Tag Archives: community of practice

#Rhizo15: balancing cohesion and openness in communities

So Dave Cormier is now getting us to think about “the dark side of the rhizome”, and whether it is invasive and smothers other possibilities. To add further provocation, he notes that the volumes of tweets relating to #rhizo15 is rising, but the number of participants is falling. A closer knit group of people are communicating more intensively with each other. To paraphrase, if I may, he is wondering whether a community based on the principles of openness and discovery is actually becoming something of a closed group, and whether this matters.

For me, the obvious point of comparison relates to my original university studies in theology. Religious groups are fascinating case studies in developing and maintaining communities. They are frequently committed to principles of outreach and welcoming people in, but on the other hand they define themselves quite clearly in ways that of necessity exclude people. Put another way, in order for some to “belong” it is necessary to be clear about who does not belong. This may be related to obvious factors (e.g. who has been baptised or confirmed), or more subtle signals (e.g. what vocabulary you use). My personal experience, from the days when I was a practising Christian, showed me that church groups, despite their ideals, are often very closed and difficult to break into without huge effort.

There is a paradox here for all communities. In order to thrive, they need some element of cohesion – shared understanding, vocabulary or, as Etienne Wenger (1998) has taught us to think of it, shared practices. But the stronger that cohesion becomes, the more this group will turn inward, rejecting outside influences and challenges, with consequences that can be severe. The American psychologist Irving Janis (1972) developed the concept of “groupthink” to describe irrational and even dangerous decision-making that can take place within closed groups. Active measures are needed to prevent this. A few days ago, the General Election in the UK resulted in over 180 new MPs taking up seats in Parliament – we can perhaps see the wisdom of a system that builds in systematic and significant institutional renewal every few years.

So how does this relate to the rhizo15 group? The fact is that, over the few weeks it has been running, those with the inclination to get deeply involved with it have coalesced into a group with distinctive interests and vocabulary, which undoubtedly makes it harder for others to “break in”. This is probably an inevitable aspect of community formation (certainly not unique to rhizomes) and is something that established participants should try to be aware of. However, the community will shift over time and next year (hopefully) offers a brand new chance for anyone who wants to to get involved. The balance here between cohesion and openness seems reasonable to me.


Janis, I. (1972). Victims of Groupthink: a Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press .



Filed under Rhizo 15

Going back to study – personal reflections on what I have learned so far

I can’t really feel like I am on the home straight yet, but maybe it is just coming into view. I have just submitted my final piece of coursework for H817 and “only” have the final, independent piece of work to do. I will then start H818, The Networked Practitioner in October and, all being well, will complete it next April. H818 is my final module in the MA in Online & Distance Education. So now feels like a good time to take stock and reflect on the journey so far.

This will be my second Masters degree. I earned the first one, in Hebrew Studies, over twenty years ago. I absolutely loved it, but a good knowledge of biblical Hebrew and the Dead Sea Scrolls is only an asset in two or three professions, and I didn’t follow any of them. I still have a fascination with the subject, and am still proud of the research I did on the archangel Gabriel – I bore anyone who will listen with my findings every Christmas – but it has not made much difference to any of the various jobs I have had.

Online and distance education is also an area that fascinates me, and which does overlap with my current job. So this time round has been a very different sort of study and a very different experience. On the one hand, I have learned at first hand, as so many have before me, just how tough serious part-time study is. Make no mistake – part-time study is definitely the hard way to get your degree. I never realised how easy I had it as a full-time student, when I could organise my time more or less as I pleased and could fit rowing and the various other things I did around my studies without, in truth, too much difficulty. Since that time, I have got married, had children, acquired a demanding job, a mortgage and all the other usual things. Study now is about discipline and making tough choices. There are evenings I cannot relax and chat, and weekend days where I cannot take the children out. Just as painfully, there are times when I have to submit work that is “good enough”. I know it could be improved, but I have done what I can in the time available. If you are going to complete your degree, these things are essential. My day job is to run a part-time degree programme and I see my students grappling with many of these issues. I can honestly say to them I know what it is like and I can help them from my experience.

