How, for example, can the classroom teachers contribute to students’ learning beyond the creation and facilitation of their particular course module? How much can we expect busy teachers (who are volunteering their time) to engage in the online community? how can we ensure that we provide the space for the members to contribute their own expertise and experience and still remain true to the overall vision for the course? To what extent do we require students to contribute to the discussions (e.,g., each student will create an original post…) rather than to allow the community to emerge organically? John Drummond ponders this question in an interesting blog post entitled, Gardens of Discussion: What Makes Online Communities Work? We’ve decided that we’ll adopt the “industrial farm” approach that John discusses in his post, essentially providing strict guidelines and structure to the discussion.
In think the jury is out on how (or if) this community will come together in the ways that we’re hoping. If all goes well, I think this COP approach will provide significant benefits our students’ learning in the course, and potentially beyond. I’m quite cognizant, though, that this significant complexity in course structure, facilitation and interaction may make for a convoluted, potentially distracting element of the course. I’m hoping that in chronicling the effort in this blog, and through the related research study, we’ll be able to learn lessons from this work and help to inform their efforts, as well as our classes in the future.