Distance Learning and Communities of Practice

In my previous blog post, I mused on whether physical universities are really useful enough to justify their significant cost premium over online universities. The reaction, online and offline, has shown me that many people think the experience of being “at university” is worth every penny. If so, there is still a viable business model there.

However, in my studies I recently listened to a presentation given to the Open University by Dr Etienne Wenger (the video and transcript have been made available by the OU here). Dr Wenger is best known for popularising the idea of “communities of practice”, that learning is a social activity and that, as he puts it in the talk, “The act of knowing is an act of participation”

It is an interesting talk, with lots of ideas, but here I want to pick up on just one of them. Having discussed how complex knowledge systems for professionals can be, Wenger addresses a remark specifically to his OU audience, specialists in distance education:

“It’s sort of interesting because traditionally, at least, in many people’s minds, I think, distance learning is kind of second cousin to on-campus learning. But, if you start thinking about learning as engagement in a system of practices, then distance learning could be viewed as actually closer…. campus is actually further from practice and it may be easier on a campus-based learning system to forget about the complexity of the landscape of sources of knowledgeability for a professional.”

It is not a completely new point, but it is well worth reflection. Universities are among our oldest institutions. They form very strong communities of practice in their own right. An enrolled student at a university is studying within that community, with its own norms and practices – matriculation, lectures, essays, supervisions, graduation and so on. This effect is particularly strong if you are living on campus. These norms and practices may or may not have anything to do with what goes on outside, in professional contexts, whether those contexts are medical, legal, commercial or anything else.

So here is where an approach of distance learning, or maybe blended learning, will have an advantage. Most blended or distance learning students will be working, remaining part of a professional community and exposed to all the sources of learning and experience that offers. They can bring their learning immediately into that context and education can enrich their community membership, not disrupt it.

By contrast, full-time, campus-based students are divorced from that context – they will need to make a significant effort to translate their learning into a professional context – on leaving university, they will have to join new communities of practice. In some respects, they may have to start their learning all over again.

I am not necessarily trying to argue the superiority of blended and online university education over campus-based. However, I am arguing that it carries some advantages beyond convenience and cost. Providers of such education should start promoting them.



Filed under H800 Technology-enhanced learning: practices and debates

3 responses to “Distance Learning and Communities of Practice

  1. Guy Cowley

    I am investigating blogging as part of my EMA. I want to establish how many H800 students maintain their blog on an active basis. Checking whether you see this message among comments to your recent blog seemed a good way to do this.
    Please at least confirm that you have read this message by emailing me on guy@jugu.org.
    If you have time, could you please comment on the following questions:
    • How often do you blog?
    • What is the main purpose e.g. reflective, study information, public statement?
    • As a learner, have you found blogging helpful as a learning tool?
    • If you are a practitioner, do you have experience of using a blog as a teaching resource?
    Thanks for your time. Let me know if I can help you in any way.
    Guy Cowley

  2. Guy, thanks for your comment and yes, I do maintain it as actively as I can! I would love to blog more but time has been tight recently. In answer to your questions:
    – I try to blog as often as I can. At one stage I think I was averaging about once a week but it is now more like once a month.
    – I blog because I enjoy writing, I like to share things I have found, and I am interested to see if others have comments on it.
    – Blogging has absolutely been a helpful learning tool. It helps me clarify my thinking, reflect on my experience and learning, and connects me to the wider community.
    – I have blogged in the past for my employer on teaching matters. We didn’t do much of it and, to be honest, I don’t know if it had an impact or not.
    Best of luck with the EMA,

  3. Pingback: Going back to study – personal reflections on what I have learned so far | learningshrew

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