I’ve been familiar with Wenger’s ideas of Community of Practice (CoP) for a decade and find the concept relevant, interesting and of practical value when I think about ways in which groups (workplace, graduate courses I teach, close colleagues with similar interests, community groups, work teams and task forces) function. However, I have long felt the concept didn’t match precisely with traditional teacher – centered courses nor with the more fluid and open relationships that define networks and of course not relevant at all to collective activities.
Thus, I was quite delighted (and I admit embarrassed) that it had taken me so long to bump (make that re bump) into the concept of “networks of practice”.
To back up one step, a Community of Practice (CoP) was defined by Wenger as a tightly knit group of colleagues engaged in a shared practice (within the same or similar firm or organization); who meet regularly (usually face-to-face) and share common understandings and language. The CoP members support each other, collaborate in problem solving and generally making sense of a shared world view.
A network of practice (NoP) shares some of these characteristics but is differentiated on a number of dimensions. The term is credited to John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid’s (2002) book in which they describe a Network of Practice as a distributed aggregation of members who share some common interests and values, but their correspondence and especially face to face meetings occur much less often or not at all. Leadership and activities in a NoP are emergent and usually informal. NoP members interact sporadically and develop their network in an informal and spontaneous manner that is occasioned through blogs, social software based communities, perhaps a face-to-face or online conference, newsgroup, mailing list or other shared social networking interactions. Membership in a NoP is voluntary, usually open, often transitory and likely many of the NOP members are strangers to each other. Thus NoP members do not know the number, personal demographics, identity or location of all of the members of the network of practice. Brown and Duguid argue that NOPs are necessary to stimulate, provide external information and knowledge to support and cross pollinate localized communities of practice. Members use the informal and weak connections that typify NoP members to enrich more localized CoPs with external and often exotic knowledge, practice and insight.
A number of authors have conducted both theoretical and empirical studies of NOPs. Wasko & Faraj’s (2005) article investigated why members of electronic NoPs bother to contribute to these Networks, when freeloading or lurking (taking advantage, without contribution) is an available option to all NOP members. Wasko and Faraj examined the web conferencing interactions among the approx 7,000 NOP members of a legal association in 2001. They examined the postings and emailed a survey to 593 participants and received responses from 173 members. The survey measured the expertise, commitment, structural association with the group, social capital (reputation), their enjoyment of contributing, their sense of commitment to the NoP, their sense of reciprocity when they needed help and used as dependent variables the helpfulness and the frequency of their contributions. Surprisingly there was no significant relationship between the helpfulness nor the frequency of those who enjoyed being helpful to others, their self rated expertise nor the espoused commitment to the network. Quality contribution was however associated with desire for building reputation and increasing social capital but again surprisingly members with high quality and frequent contributions did not hold high expectations of reciprocity. Thus, it seems that enhancing social capital was the primary reason for participation in this NoP, not expectation that the network would be there to solve their own problems or provide advice. The study also noted the high correlation between centrality- those most highly connected and communicating with other NoP members and the value of their contributions. This core group provides the critical mass of participation and in the process, of course increases the social capital of these committed members. Sustaining and motivating this central, critical mass of members is essential for the network to operate and allow the less committed or even the continuous lurkers to benefit from their network membership.
A second 2005 study by Swedish researchers Fredric Landqvist and Robin Teigland looked at three externally funded NoPs that used a proprietary knowledge management tool set (Autonomy.com) to create NoPs among three different professional groups. The goal of this study was to determine the characteristics of the networks and their members that were associated with a thriving and sustaining NoPs. As many readers of this blog know personally it is very easy to set NoPs that fail or result in empty shells and abandoned sites and lists. The three cases studied included medical professionals, those associated with the Swedish tourist industry and educators. Each group was funded to set up a portal for effective information retrieval of relevant content, the creation, importation and indexing of this content and a variety of network communication tools. The researchers developed a theoretical model from the results indicating that successful NoP’s:
• Had a core group of either paid or highly motivated contributors
• Members workplaces shared much common structural characteristics – similar job requirements, organization etc.