Having said that, the upside of studying a subject relevant to your job part-time is the overlap you get between work and study. I have studied many topics which have then been invaluable in my job, to the extent that I sometimes forget how much I have learned from my course over the last couple of years. Topics like how to reference properly, approaching reflection in a structured way, eportfolios and how they can be helpful, cost structures of e-learning – these have been informed my work greatly and, of course, my work has also informed and enriched my studies. I really understand the point made by Dr Etienne Wenger, which I have previously written about, that someone studying part-time remains a part of their professional community of practice, whereas someone studying full-time may well be divorced from it. That is certainly my experience.

Ironically, my studies have been more relevant to my job than I could have possibly predicted when I began the programme. When I started, the bulk of my job was to write material for some of our courses (face-to-face and online) preparing trainee accountants for their professional exams, alongside some teaching. I had also carved out a secondary role championing and investigating the use and impact of new technologies on our business. I had relocated out of London to the Midlands, taking advantage of the flexibility this role gave me. As I wrote in my introductory forum post then:

“There are lots of reasons why I am doing the MA. Although I have worked in education for some years, I have had very limited training in the theory behind it and best practice. This is particularly true of distance education, which fascinates me. It is also clear that this sort of qualification is becoming much more important in the new BPP.”

At the time I was writing that in the autumn of 2011, I did not know that a small team in our parent company, Apollo Global, was starting work on a new approach to education – something more student-focused, career-focused and scaleable than anything currently available in higher education. I first heard about this project the following March, when I was asked to be part of the team in BPP working on the validation of the new programme. Then it was decided the programme would be run from Birmingham, my new “base” office. The following May, I became Programme Leader of a brand-new degree programme and suddenly I could put into practice many ideas from the course. In fact, I would go as far as to say that I would have struggled to make the transition from Professional Education to Higher Education if I had not been studying the MA.

Some might ascribe this to fate or providence, neither of which mean much to me. But I do see it as an example of serendipity, of joining the dots with hindsight, which Steve Jobs described so powerfully in his famous Stanford address (an address, by the way, which has influenced me hugely and I would recommend you view this, if you haven’t already). I guess the gist of his argument would be something like this – following the things you are passionate about can often have results you never imagined.

I ought to mention what I see as one of the other key benefits of the programme – it gave me the push to start blogging properly. This is also something I have written about before, so I won’t dwell on it here. But I stand by what I wrote them – I love writing and blogging feels like an ideal way for me to write. I also feel like I am really just getting started after two years.

Which brings me on to a little niggle that is growing in my mind. The course has been great for my blogging because it gives me a continual stream of new ideas, topics and articles to write about. But what will become of my blog after the MA is over? Stopping it is not an option. I think the clue comes in a phrase I used in my latest Twitter description – I have come to realise I am an “obsessive learner” (in fact, I think this idea is key to the whole concept of being a professional, but that will be another post). And, luckily for me, there are now more ways to learn than ever – inside or outside educational institutions. There are blogs, open source journals, videos of talks and many more, and now there are even MOOCs as well. I am itching to try a couple when my degree is over. I hope my blog will continue to be a tool I use to help my learning, and of course if anyone else finds it useful or interesting, that’s a bonus.

So did I have any idea what I was getting into two years ago? Not really. It has been tougher than I imagined and had some unexpected impact. But has the experience of going back to study been worth it, despite the pain? Absolutely.


Filed under Personal views

Individual and collaborative learning – reflections

(This post is an edited version of part of my final essay for H800, Technology-Enhanced Learning: Practices & Debates, which I recently completed as part of my MA in Online & Distance Education. It acts as a final reflective piece on my experience of the module.)

There is a sense in which all learning is individual not collaborative. We are separate human beings from each other after all and, if we haven’t learned something personally and individually, it has not been learned. This is reflected very clearly in the way assessment is carried out on our education system. Exams, tests, assignments, portfolios and the rest are designed to check how much the individual has learned and what they are capable of. We do not award qualifications to groups but to individuals (things are a little more flexible in corporate life, where bonuses and recognition can be given to groups, as well as to individuals).

Of course, in another way, individual learning is actually very difficult to achieve. It may be possible to achieve some learning simply by observing the natural world but apart from this, all learning means at least a loose form of collaboration with someone. Reading a book, for example, is a sort of collaboration with the author. We debated this point early on in our H800 studies, in a discussion on the ideas of Sfard (1998) about learning as acquisition and participation. We were trying to think of a form of knowledge that was pure acquisition and this lead us to think that even reading was a sort of participation in the mental world of the author. Put simply, we usually learn from each other, whether in person or remotely, and in this sense everything we learn has been some sort of collaboration.

