Jun 20 2008

The Story

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An Online Workshop as a Community of Practice: Evolution of Design and Practice

In August of 1998, around the time his book on the subject was published, Etienne Wenger offered a two-week online workshop about communities of practice in association with Community Intelligence Labs. That experiment has been repeated once or twice a year ever since.  Many elements of the workshop have evolved, including the content, the schedule, the structure, the organizational context, and the software platform. More than 140 people have participated in groups ranging from 12 to 36. First as participant (in the Fall of 1998), then as a volunteer “teaching assistant” and more recently as a partner in planning, producing and teaching the workshop, I have observed, reflected upon, and participated in the design of its evolution.

The workshop now runs for three weeks (spread over a five-week period), is presented on a different software platform and we continue to experiment with many ideas about “online work-space as curriculum” and about the contradictions between the workshop form that we are using and the workshop content which derives from a perspective on learning and our observations of how different organizations support and hold communities of practice as part of their knowledge management strategy.  In other words, we envision that part of the learning that occurs in the workshop is a response to the online work-space itself.  In addition, of course, learning occurs in the conversation among instructors, participants, and guests, in the engagement of participants with the readings, and the practices that we have evolved to “be together at a distance.” Since we think of the online work-space and our workshop practices as representations of features of a community of practice, this evolution seems worth careful reflection.  Although it certainly isn’t exhaustive, this paper tells some of the story of that evolution, shows a few of the workshop’s elements today and suggests how the infrastructure and community practices we have developed might apply to online communities of practice (or other workshops) in general.

Producing the workshop involves working closely with a partner who lives 700 miles away. After logging so many hours on the phone, exchanging so many emails and revising jointly developed plans and text so many times, collaboration at a distance (whether Internet based or not) is an every-day experience, not a speculative possibility. In surprising ways, the learning that goes on in such a collaboration sometimes seems unrelated to the “product” or the “relationship” (i.e., it may involve learning about how to use a common tool like Microsoft Word). The collaboration at a distance has definitely influenced what we present in the online communities of practice workshop itself. Of course, a major influence on the design of workshop is the individual individual and collective participation and contribution of the workshop participants.

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