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H810 – Community perspectives (A36.1)

December 29, 2010

Seale’s (2006) chapter 13 looks at the concept of communities of practice as a model for understanding how individuals work together to manage accessibility, thereby referring mainly to the work of Wenger’s (1998) ‘communities of practice‘.

I came around Wenger’s communities of practice doing H800, using it mainly to refer to a group of people with shared practice, purpose, a common goal and enterprise. However, I never explored Wenger’s communities of practice as Seale describes it in here chapter, and I have to admit that was pretty theory-loaded and harder to comprehend as Seale’s two previous chapters. Let’s see if I can make any sense out of it.

Contrary to chapter 11 and 12 which sought to develop our understanding of how rules and tools mediate the development of institutional and individual accessible e-learning practices, will this framework enhance our understanding of how goals (objectives and motivations) influence the development of accessible e-learning practice, especially the practice of communities.

There are different definitions about the concept of communities. Normally it is used to refer to both the users and providers of online material and the context in which the material is delivered. It is acknowledged that there is a need for a ‘network’ (Coombs, 2002), that consist of different subject experts (Regan, 2004), and that some communities combine to form a larger ‘accessiblity community’, because for accessibility to really progress, all stakeholders have to talk to each other discuss and understand each other’s problem (Jeffels and Marston, 2003 all cited in Seale, 2006). Therefore, ‘central to the notion of different communities connecting and working to understand one another is the belief in doing so ‘practice’ will develop.

Wenger’s (1998) theory of ‘communities of Practice’, is a social theory of learning, because learning takes place within the community through active participation. The communities share a common goal, purpose and enterprise and are often formed outside formal organisations. They share their own language and ways of doing things. Learning takes place in a community of practice through active participation in the group and is primarily a social process. However, though the concept has been widely used by e-learning practitioners to explore student learning experience, but its application for e-learning and accessibility is low, however it is a potential tool for analysis.

According to Wenger can practice be understood as

  • practice that  gives structure and meaning to what community does
  • practice is a source of coherence
  • practice that has boundaries and peripheries that may link with other communities.

Practice is about meaning as an experience of everyday life (Wenger). Meaning is located in the process Wenger termed ‘negotiation of meaning’ and it involves the interaction of two processes: participation and reification. Participation is about  how communities shape our experience active engagement, whereas reification gives form to our experience by producing objects that ‘congeal this experience into thingness’. Wenger states that participation and reification should be in balance, but that within accessibility communities reification dominates over participation. However, re-appropriation into a local process helps to compensate part of the imbalance, moving participation in the foreground.

Mutual engagement, joint enterprise and a shared repertoire are three dimensions by which practice is a source of coherence.

  • Mutual engagement involves the contributions, knowledge and competence of others, not only the own one. The mutual engagement makes things happen and that distinguish community of practices from a ‘ordinary’ group.
  • The concept of joint enterprise requires that conditions, resources and demands needs to be negotiated within the community to shape practice.
  • Routines, words, tools, ways of doing things, stories, actions, concepts that the community adopted or produced and which have become part of its practice is the shared repertoire communities build on.

However, Wenger also argues that communities of practice cannot be considered independently of other practices. He states that there are two kind of connections:

  • Boundary objects – these are artefacts (e.g. terms, concepts, documents or other forms of reification) around which communities of practice can organize their interconnections
  • Brokers – are people who can introduce elements of one practice into another and thus make connections

Within elearning practice six communities of practice (students, lecturers, learning technologists, student support services, staff developers and senior managers) are present, they share artefacts, they all have a role to play in developing accessible e-learning material, they all work in higher education  and have members in common.

However, though the all have the goal to develop accessible e-learning material, is a smooth, trouble-free collaboration not always given and boundary practice sometimes far from realized. Seale identifies several problems relating to:

  • insecurities over professional identity
  • lack of legitimacy and power
  • the risk of isolation (isolated, because they might be the only agent of their profession)

Within our tutor group we had similar discussions and one of my colleagues stated that ‘although many professionals can identify quite readily with a community of practice, they are often quite elitist in their perspective of that community’. He also argue that ‘some academics may not accept lesser qualified or unpublished practitioners as having the neccessary validity to be be credible participants.

His report strongly reminded me on the time I worked in a boarding school where we trained young girls with learning disabilities to incorporate them into the labour market. We had different communities of practice their. We had the community of instructors, where I belong teaching those students in home economic and we had social workers who had the role of a general-education teacher as well as for counselling, and we had the educators who came in the evening and organised the recreation area with the students. Well, the object and outcome was clear to prepare those young girls as best as possible for the labour market, however we had pretty different perspectives how that should be achieved and we had frequent discussion and no broker who tried to link the different communities, which entrenched themselves behind their boundaries and did not want them to blur. It was sometimes quite difficult, and I think that we sometimes simply lost sight of the well-being of theses students, but tried to defend our status and identity. Talking about a holistic approach, like you mention by my peer, we were at times from holistic.

Talking about status and who has more legitimacy is also a constant subject that I experience in the school system. As a practice teacher (there is no English word for it? – I finished my education, but not at a university but on a vocational school, probably comparable to collages as a home economist, worked a couple of years in my job, finished as well a teacher training and I am supposed to teach the hands-on parts, e.g. the cooking, only I retrained in health and care now and teach students e.g. to wash a patient in bed, to take vital signs, etc). Well, anyways in the teacher hierarchy I am on the very bottom, I think even student teachers have a higher status, because they come with a university degree. I’ve been told many times that I am not qualified enough, always judged by my last school degree, but not what I achieved in my work. Although I am having a Bachelor degree now in Health Studies is it still one year later not acknowledged by our school ministry (talking about an open Europe :-P) But, how can you build constellation if other communities does not regard you as full-valued member, and who know you only when they want some coffee service from you.

However, it should be our goal to improve the connections and links between the different communities of practice to achieve better service for disabled students. Seale (2003) ‘argues that the growth of ‘boundary practices’ could potentially link different communities in some way, next to brokers and boundary objects. Seale suggests involving the user in the accessibility design process and to disseminating information about good or best practice in accessible e-learning.

We should not forget, this this is not about us, our ego and status of our profession, but for disabled students, to improve their access to more accessible e-learning.

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