However, collaboration in learning normally refers to people learning together in groups. This was introduced as a theme very early in our studies in a recorded presentation by John Seeley Brown (2007), and in particular a bold claim from this talk:

“…one of the few deeply robust results in most educational theory today is that, in fact, the best indicator of success in college has to do with whether or not you know how to form, join, participate in study groups. Bar none!”

He is careful to stress that the study groups do not have to meet face-to-face – they can operate by instant message, email, discussion boards, social networking or other ways. This belief is clearly evident in H800, with all activities including the facility to post and review comments on a discussion board. This type of collaborative learning has proved interesting, as there have been a number of active “posters” who have quite different roles and perspectives to me, which has encouraged me to think broadly about educational issues.

The nature of our course and our lives also puts limitations on the functioning of our study groups. There have been certain activities, and certain times, when there is little or no posting going on in the discussion forums. This means that we have to revert to individual learning and study on our own. This would happen less if we really felt accountable to each other for our participation, but such accountability is hard to generate and generally harder if the group has never physically met (Pyoria, 2007). To compound the impact of lack of participation, it is well established that resentment about “lurkers” can reduce general engagement with the discussions (Fung, 2004).

Interestingly, towards the end of the module, a group of students gravitated to a Facebook group, which was used for a mix of sharing links, surveying ideas and general encouragement. The spontaneous formation of this informal group, bound together by a shared interest, is perhaps a small-scale example of “expansive swarming” (Engeström, 2007). For its members, the group has provided the critical mass, informality and integration with the rest of our lives that perhaps the “official” forums do not. Such groups have disadvantages, however – presumably they reduce usage of the “official” forums further, as well as excluding anyone who does not use Facebook.

There is another sense in which collaboration has been important to my learning in H800. A number of our readings in the course have emphasised that learning can be about becoming part of a particular group, gaining formal or informal membership and adopting a certain culture and way of doing things. This can go by various names – “communities of practice” (Lave & Wenger, 1991), “participation metaphor” (Sfard, 1998) or “adopting a culture” (Brown et al, 1989).

In H800, the main relevant group is the academic culture/community and it has been interesting to re-engage with it as it is twenty years since I was last studying in a formal university setting. Key elements of the culture are use of research, academic “tone” and adopting specific referencing approaches. I can tell that I have gradually become more of a member of this culture, with probably the single most important mechanism for this being marking and feedback on my essays.

As it happens, the last year has also seen me move into a more academic environment in my career, with a new role running an undergraduate degree programme and my first publication in a peer-reviewed journal (Clark, 2012). In this sense, my studies have complemented my career well reinforcing the move across cultures and collaborating within a new context.


Brown, J.S. (2007) ‘Researching open content in education’, webcast, The OpenLearn Conference October 2007, Milton Keynes, The Open University, http://stadium.open.ac.uk/ stadia/ preview.php?whichevent=1063&s=31 (accessed 21 September 2012).

Brown, J.S., Collins, A. and Duguid, P. (1989) ‘Situated cognition and the culture of learning’, Educational Researcher, vol.18, no.1, pp.32–42.

Clark, D. (2012) ‘Social Media: Why It Matters to Everyone in Education’, The International HETL Review [online], vol.2, article 8. Available from http://hetl.org/2012/08/12/social-media-why-it-matters-to-everyone-in-education/ (accessed 21 September 2012).

Engeström, Y. (2007) ‘From communities of practice to mycorrhizae’ in Hughes, J., Jewson, N. and Unwin, L. (eds) Communities of Practice: Critical Perspectives, London, Routledge.

Fung, Y. Y. H. (2004) ‘Collaborative online learning: Interaction patterns and limiting factors’, Open Learning, vol.19, no.2, pp.135-149.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pyoria, P. (2007) ‘Informal organizational culture: the foundation of knowledge workers’ performance. The Finnish Model of an information society’, Journal of Knowledge Management, vol.11 iss.3, pp.16-30.

Sfard, A. (1998) ‘On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one’, Educational Researcher, vol.27, no.2, pp.4–13.

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Filed under H800 Technology-enhanced learning: practices and debates