Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D.
Without good distributed communities of practice, even the best e-learning program can degenerate as ID's, SME's, IT, instructors, and support services speak "at" each other or ignore each other altogether; policies and practices are mired down in the past; and the institution feels itself being chewed upon by the competition. Granted, communities of practice in a distributed environment have a different look and feel than those that are forged in small groups in face-to-face settings. Nevertheless, they are vital if ongoing e-learning products and programs are to be developed, nurtured, and sustained. The main pillars of success -- communication, reasonable and well-coordinated change, relevant tasks and outcomes, shared vision and mission, needs-responsive and ever-evolving instructional and developmental strategies -- will collapse.
While this article focuses primarily on higher education, particularly those upgrading their systems and incorporating new SCORM-compliant learning management systems that integrate with multiple databases and platforms, it can also be applied to military contractors, not-for-profits, and corporations requiring flexibility and rapid responses to quickly changing needs.
Are you doomed to being a Woolly Mammoth in La Brea Tar Pits or a limping gazelle on the Serengeti Plain? Do not be mired in the past or devoured by the competition. Develop functional distributed CoPs.
What does a distributed community of practice look like in e-learning?
As in the case of typical communities of practice (CoP), the group members work together on many projects over time. They may not be on site together. However, they do communicate via e-mail, chat, project management interfaces, and collaboration tools.Subject Matter Experts: Sometimes institutions use a subject matter expert to develop a single course. This is not always a good idea, particularly if one wishes to have an effective CoP develop over time. Ideally, a core of subject matter experts cooperate over time, and concern themselves with more content-integrative issues such as effective instructional strategy and emerging technologies.
Instructional Designers: Instructional designers are a vital part of the CoP. Their role can be a vexed one, however, if they do not have direct communication with the other members of the team, and do not adhere to a philosophy that encourages constant adaptation and modification to meet changing needs and challenges, they can be perceived as dictatorial, rigid, obstructive, out of date, or simply irrelevant.
Instructional Design Assistants: This is often the most overlooked piece in a CoP. It is important to have long-term, committed assistants who view their work as an apprenticeship and who are committed to keeping up-to-date with new versions of technologies as well as new and evolving approaches, such as video game-based simulation integrated into a conventional e-learning course.
Information Technology Team (includes Learning Object Coordinator): SCORM compliancy is more important vital than ever as learning objects must work across platforms and course management systems. Learning objects must be flexible enough to be shared in multiple applications, and a clear way of organizing access (files, server space, etc.) must be established at the outset and communicated clearly in order to avoid chaos, and to accommodate expansion in the future. Learning objects, properly classified and organized, should migrate easily with expansions and uploads. This may sound trivial, but anyone who has experienced a portal or system upgrade knows that it is not. All the course management system design, portal design, learning object development, etc. are for naught if the objects they employ are scattered randomly through different folders and on different servers.
Project Manager: The project manager should have a clear sense of the big picture as well as the details, and should be able to classify them into hierarchies. Project managers who cannot differentiate forest from trees are not helpful to their team, and will essentially drive a wedge in an emerging CoP. They should be able to guide the group by developing effective project management approaches that mesh with the culture of the organization. For example, a simple GANTT chart or Critical Path can help individuals set milestones and organize work.
Facilitators (Instructors): The instructors are often overlooked in the development of a Community of Practice. Although they should be required to participate in training and to be familiar with instructional Best Practices, as well as cognizant of effective instructional strategies, they are often kept on the periphery, and are marginalized, often for control issues. Their feedback is vital, however, particularly in terms of maintaining an evolutionary stance to instructional strategies, and reporting on the effectiveness of learning objects.
PILLARS OF SUCCESS
Communication: Good project coordination must occur, not only in developing new courses, but in maintaining and upgrading old ones. Communication flows are most effective when they are linear, but when they are also coordinated by a project manager. E-mail is useful, although a discussion forum and a collaboration space are critical, particularly in sharing the results of evaluations, needs assessments, and making curriculum modifications. It is also important to keep everyone on task with milestones and deadlines. Although software such as Microsoft Project is ideal, it is possible to take a simple approach and use a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to show groups and tasks, milestones, target and completion dates, areas of responsibility, etc.
Reasonable and Well-Coordinated Change: Major changes of hardware, software, curriculum, support services, calendars, etc. are potentially catastrophic if not well planned. They MUST INCLUDE CONTINGENCY PLANS AND INCORPORATE REDUNDANCY. I don't like writing in ALL CAPS, but how many times does one have to go through launch melt-downs, where the course management system fails with no back-up, or servers collapse with no plan for load-sharing, or "edge" computing (as offered by Akamai and others). Avoid *clustered change* and move toward a smooth, transitional change, that involves JUST ONE MAJOR CHANGE AT A TIME. (Oops. Looks like my hand slipped and I typed LOUD again.)
Shared and Understood Mission and Vision: Occasional reality checks should be made to make sure that all members of the distributed Community of Practice know the appearance of the animal they are feeding, training, nurturing, or getting bitten by. At least once per year, the individual members in the CoP should write (and share / post) a paragraph or two on "What Our Mission Means to Me" and "How I Envision Our Vision." This is a great way to share ideas, build esprit de corps, and to gently correct misconceptions.
