Etienne Wenger is a social learning theorist who cut his teeth at the Institute for Research on Learning. He is best known for popularizing the concept of communities of practice. His presentation spoke to me deeply.
Communities of practice are not new. The earliest version may have been cavemen sitting around a fire talking about the best way to hunt bears. That’s the way “communities” work: practitioners in a field or practice come together to share, nurture, and validate tricks of the trade. Apprentices have always done this. Sometimes we mistakenly thought most of the learning was going on between master and apprentice. In fact, most apprentices probably learn more from one another.
Question: What does a flower know about being a flower? And what does a computer know about being a flower? Stumped? That’s because neither flowers nor computers are members of the human community, and it’s community that harbors knowledge.
A friend of Etienne is a wine professional. Describing a wine, the friend said it was “purple in the nose.” This meant absolutely nothing to Etienne, because he is not a member of the wine-tasting community.
Now imagine the wine-tasting friend is with his fellow wine tasters. He discerns a new element in the wine which he describes as a convergence of fire and gravity. If others in the group buy in, the fire & gravity meme is legitimized. Here we have the two primary aspects of any community: participation and reification.
By the way, the concept of community is value-neutral. The word community has a warm and fuzzy feel to it, but we’re talking about groups that can impede progress, engage in group think, or neglect their responsibilities to the larger organization. I recall being shut out of a community of instructional designers because I was perceived as a business man, not a designer.
Now let’s think about how eLearning might be a transformative force. Learning in a community involves answering four questions:
• Identity: Who are we becoming?
• Meaning: What is our experience?
• Practice: What are we doing?
• Community: Where do we belong?
Learning by sharing knowledge in a community leads to what Etienne calls the “horizontalization” of learning. In school or workshops, the learning relationship is vertical: there’s a provider on top and a recipient. In a horizontal community, peers learn from one another.
First generation knowledge management failed because it was top down. (Identify the critical knowledge and stuff it in a content management system. Nobody took ownership because no community embodied the knowledge. Now that we appreciate that knowledge lives in communities, we can facilitate KM by nurturing their development. Etienne quotes Pasteur, saying “Chance favors those who are prepared.”
Etienne suggests scrapping our industrial model of training and the notions that go with it. Learning will become an internal part of live itself. Teaching will fade in importance. Progress along a trajectory of development will replace skills training.
The three aspects of social learning are the Domain, the Practice, and the Community. What, how, and who.
Googling out these references to past entries here, I found that I'd already recorded many of the concepts Etienne presented in Edinburgh. No matter. It took an hour of live presentation for them to take hold in a transformative way.
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