Communities of Practice – New Models for New Times

This summer, amid social distancing and the challenges of remote work, between zooms, more zooms and the occasional conference call, I joined Dr. Jabari Bodrick of the University of South Carolina as a co-facilitator in a Campus Compact’s Community of Practice. It was interesting, offering direct insights and a provocative lens for reflection, worthy of sharing. Communities of practice are a new, and older, way to think about professional development and connectivity in the age of covid and technology. It was also enjoyable, especially given the chance to work with Jabari – I cannot thank him enough.

First, a bit of background. Campus Compact is a national organization focused on strengthening democracy through education and community partnerships. They advance “student civic learning and support for the institutional systems, policy, and activities that reinforce that learning and advance the public purposes of higher education.” I am a believer and supporter.

Campus Compact recently started exploring the world of microcredentials for professional development. They sought volunteers to facilitate their communities of practice summer program. Responding to an email led to more emails, zooms, and then a promise to be a co-facilitator of a group discussion community partnerships. My motivation was to do something to increase higher education’s relevance and relationship with its communities, and to see what I might learn from the process and other professionals. Also, it struck me as a way that might aid Campus Compact. We are in a period where more democracy and civic awareness is needed. Campus Compact had other community of practice themes, too: community engagement, supporting engaged faculty development, community engaged learning, engaged research, and program administration.

The concept of a community of practice was developed by Etienne Wenger. His book, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity explores learning from a philosophical and anthropological lens. Published in 1998, the book anchors learning in social practice and identify development. It’s a heady read – and one that does not immediately lead to an online microcredential program. Campus Compact, like other organizations, took Wenger’s broad ideas and re-crafted them into structures that could bring like-minded practitioners together, learning from each other and working at the intersection of theory and practice.

As we work through new models of engagement, development, teaching and learning, communities of practice can offer quite a few benefits. Technology can erase physical distance and enabling like-minded professionals, or organizational units, to learn and grow. Those kinds of interactions could only take place at conferences or through happenstance connections in the days before covid. But would they prove to be useful?

Jabari and I zoomed several times before the first session, trying to determine what, exactly, we had agreed to do. While I’ve taught classes, this would be the first time facilitating a community of practice. When signing on, I was unsure of what it would be like, what expectations might be, and how we could make assessments and changes to insure participant success. A successful teaching and learning experience, I believe, requires good communication, clear expectations, and structure. All three were uncertain as we entered into the session. Communication via email and zoom can be sufficient, but it’s rarely ideal. Expectations for us as facilitators and for the participants was unknown. Six 90-minute sessions gave us a framework, but that’s not a syllabus, learning outcomes, or structure.

Jabari and I made some assumptions and built student/participant feedback into our planning. The process of developing the community was iterative, and as we learned more about each other and the participants, the stronger our comfort with structure and change grew. We anchored our presentations in competencies, which helped to turn our discussions from gripe sessions or war stories into something more actionable. We experimented with different participatory pedagogies and landed, eventually, with a format that regularly worked the group as a whole, then in small groups, then as a whole, then in small groups, and finally as a whole. We turned our prompts into provocations. We consistently mixed up groups, making sure that the inter-participant connections were robust. We provided readings and as discussions grew, participants made suggestions as well. As a group, we developed our own practices.

It was enjoyable, informative and gratifying.

The level of interest, engagement and knowledge of the participants was impressive. We had folks who cared, who were willing to carve out time for this. The participants came from a range of colleges, universities and organizations, from around the country. They stepped up, enabling strong levels of trust and sharing. I got the sense, too, that participants found it helpful – whether they were pursuing the formal microcredential or simply wanted a forum to build professional relationships. And in the larger scheme of things, both are equally useful.

For the future, questions and concerns remain. How does one build stronger and better communication in a community of practice? What are the best ways to be clear about expectations? Is it possible to give more direction about structure and outcomes in advance – while still giving the community ample ability to chart its own direction? Larger picture, can other types of communities be developed?

I believe that successful work in higher education is inherently interactive. In fact, I can think that our best efforts always involved groups and multiple individuals. In a time where communication is mediated by screens and modalities, it is essential to form new and different interactions, to create spaces for exploration and growth. Communities of practice, advanced and structured appropriately, can do all of this and more. I am now a believer – and I encourage you to consider the model for you and your organization.

David Potash

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