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Online course design from a communities-of-practice perspective

By John D. Smith, Beverly Trayner / September 2006

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"If we can stop focusing on who learns more or less of particular, culturally well-defined fragments of knowledge, and ask questions instead about what is around to be learned, in what circumstances, and to what end, learning achievements would become statements about the points of contact available to persons in various social settings."
        —R.P. McDermott, "The Acquisition of a Child by a Learning Disability," Understanding Practice

The adult learners we work with face a difficult conundrum: Their social world is constrained by the technologies they know how to use and vice versa: The technologies they know how to use are limited by their social world. For many people, a solo exploration of the online world can be arduous, insecure, and time-consuming. In an age characterized by increasing access to information and communication technologies, and by learning through these technologies, such issues acquire a great significance. This is particularly true when we view learning as a social experience and not one of absorbing information. In this article, we explore a design for learning that includes connecting people across time and distance so that they develop practices for sharing and creating information and knowledge rather than just acquiring it.

Our exploration is a reflection on the many distributed events we have designed, led, and collaborated on within our extended CPsquare community. These events have always started online, moved to face-to-face meetings or telephone conference calls, and returned to further online interactions. We have observed these events and developed practices to help people relate to each other in a community setting, introducing new points of contact using the different social structures and media at a group's disposal. Although in practice events such as these are more likely to be part of a more complex iterative cycle with people using many types of media (including, for example, the telephone), we offer a simplified outline to suggest a basic design curriculum for online learning. This curriculum can be used to generate other designs using more than one medium. By identifying the different phases of the media cycle, by being aware of what people do, and by listening to what they say they feel, we aim to improve our designs for learning during each phase, as well as when weaving together more complex combinations of different media.

Our Contest, Perspectives, and Experiences

Most of our experiences have taken place with adults participating in workshops or courses aimed at improving knowledge and skills in the areas of technology use, facilitation, and communities of practice. Participants are often leaders or early adopters who come from the corporate world, higher education, and government and non-governmental training organizations. The courses or events have had a workshop atmosphere in which participants are expected to take leadership roles and a communities-of-practice perspective frames the outcomes. As a result, they include stimulation of relationships between participants (community), exploration of a body of knowledge in which participants share an interest (domain), and development of practices that support further learning (practice).

These three elements are part of Wenger's model of a community of practice. We refer to it as "the CPD model," and it provides an invaluable design heuristic, as focus on one facet of C, P or D has implications for the other two. From a community-of-practice perspective, all three are facets of learning and, where it is supported, learning occurs in all three facets at once: meeting new people, acquiring new conversational and technical skills, and learning about a subject. While it may appear that we are merely suggesting a simple combination of computer-based and in-person elements, we see that this combination can lead to a different idea of "curriculum" that touches on all three CPD facets simultaneously.

At the same time learning about technologies for effective, ongoing communication is becoming more complex, both because technologies are more abundant and because the combinations and interactions among them are becoming more complex.

When we first began exploring these ideas, tagging, blogs, and syndication were not widely known. Today, communities and their leaders need to be competent in managing them all together. The combination of modes of communication (e.g., media, venues, technologies, and relationships) happens sequentially and simultaneously. We need a language to talk about them together.

Taking a communities-of-practice perspective is to use a discourse about learning that grounds the building of social relationships and bringing together of people in self-organizing, productive ways. Learning and knowing come about through informal, often improvised, engagement with other people. Interaction is aimed at negotiating the meaning of our experiences in the world that we share and are jointly constructing. In our case content and technology are community resources to be negotiated and created; they are not seen as materials or tools that can be dispensed, much less downloaded. A community-of-practice perspective also suggests measuring desired outcomes as something more than quantitative measures that represent the acquisition of knowledge fragments. Rather, they should express the quality and depth of conversations, dialogue, and the negotiation of meaning. The development of relationships that are capable of supporting learning in the future is an important design goal and outcome. Although our context, perspectives, and experience may be somewhat unique, we think that some of what we describe will be recognizable and our practices useful in other settings. Let us negotiate the meaning!

Description of Our Practice: Some Heuristics

We summarize the observations of our experience in the form of an outline divided into the media cycles referred to as the online ramp-up (preparation phase online), face-to-face meeting, and online follow-on (post-meeting online phase). The subheadings refer to a series of phases that move from the beginning of the online ramp-up, through the face-to-face meeting, and to the online follow-on. The bullet points present a heuristic based on the observations we have made in these different phases. The heuristics apply both to participants and facilitators.

For each heuristic presented in the outline, there will also be a number of people to whom it does not apply (as we sometimes indicate). As it begins to apply to more people during the progression of the phases, those people for whom it does not apply usually start to feel some discomfort.

The term "heuristic" highlights the descriptive function of the events in the outline and also emphasizes an ongoing tension and contradiction between our interpretation of the feelings and the practices we observe.

HEURISTICS—What Participants Experience

Phase: Getting into the online space

  • Launching into various preliminary interactions, usually involving Web pages, emails, phone calls, and payment which have the function of bootstrapping other points of contact.
  • Engaging with this new online experience balances uncertainty and extrapolation from previous experiences.
  • Finding other people "there"—a glimpse that it may be worthwhile.
  • Feelings of familiarity or frustration, despair, or delight.

Phase: Finding your way: asynchronous discussions

  • Dealing with technical mechanics and overcoming social obstacles, both online and in a context around the computer at home and/or at work.
  • Discovering that an asynchronous medium has a rhythm that intersects "real life."
  • Getting to know (or not) how to use different pathways or facilities to participate in an online discussion.
  • Figuring out the "right thing to do," acquiring social learning skills or technical mastery and taking some initiative (or not) as a result.