• Strong norms of collective behaviour: Members shared common social codes and ‘best practices’
• Trust, affiliation and other affective characteristics were nourished
• The network had means to collectively censure inappropriate behaviour
• The NOP used an appropriate set of distributed tools to effectively accomplish these goals.
EduBloggers as NOPs
Applying these ideas to the very loose conglomeration of educators who blog regularly, self styled EduBloggers or even that subset who consider themselves to be EduPunks makes me wonder if they constitute a Network of Practice. Examining the list above, makes me note that EduBloggers are highly motivated, but very few who are paid to contribute. EduBloggers share some structural characteristics, they are all connected formally or informally to an education system, but these characteristics vary greatly across level, size, focus and discipline of that education system. I don’t think most EduBloggers share strong norms of collective behaviour, though they probably share interest in the technology and a general dissatisfaction with the staus quo. Certian affective characteristics are nurtured – especially humor and I imagine that trust builds -slowly and usually in small doses. EduBloggers do censure each other, but it is through discourse and debate, rather than exclusion or banishment. One could debate the effectiveness of the ‘distribiuted tools and especially if the use of these tools by EduBloggers makes a difference in the broader educational world, for now blogs with related syndication seem to be the most widely used, though Twits seem to be gaining use (hopefully a transitory phenomena).
So how do you join the EduBlogger NoP?
You don’t apply to join the EduBlogger NoP. You just start to blog, read blogs and comment on blogs with content related to education and/or learning. But it can be a lonely world if nobody reads your posts. Thus, an aspiring edublogger needs to develop the set of network relationships such that their posts are read and responded to – in essence becoming a full member of the NoP. This is perhaps best accomplished by reading the blogs of others, commenting on them, noting the Blog role listings of other edubloggers that favorite authors are following, reading and responding to and gradually moving into the existing flow. Then, through immersion into the network (caused mostly by allocating time to read, and talent to originate and respond) the Edublogger learns what content is appreciated, commented on and that leads to ongoing discourse. Then your comments and posts start to resonate – be on topics of interest, sustaining yet original and controversial enough to sustain interest.
Besides quality participation two other resources can be used to increase social capital within the EduBlogger NoP. The first comes easily through aggregation of posts, number of followers, trackbacks and other direct and indirect links that are sleuthed out by spiders from Technorati, Google BlogSearch and other collective tools. The aggregations of your Net presence allows others to gauge the ‘influence” of one’s contributions and results in more visits and comments to that work.
The second comes through getting on the read list of a edublogger NoP leader or two. Stephen Downes, with his prolific OLDaily is the exemplar in the Edublog network. I note that when Stephen references a posting on my blog, the number of hits jumps very considerably. Stephen has become a central distribution agent and filter, sleuthing many of his one stories and who also receives posts from numerous of his subscribers recommending quality posts.
Given the discussion above, I think that the EduBlog community can describe itself as a network of practice. Nobody knows how many members there are in this network, nor who are the formal NoP leaders. The discourse across the network is hardly homogeneous. But Edubloggers do seem to be a network of individuals that “interact through information exchange in order to perform their work, asking for and sharing knowledge with each other.” Wikipedia. Of perhaps more interest and the subject of needed research is the effect of the Edublogger Network of Practice on its members and more importantly on the wider teaching and learning community.
Brown, J. S., & Duguid, P. (2000). Social Life of Information. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
Landqvist, F., & Teigland, R. (2005). Collective Action in Electronic Networks of Practice: An Empirical Study of Three Online Social Structures. Paper presented at the Proceedings Communities and Technologies Conference. from Retrieved Jan. 2009 from http://www.springerlink.com/content/m8033444352366rt/fulltext.pdf
Wasko, M., & Faraj, S. (2005). Why should I share? Examining social capital and knowledge contribution in electronic networks of practice. MIS Quarterly, 29(1) Retrieved Jan. 2009 from http://dsslab.mis.ccu.edu.tw/km/km2006_pdf/R14_MISQ_V29N1_Why_Should_IShare.pdf.