Mix, stir then blend gently: co-creating a remote community of practice

If you read our last blog post, you’ll know that like most people, we’ve made some changes to the way we work here in the learning design team thanks to COVID19. One of these has been a change to our community of practice. Before lockdown, this was informal – members of the learning design team would learn by observing one another, discussing challenges and sharing useful tips and resources. Much of this took place in the office kitchen.

With this off limits to us after lockdown, our community of practice (CoP) has gone online. Instead of ad hoc catch ups in the kitchen, it’s now a dedicated time and space for us to share our practice.

It’s a work in progress and we’re learning as we go along. The challenges that faced our team – the difficulties of sharing our practice while working remotely – still face us and may well face many other teams as well, so in this blog post we’ll share some nuggets of what we’ve learnt about communities of practice.

  1. Make it easy to access

Alongside regular meetings, we’re creating a library of useful resources that we find useful. This library – which Wenger (in Benn et al., 2013) might call a collection of boundary objects but which we call the learning design treasure trove – has another benefit. With many of us juggling multiple priorities in lockdown and not able to join the meetings, the treasure trove is a place we can dip into at any time to find papers, checklists, templates, slide decks and examples of good practice.

It also addresses the tricky ‘how can you know what you don’t know?’ question raised in the comments of our last blog post. A quick peek into the treasure trove usually reveals something that a colleague has found useful but that others haven’t come across.

  1. Mix well

Lave and Wenger (in Morley, 2016) noted differing roles among participants in communities of practice. Some community members are old-timers – they have developed and established the practice – and some are newcomers who need to learn the practice. They’re on the periphery, as Wenger-Trayner et al. put it, and need to be drawn into the centre. There are other roles too, including broker agents (Fairley, 2018) , who draw newcomers in (Childs and Collins, 2019).

Ideally, you need people in all of these roles for a community of practice to work well.  But that’s not always possible in a lockdown when people are home-schooling, caring for family members or battling overloaded Wi-Fi.

We learnt this by accident when a group of keen newcomers turned up for a CoP meeting minus any old-timers or boundary agents. The good news is that it turned out we weren’t as inexperienced as we’d imagined: while we might not have considered ourselves experienced in our roles, we had plenty of knowledge of other things – including communities of practice. Once we realised that in fact we were old timers when it came to our knowledge of documents we each found useful, we used the time to share these in the learning design treasure trove.

  1. Create a safe space

We dedicate part of our regular meetings to catching up socially. Tt’s true that technology has helped us keep in touch during lockdown, but it’s also created multiple communication channels that feel more like a deafening flood of information than a simple conversation. The chance to have a light-hearted chat can’t be underestimated and reminds us that we’re a friendly, supportive bunch.

The good thing about being part of an approachable, supportive community of practice is that it feels safe. It’s a place where people are comfortable sharing concerns, grumbles and challenges. It’s also a good place to practise our practice – for example, practising facilitating or trying out new presentation software. In time, we may invite more colleagues to our meetings – there’s a lot we could learn from one another – but in these early days, it’s reassuring to know there’s a kind audience.

  1. Make it flexible

Our community meetings and creations are a work in progress. The need to be agile is an advantage: not only can we adapt to the unexpected line-up changes mentioned above but we expect to flex according to our changing needs. Rather than having a fixed programme for our meetings, we vote on topics to explore as a group and act on the results to ensure we’re focusing on the most relevant topics.

In being flexible, we often learn by accident, with conversations revealing tacit knowledge that can help bring newcomers towards the centre.

  1. Look beyond your bubble

While our community of practice focuses on our own roles for now, it’s benefitted hugely from suggestions from people outside our team. After tweeting about the community, our Twitter followers sent us practical tips and pointers to resources to help get off the ground. Several of these came from followers outside the learning design community who were able to provide fresh approaches. Our last blog post also garnered some thoughtful comments and we’re grateful for everyone’s contributions.

Along with the titles in the references, we’ve found these resources particularly helpful:

  • Community of practice design guide (link opens in a new window)
  • Learning in landscapes of practice: Boundaries, identity, and knowledgeability in practice-based learning (Wenger-Trayner et al.)

References

Benn, S., Edwards, M. and Angus-Leppan, T. (2013) ‘Organizational learning and the sustainability community of practice’, Organization & Environment, 26(2), pp. 184–202. doi: 10.1177/1086026613489559.

Childs, M. and Collins, M. (2019) Communities of practice/World of Warcraft [Podcast]. 20 March. Available at https://www.pedagodzilla.com/communities-of-practice-ft-world-of-warcraft/ (Accessed: 18 January 2021).

Fairley, A. J. (2018) Entrepreneurial communities of practice: Community, inclusion, and gender in the UK high technology startup industry. University of York. Available at: http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/22513/1/AJF%20Sept%202018%20Thesis%20TYMS.pdf (Accessed: 5 February 2021).

Morley, D. (2016). ‘Applying Wenger’s communities of practice theory to placement learning’, Nurse Education Today, 39(April), 161-162.

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