Needs-Adjusted Content and Curriculum: Competition is alive and well, especially now among colleges, universities and not-for-profits. The institution of higher learning that does not adapt will eventually starve to death, or become trapped in old attitudes, technology, and course content. Think of a Woolly Mammoth in La Brea Tarpits. That will be you if you refuse to find out not only what your clients (students) want today, but what they anticipate needing tomorrow. Remember, slow starvation is an ugly way to go.
Evolving Instructional Strategies and Design: Now let's move from the Tar Pit to the Serengeti Plain. You've seen the speedy cheetah catch the limping gazelle or zebra, right? The race goes to the swift, of course. The not-so-swift get eaten. Let's think strategy, too, though. Instructional design is not just about quick evolution, or being the first on the block to have the latest bell or whistle. It's also about being cost-effective, and thinking ahead to likely scenarios that allow you to seize the opportunities as they present themselves.
Last year, I spent 2 weeks in Mozambique. One weekend, we went to a game preserve that had been fairly wiped out by the 30 years of civil war that had raged within the game preserve, which was located near the border of Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Now, there were very few animals, but the animals that were left were smart and hungry. Apparently, tourists made an easy meal -- either those foolish enough to stand up on the back of open-air Range Rovers, who were picked off by fast, young lions, or those who camped in flimsy canvas tents far from fires, who were mauled by a lioness who was too old to run and catch a Range Rover (but patient enough to wait for the tourists to climb into their "happy meal" canvas meal-to-go bag!). I like to think of Project Managers as wise lionesses. We observe the behavior of the competition, without running after it and putting ourselves at risk. Then, when the moon is full, and the tourists are zipped up tight in their little microcosmic utopias, we open our jaws, let out our claws, and chomp-chomp, it's all over! (My cats love hearing me tell this tale).
Needs-Responsive Infrastructure and Delivery: Why try to push a delivery system on a public that can't use it? It seems obvious enough that this is patently absurd, but people do it all the time. Blackboard immediately comes to mind. It can't deliver video game-based simulation (which many people want), it can't accommodate a lot of traffic, and it can't be modified. Further, firewalls and security do not allow one to log on, or for all the graphics to load. One would be better off to move to a different platform, or scrap the platform altogether for the delivery of content, and use Blackboard only for its integrated gradebook, e-mail, discussion board, contact info, etc. functions. Nevertheless, rigid and inflexible policies and protocols preclude innovation -- even if it is a dirt-cheap option, and it responds to the real needs of the learners, and reflects real-world conditions.
CREATING THE CoPs
The following points can assist in creating distributed communities of practice for e-learning programs:
* Control of learning is distributed among the participants (e.g. students and instructors) and does not rest in the hands of a single subject matter expert or instructor.
* Learning activities are flexible, and modifications are encouraged if they suit the needs of the learner and the group as a whole.
*Multiple parties interact and they are united by a shared goal, problem or project, which provides a mission, vision, and focus. Incentives - both intrinsic and extrinsic - are incorporated into the learning environment in order to motivate learners.
*Learners and Facilitators are committed to the sharing of knowledge, and to encouraging the generation of new knowledge.
*Multiple perspectives and alternative explanations are not only encouraged, but required of learners and facilitators.
* Investigations and inquiries cross traditional disciplinary boundaries.
*Conceptual and intellectual risk-taking is encouraged and rewarded.
*Instructors should model intellectual risk-taking and innovative approaches to problem-solving.
*Instructional designers utilize appropriate instructional technology in order to actualize the development of a community of practice. In most instances, the activities will be structured around and within a course management system, which both foments and constricts the construction of a flexible learning space.
Nevertheless, the following strategies should be accommodated (Collins, 1991) and Nardi (1996):
Collaboration and Social Negotiation: Encourage the members to collaborate on projects. The project manager can facilitate this, and determine the most effective approach. Sometimes collaborative software is vital. At other times, simply using a blog can help encourage thinking and responding to ideas.
Exploration: A community of practice that does not encourage exploration -- both of curriculum (content) and new techniques (software and hardware) will quickly find that individuals will lose interest, and the e-learning courses will flounder. A word of caution, though -- one needs to be aware of who and what is driving change. If changes are made by the IT side of things without explaining the benefits to the others, or without getting their buy-in, large-scale failures are likely. Too-frequent change is as demotivating as no change at all.
Problem-Solving: Collaborative problem solving is perhaps one of the most immediate benefits of effective CoPs. Problem-solving can be technically focused, or can revolve around curriculum. For maximum effectiveness, however, it is vital to pay attention to marketing and outreach in order to maintain an awareness of the emerging and evolving needs of students.
Reflective Thinking: If a desired learning outcome includes the development of reflective thinking, then it is important that each member of the CoP contemplate how they can play a role in achieving the goal. For example, facilitators can think of ways to interact with learners to encourage reflective thinking. Instructional designers can think of activities. SMEs can bring new readings and content to bear. Instructional technologists can develop new applications of technologies -- simulations, etc.
The most effective instructional strategies analyze the desired objectives and then frame them in terms of the learning outcomes. Appropriate approaches keep the technology in the background, and foreground the cognitive processes at work.
C. van Winkelen. Inter-Organizational Communities of Practice. http://www.elearningeuropa.info/doc.php?id=1483&lng=1&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;doclng=1
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