Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Learning, Technology and Community: A Journey of the Self

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Sept 08, 2005

Look at how ALT defines itself on its website. It's an identity that's very much at the boundary of different things: technology, but also change management, learning theory, etc.

How I (Wenger) came to be known as a social learning theorist: I was a learning technologist, I wrote a book. About a third was about the work of John Seely Brown, who invited me to his institute. It was started with the charter of rethinking learning. To reconsider some of the fundamental assumptions we make about learning, and it was intended to be multidisciplinary.

The question came down to what assumptions you are making about, what is a learner. The computer scientists: the learner as an information processor. For an anthrophologist, it was the assumption of a learner as part of a cultural system. The computer scientists would say, "Well your description of a culture is a nice piece of literature, but it's not science." And the anthropologists would say, "Well your picture of learning has no learner."

Before there was a sense that we had a shared practice, it was very tense. And the concept of the community of practice emerged as a way to talk about this conflict. Existing in the world is a way of transforming what you know, of transforming who you are. It allowed us to place the making of meaning at the center of the analysis, in terms of ways of becoming a member, of hoping to become a member, to start talking about the world as a learning curriculum.

Steve asked, is there a technology of collaboration? In our institute, what arose came not out of sameness, but out of strong differences. There was enough tension that the resolution was going to have to address multiple perspectives. It was important that this collaboration brought together people who were committed to something else and who brought this something else to the task, and who were willing to go through the pain of engaging with each other (and which let them continue to have a job and feed their family).

That's the way I still think of myself today, as someone who has embraced something that happened at the boundary, and making it my own. It's an unsettling position. The field of social learning theory is still multidisciplinary. How much do you read? Do you have to read all of anthropology? It is the person who is a linkage between one field and another - he is a person who is always flipping his identity. When he talks to technologists, he is a teacher - he doesn't show his IT knowledge. And when he speaks to teachers, he is the IT guru. He is the one who speaks for the other group. The cost is that flipping that he does in order to fulfill that role as a bridge.

Creating something at the boundary of existing things is always a dangerous enterprise, but is always a rewarding enterprise. Bringing together the different disciplines was very productive. The theory came out of bringing the people together and working the boundary.

I was invited to a friend's house he served me wine. He asked how it was, and I didn't know, so I said it's pretty good. And he went into this elaborate description of why it was good, this elaborate description of his own mouth, all those things that for me did not exist. And he goes almost into a trance. "And this one has a really good purple in the nose." Which was just foreign to me. What was really implicit in that interaction was the presence of a community - he hadn't simply made up 'purple in the nose'.

You can see that from a learning concept that if I had wanted to understand what he was talking about, I would have had to drink a good deal of wine, with him and his friends. I decided not to do that, because life is short and you can only do so much. But it's important through this to understand how identity works. I learned then that I am not a wine taster. And I still don't know what 'purple in the nose' means - but that's OK, I am not a wine taster, I can admit that I don't know it, I have nothing invested in this.

And you can see how important community is, it acts as a coordination of the levels of accountability in a society. My like already has a trajectory - I think of identity as a trajectory, a journey through the world, a knowing person in the course of that journey. The core of what I say today: learning is often thought of as the acquisition of stuff - like, how can we assess whether our learning goals were achieved - but I want to ask, what is the transformation of the person that has occured. And we approach this through meaning - what is the meaning (to me) of 'purple in the nose'. For me, it's a good example, of how meaning implies participation.

You put learning in the centre of what the construction of meaning is all about. That phrase 'purple of the nose' is a way of having you focus your attention on your experience of the world in a certain way. They give you tools of making meaning, and because of that, ways of making the universe. These practise exist in communities, in social structures, and impact on what learning is possible, not possible, on whether the community would share with me its practise and concepts. All these processes are important in defining what the practise is, who gets in.