Phase: Experiencing a new kind of community

  • Reframing the online world as social, not just technical.
  • Feeling recognized, ignored or (mis-)understood by other participants or by the facilitators.
  • Noticing social behaviors, relationships, affinities, alliances, and conflicts between people in the group.
  • Recognizing others and starting to understand the existence of diverse views or "language" (discoursal) differences.
  • Becoming more self-conscious of online social conventions.
  • Recognizing different roles (e.g. leader, supporter, interlocutor, etc.) and assuming one (even without knowing it).
  • Feeling comfortable with tensions and ambiguities—and realizing that there may be social resources for handling them.

Phase: Engaging in a larger social space

  • Discovering how one online technology can lead to contact with other participants using others, such as telephone, email, IM, or other means.
  • Having meaningful, informal interactions that suit a specific purpose and lead to further interactions.

Phase: Anticipating face-to-face engagement

  • Negotiating and constructing face-to-face agendas.
  • Going on a journey (traveling to a physical meeting place) and seeing its effects on the online continuity.
  • Negotiating living arrangements (sharing transportation or physical space with other participants).

Phase: Meeting individuals face-to-face

  • Validating the online investment by meeting people again: recognizing people that you have already met online and comparing face-to-face and online personas.
  • Resuming online conversations, and experiencing other people's responses to you; renegotiating affinities and distances.
  • Experiencing the difference between face-to-face and online community.
  • Gaining confidence and enjoying differences.
  • Appreciating the learning potential in differences, tensions and newfound partnerships: finding new partnerships.
  • Being excited or disappointed (and figuring how to show or mask it).

Phase: Participating in groups face-to-face

  • Entering a new social space, from making an initial comment or telling your first story to negotiating (successfully or not) the special roles of leadership, support, etc. in a face-to-face setting.
  • Taking the initiative (or not) to do something on behalf of the group.
  • Feeling left out or included and recognizing "liminal moments."
  • Creating group artifacts or records of the encounter (or not), such as notes, photographs, diagrams, etc.
  • Managing tensions (or not) and turning them into group learning (or not).
  • Experiencing an online backdrop to face-to-face interaction (e.g., there is an assumption that conversation continues after the face-to-face meeting ends).

Phase: Framing one's experience in a new context provided by the group

  • Feeling more committed to "the group" despite the fact that it has come to existence through previously unknown circumstances.
  • Developing a clear sense of helpful and unhelpful skills in a learning community, online or face-to-face.
  • Tuning in to other people's phases and supporting them appropriately.
  • Having a sense of "what isn't known" or is "off limits."
  • Feeling responsible for fellow members' learning.
  • Feeling accountable in one's actions to fellow members.

Phase: Diaspora: Moving back to the online space

    Posting the artifacts produced in face-to-face interaction in the online setting.
  • Realizing that certain questions remain unanswered or even unacknowledged.
  • Hearing someone's voice more clearly in their written messages because of face-to-face interactions.
  • Imagining the possibilities of new mixes of media and points of contact.
  • Being more open to meeting previously unknown community members online.
  • Feeling that the group can shape one's identity over time, beyond a single event or venue or medium.

Phase: Online closing or transition

  • Acknowledging changes in practice, as well as in community and domain.
  • Feeling more skillful in the practices necessary for a productive learning community (which may be different in different venues: email, online, phone, face-to-face).
  • Sadness and excitement if the group is dissolving or when people move on.
  • Carrying the experience with you to another community, meeting, or setting.
  • Appreciating the importance of "behind-the-scenes" design and leadership.
  • Using the proceedings or a collection of group resources (e.g., online discussions, documents, audio or video recordings, photos, etc.) as a reference.

Discussion: Some Implications for Curriculum

For this brief discussion we highlight five facets of what we think contributed to the curriculum of events that was organized using the media cycle we have described.

1. Design for learning using CPD model is productive. Sparking the passion for a domain can connect us to a community, which leads to the evolution of practice. Conversely, a change in practice can lead to a change in community which leads to a redefinition of the domain's scope. Scaffolding must be provided for all three that are in ongoing interaction and evolution.

2. Spending time on social processes. When creating new points of contact in a design goal, spending enough time on social processes is essential. Neither information nor abstract knowledge about points of contact is a substitute for experiencing the social interactions in doing real work.

3. Using different media to negotiate language as part of a larger process. When discussions about how general principles apply or what technical terms mean are important, design for learning must enable the negotiation of meaning. Disciplined building on earlier conversations becomes a key element, using the different ways that meaning can be negotiated in online and face-to-face settings. The differences in how we retain and remember what has been negotiated online or face-to-face also matter.

4. Creating new possibilities: subgroups and outside experts as resources. When it's important to both re-draw social boundaries and enrich the social fabric around learning and inquiry, the online, face-to-face, online cycle also affords new possibilities.

5. Demonstrating leadership roles in different media. When a workshop aims to model skills and methods of inquiry, participants form a more complete understanding and have a fuller experience of the issues involved when this modeling occurs in different media.

6. Provoking shifts in "comfort zones." While switching media is often experienced as unsettling, it also can open up new possibilities for collaboration and resourcefulness. A striking observation about changing media is that it changes people's assumptions about what is "normal interaction."


In contrast to learning designs that focus on combining different media or delivery methods, our design framework focuses on the processes involved in using one medium as a preparation for another and in using the dynamics and tensions of one to stimulate the learning in the next. Thus, the time dimension and an improvisational approach are fundamental. Each media cycle is an opportunity for a negotiation of meaning that takes place in different circumstances and during different phases of the distributed event.

In practicing this cycle ourselves, we have observed certain patterns of action and feelings by both participants and facilitators which we think could be helpful in designing for similar types of learning contexts, particularly among distributed communities and with a communities-of-practice perspective.


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