Community of practice, schools and technology

It was in the highlands of Ecuador in 2003 while working on a project testing the educational use of PDA’s in very isolated schools that I become intrigued with the potential reach and complexity of technology and media for educational purposes. Despite not having the anticipated outcome, the project exposed a different mode of collaboration and learning. Our lack of cultural capital, local language deficiency and inability properly introduce the technology in the classroom resulted in students, teachers and parents working and negotiating together to discover the added value of PDAs to their realities and needs – a valuable exercise for all involved.

In 2004 I went to Chiapas, Mexico to work in a community radio project with an Internet center for indigenous communities. This time the methodology to introduce and implement the technology was much different, but the modes of learning and assimilation were very similar to the experience in Ecuador. The main difference was that the radio station created a new social enterprise with a particular domain. The experience of radio – both broadcasting and listening – served to mold and reify their identity.

In both cases community members developed social mechanisms that enhanced learning. In this learning, individuals engaged and contributed to the practices of the community, while for communities learning reified their practice.  Learning was embedded in the modes of participation and the construction of identify in relation to the technology and the communities.

My objective in study media and communication is to understand models of learning that could potentially lead to new modes of citizenship.  Recently I have been thinking the complexities of formal education systems – including Cartesian approaches in schools and the development of communities of practice as empathetic places that enhance learning environments.

In short – a community of practice is a group of individuals bound together by a shared mutual engagement, a joint enterprise and a shared repertoire (Wenger, 1998 p. 72-73). This definition allows us to think of learning as a process of participation. In his book Communities of Practice (1998), Wenger proposes a framework to understand and articulate the processes of learning in relation to practice.

New media and the transition to a more interactive web 2.0 bring a new semi-fertile universe with no physical boundaries where people are more in contact than ever, even when in physical isolation. Technology and new media has changed the configurations and forms of communities and therefore we need to rethink the practice of stewarding technology for communities (Wenger, White & Smith 2009). Jenkins takes a much more utopian though very inspiring theory of how people are finding this new universe as a space for collaboration and participation (2006). He observes a decline in formal education and a shift to the digital arenas of wider audiences with more common interests.

Online forums are good examples of collaboration, negotiation and dispute. Generally the Webmaster reacts according to the gratifications and discontents of user interaction with the content of the site. On the other hand, users reflect and develop their practices and identities over the content that they are exposed to. No one member holds all of the knowledge of the community, people learn how to follow social patterns or resolve issues from the sum of interactions in the community. Knowledge is held by individual members of a community as a form of collective intelligence where it can be accessed in many forms and ways (Levy 1997, p. 214). The direction of the community is not driven by the individual actions but rather a collective sense of participation and negotiations that happens within the community.

At schools learning outcomes are expected to happen in a one directional interaction – the teachers impart knowledge to the students where little negotiation happens among different agencies. Of course there are several informal learning spaces where students and teachers alike learn from interaction but theses spaces and time are limited and sporadic. A common mistake or misinterpretation is assuming that learning is an individual activity that takes place in specific spaces  — this is where new technologies and school struggle so much.

Although there are different approaches to education and different pedagogies, for the most part students are taught to solve problems individually. This is the result of a Cartesian tradition in knowledge and learning; a methodology that grounded the way formal education has been structured in western societies. Cartesian teaching reinforces the notion of knowledge as a kind of substance that is transferable from teacher to student, and where pedagogy operates as the vehicle to transfer the knowledge  (John Seely Brown and Richard P. Adler, 2008). Educational systems have emphasized the transfer of knowledge and skills from teacher to student rather than the transformation of knowledge and skill among students (Vera P. John-Steiner and Teresa M. Meehan, 2000 p. 31).

Education has fallen behind in understanding technology as learning tools, the environmental changes, and what it means to learn (Siemens, 2004). When schools try to introduce ICT to their curriculum they often depend on the same Cartesian pedagogic environment. Rather than focusing on teaching new modes of thinking with the world of new media educators often use technology as a gratification to non-technological activities and as a routine rather than reflective process (Selwyn, 2010). The current approach to technology in schools might result in a stage of technological or informational determinism (Buckingham, 2007). Where most students feel that the controlled use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in school as less inspiring than at homes (Selwyn et, 2010).




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