The individual and the social are always in mutual constitution - this is a social theory of learning, not a theory of social learning. Some people say, learning should always occur in a group. But this isn't so. You learn from reading a book, you are still being social. It's understanding the world in a certain way, that is the practice of the community.

A 'community of practice' is a concept that doesn't exist by itself, it exists by being part of a learning community. It is not something that was invented recently. Eg., a teacher, discussing with colleagues, how to deal with disruptive children in class, and how the theory of multiple intelligence may help, how they may get some resources on this, found a professor, and asked the professor to help. It was being faced with a question, finding colleagues, finding resources. We ask, how can researchers influence practice - here, it was the other way around, it was practitioners looking for research. It was 'pull' research, very different from 'push' research.

This notion of community of practice is a very natural thing, it's a putting of language on what everybody knows. Practitioners need a community to hear each other's stories, to keep up with change, to avoid local blindness, to reflect on practice and improve it, to push the boundaries of their field, or to think of new ways to leverage what they know.

This very informal process - this community of teachers in Italy has spawned a sibling community in another village. Think of QB at Eli Lilly. There was a lot of mistrust between the lab and headquarters, so there was a lot of work being redone. The manager, asked to address the problem, decided not to do a process redesign, and said, maybe there's something deeper happening here, and decided to create a community of practice across the two institutions, based around the idea of 'quantitative biology' (QB). By creating this new identity, she was able to have people talk in a different way. Here was a new identity that was based on a practice, what they knew how to do. There was a lot of mistrust at first ("We are scientists, we don't belong to a community, that's fluffy stuff."). To start talking about, say, how a temperature was set, they had to involve all these different voices in the process.

In a community of practice, therefore, there are different elements that are important. One is the learning domain. Then the community itself, the qualities of relationships. And then the practice itself, talking about the details, the nuts and bolts, of how do you deal with this stuff. The community becomes alive when people can connect at the level of practitioner to practitioner, of people doing things. Key dimensions: participation, nurturing - these have to happen inside the community. Sponsorship, support - these can happen from outside the community.

Today, communities of practice are all over the place. You are seeing all sorts of organizations focusing on communities of practice. And you think about, why this concept has had such a successful career. A project I am part of - but a learning system for transmission across the U.S. by building communities of practice across agencies. They use the concept of community of practice to ask themselves, what are the big issues we need to address? You have very local communities, like a parent group, coming together, and to have a voice, interacting with the school and the department, all the way to having visitors to see what Pennsylvania is doing. You have communities at multiple levels of scale, to create a national learning system.

Course that we designed, on communities of practice.The course is itself designed as a 'canned community'. Community of practice then is a perspective that informs our design, rather than being the goal in itself.

It's a shift, from learning being viewed as a (vertical) relation between a provider and a recipient, to a (horizontal) peer to peer relationship of negotiation of multual relevance. think of my daughter - 17 years old, all of these questions about who she is, what does she know, what should she know... and she's put in a classroom and is taught trigonometry. It was kind of sad to see her learn trigonometry. The process was one of withdrawal, she wants to go to college so she took it, but it was just "I'm just going to do this," there was no negotiation of mutual relevance. But the question is, why did she learn this? She learned how to solve equations, but she also learned to withdraw. So she got the 'stuff' - from a curriculum perspective, the school is sucessful, but she has not developed her identity, she has no idea of what it is like to be a mathematician, she has only learned the mechanics. You see the difference between 'learning as curriculum' and 'learning as a journey of the self'.

One of the most important aspects of the course is, people discover a new identity, they get connected. The meaning of the technology is mostly, I'm connected to the world in a new way. So I ask, to what extent can learning with technology create new possibilities for learning, a journey of the self, a social journey, of moving through the world - and sometimes you see a wine-taster, and you have a glimpse, and you say it's not for me, but you carry a glimpse of that world, and you know (at least) it's not for me. If you only had three books, you didn't think about this - but today you live in a plethora of resources. Access to information is less of a problem, access to ways of being is the central problem. The 21st century will be, the century of identity.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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