In this section we examine literature around different modes of Continuing Professional Development. We are especially concerned to explore effective forms of CPD aside from the more traditional face to face courses and workshops. A further concern is to identify modes of CPD which can easily scale, given the numbers of VET teachers and trainers who need CPD in the use of technology for teaching and training and the requirements for ongoing updating as new technologies enter the classroom and workplace.        

Within vocational education and work based learning, there has been particular interest in Communities of Practice. The idea of Communities of Practice is based on situated learning theory that emphasises the situated nature of learning. Knowledge in this sense is generated, acquired, and and transformed through the social interaction within such Communities of Practice. Communities of Practice are not conceptualised as an educational programme, but the teaching and learning that takes place in such a community is part of the daily practice (Attwell and Luebcke, forthcoming),

Mark Smith (2003) has produced a useful summary of research and writings, particularly by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, on communities of practice. Wenger points out that we are all members of different communities of practice:

Being alive as human beings means that we are constantly engaged in the pursuit of enterprises of all kinds, from ensuring our physical survival to seeking the most lofty pleasures. As we define these enterprises and engage in their pursuit together, we interact with each other and with the world and we tune our relations with each other and with the world accordingly. In other words, we learn.

Over time, this collective learning results in practices that reflect both the pursuit of our enterprises and the attendant social relations. These practices are thus the property of a kind of community created over time by the sustained pursuit of a shared enterprise. It makes sense, therefore to call these kinds of communities of practice.” (Wenger 1998: 45).

Although the nature and composition of these communities varies members are brought together by joining in common activities and by “what they have learned through their mutual engagement in these activities” (Wenger 1998).

According to Wenger (1998), a community of practice defines itself along three dimensions:

  • What it is about – its joint enterprise as understood and continually renegotiated by its members
  • How it functions – mutual engagement that bind members together into a social entity.
  • What capability it has produced – the shared repertoire of communal resources (routines, sensibilities, artefacts, vocabulary, styles, etc.) that members have developed over time (see, also Wenger 1999: 73-84).

A community of practice involves much more than the technical knowledge or skill associated with undertaking some task. Members are involved in a set of relationships over time (Lave and Wenger 1991: 98) and communities develop around things that matter to people (Wenger 1998). The fact that they are organizing around some particular area of knowledge and activity gives members a sense of joint enterprise and identity. For a community of practice to function it needs to generate and appropriate a shared repertoire of ideas, commitments and memories. It also needs to develop various resources such as tools, documents, routines, vocabulary and symbols that in some way carry the accumulated knowledge of the community. In other words, it involves practice: ways of doing and approaching things that are shared to some significant extent among members.

Rather than looking to learning as the acquisition of certain forms of knowledge, Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger have tried to place it in social relationships – situations of co-participation. As William F. Hanks puts it in his introduction to their book: “Rather than asking what kind of cognitive processes and conceptual structures are involved, they ask what kinds of social engagements provide the proper context for learning to take place” (1991: 14). It not so much that learners acquire structures or models to understand the world, but they participate in frameworks that that have structure. Learning involves participation in a community of practice. And that participation “refers not just to local events of engagement in certain activities with certain people, but to a more encompassing process of being active participants in the practices of social communities and constructing identities in relation to these communities” (Wenger 1999: 4).

Learning is not seen as the acquisition of knowledge by individuals so much as a process of social participation. The nature of the situation impacts significantly on the process.

Learners inevitably participate in communities of practitioners and… the mastery of knowledge and skill requires newcomers to move toward full participation in the socio-cultural practices of a community. “Legitimate peripheral participation” provides a way to speak about the relations between newcomers and old-timers, and about activities, identities, artefacts, and communities of knowledge and practice. A person’s intentions to learn are engaged and the meaning of learning is configured through the process of becoming a full participant in a socio-cultural practice. This social process, includes, indeed it subsumes, the learning of knowledgeable skills.” (Lave and Wenger 1991: 29).

In this there is a concern with identity, with learning to speak, act and improvise in ways that make sense in the community. What is more, and in contrast with learning as internalization, learning is seen “as increasing participation in communities of practice concerns the whole person acting in the world’ (Lave and Wenger 1991: 49). The focus is on the ways in which learning is ‘an evolving, continuously renewed set of relations’”. (ibid.: 50)

Coffield (2008) draws attention to the importance of metaphor and prefers to move from the acquisition metaphor as he sees it as “the unacknowledged metaphor behind government policies in education” (p.8) and the participation metaphor which he says “locates learning in “in the simultaneous social processes of: learning to belong to different ‘communities of practice’ …; learning to recognise changes in our identity because learning changes who we are; learning to create meaning out of our experiences; and learning what it means to know in practice.” (p.8) From such a viewpoint, he says, the learner is “transformed into a practitioner, a newcomer becoming an old-timer, whose changing knowledge, skills and discourse are part of a developing identity – in short, a member of a community of practice.” (Lave and Wenger 1991: p.122)

In a study undertaken by the IPTS on ‘Pedagogical Innovation in New Learning Communities’, Kirsti Ala-Mutka and Anusca Ferrari (eds., 2010) say members of online communities “learn by making and developing connections (intentionally or not) between ideas, experiences, and information, and by interacting, sharing, understanding, accepting, commenting, creating and defending their own opinions, their viewpoints, their current situations and their daily experiences.” (p.6)

Personal development, they say, “goes hand-in-hand with other forms of learning, such as knowledge and skill acquisition for practical and professional aims.” (p.6)

This approach has significant impact on the balance between pedagogical models. In the communities they studied there was more of an emphasis on constructing and creating new knowledge rather than the focus on teaching or acquiring codified knowledge normal to traditional education and training environments. They found that

codified knowledge constitutes only a small proportion of online communities’ learning activities, whereas interaction among peers leads to knowledge sharing (often based on members’ experience) and knowledge creation (based on a mix of codified knowledge and new knowledge collaboratively developed).”

More problematic is the issue of how much it is possible to form or even to facilitate the formation of Communities of Practice and how much intervention is needed or desirable. Based on six case studies Kirsti Ala-Mutka and Anusca Ferrari say. “little support is provided to members in structuring and scaffolding their learning or in developing learning-to-learn competences.” (p 6)

They promote the use technology and tools that encourage self-expression and social networking to support Communities of Practice. They also propose a series of rubrics to develop such communities:

  • The information available in the community must be reliable;
  • The interest of community members must be kept alive;
  • ·Members need to be educated, through codes of conduct and rules, to self-manage their learning processes. In communities where learning is an explicit objective, a key concern is to empower individuals’ learning attitudes so that management plays a decreasing role in steering the learning process within the community. (p 8).

Communities of Practice are clearly an attractive approach to fostering informal learning and developing work based learning. However, attempts to reconceptualise the pedagogy of Communities of Practice for groups of formal learners have proved less successful: it is to be doubted whether the practice of being a learner provides a strong enough common tie to form a community in the way Lave and Wenger envisaged.

Nevertheless, the UK Jisc have launched an “active community of practice’ for teachers around the use of new technology for learning. They characterise it as “an open community that welcomes both experienced participants and those who have not previously engaged in this field but who would like to find out more.”

With over 100 active participants, they say, “the network events and mailing list offer opportunities for colleagues to work together on all aspects of digital capability for staff and students.”

References and Footnotes

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