Communities of Practice for Faculty and Staff

What is a community of practice? Social learning theorist Etienne Wenger is generally credited with inventing the term. Here’s his definition:

Communities of practice are formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavor: a tribe learning to survive, a band of artists seeking new forms of expression, a group of engineers working on similar problems, a clique of pupils defining their identity in the school, a network of surgeons exploring novel techniques, a gathering of first-time managers helping each other cope.

This video offers an overview of how this concept works in practice:

“A process of learning in a shared domain of human endeavor”: what might that look like if the shared domain is the process of learning itself?

Adopting innovative instructional technologies can be time consuming and is thus a risky behavior for professors who are under increasing pressure to meet other demands of promotion and tenure. It also threatens identity because it questions the utility of what faculty have been doing in their classrooms. A community of practice for innovative instructional technologies is one strategy to promote change.

Communities of practice have proven themselves in the business world as a powerful means of supporting and encouraging change as well as improving the quality of outputs. At their most basic, they help community members share insights, tools, lessons and resources found useful to solve problems members face in their everyday work.

Communities of practice can take many forms, and morph to reflect the needs and culture of the community, so it is difficult to describe a generic case. Therefore consider the following illustration, which is not entirely hypothetical in that most (but not all) of what is described recently happened through the Innovation Space at Virginia Tech:

– A group of faculty agreed to meet twice monthly to discuss, plan, and implement innovative instructional technologies in one or more of their existing classes. Enticements to participate in these meetings include graduate stipends, FDI computers, and merit raise criteria.
– The faculty and support staff met to be introduced to a variety of innovative instructional technologies, to discuss possible applications, to share ideas and concerns, and to receive support and encouragement from experts.
– After several such meetings, faculty and staff teams were expected to develop and present tentative proposals for adopting innovative instructional technologies in their classes. Feedback, cautions, and encouragement were shared by the fledgling community of practice.
– Several more months were spent adapting the technologies and getting feedback and support. Questions were asked and answered. New innovations were encouraged and explored. Confidence was built.
– After a year or so, these faculty no longer formally met, but continued to use a listserv, a wiki, email, phone and other means to call on the community of practice for suggestions and support.
– Most importantly, these faculty have become official or unofficial mentors to colleagues. Some of these mentors are encourage and rewarded to become “coaches,” and actively participate with other faculty either one-on-one or in new faculty groups formed by the Innovation Space.

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