As the increasing complexity and volatility of our world has been become obvious to all (many have rediscovered the concept of VUCA * world to refer to and make visible this global situation), we discover how micro-collectives can be part of the answer. Community conversations, where each member can connect with others, far from noise and havoc, aid us to tackle complexity, accept nuance, and engage with respect for diversity of views. In this article, I argue that ethos and democratic values**, shared purpose, vision, and repertoire, caring for the lifecycle, choosing the right technical environment(s) and tending to how meaning making will occur are inescapable features that anyone should think of when launching into the design, creation and moderation of conversational online adult learning, and professional learning communities***.
* VUCA explained in a one minute video by Laureen Golden
**Democracy in the context of my work is understood first in a Deweyan sense, as a principle embedded in everyday circumstances, in which values of inclusion, participation, and freedom are central, interconnected and lived in our daily experiences.
**** Mompoint-Gaillard, P. (2021). Conversation as an Ecology of learning. An analysis of asynchronous discussions within an online professional community working to develop a democratic practice in education. (PhD dissertation), University of Iceland.
Highlighted terms are foreseen for future posts
We tend to call all sorts of groups communities. The term has been so overused that for some it extends to any kind of group, and perhaps the term is sullied when it is used to designate for example groups on social media, including commercial “communities of ‘customers’” with their community “managers”. In this blog I wish to define what I’m talking about when I speak about community, and also warn that we should use the term ‘community’ more sparingly. I narrow my definition of community and point out some characteristics: what may make us consider a group of humans as a learning community. My research focused on conversational learning in online professional learning communities (OPLCs) but extends to OALCs (online adult learning communities). For this we must launch into an investigation of a complex context with its social, psychological, technical, political singularities.
When learning together becomes a basis for ‘living’ together
Conversation implies a process that is not so much organized or structured in terms of objectives, time or learning support, but rather intentionally flexible and in line with participants needs and possibilities. My study is an empirical examination of how learners generate knowledge through social interactions in OPLCs. I will delve into how knowledge is shaped and evolves as part of a co-construction process, when learning is embedded in human interaction.
Conversational learning implies an open-ended process that is intentionally flexible and in line with participants needs and possibilities. Dialogue informs and shapes action.
I advocate for networks resulting from informal relationships to become an important aspect of continued professional and personal development, with no other set goals than those that the people involved bring about in the conversation, guided – but not often constrained – by moderators’ interventions. Informal networks, support professionals (teachers in my research) to tackle the increasing complexity of their work and co-create the actions they need for a practice leading to social transformation. Dialogue informs and shapes action. Other researchers also advocate for the need to understand the role and impact of informal social networks on professional development in the education field.
What are the characteristics of groups that may be considered as learning communities?
An online group does not constitute in itself a community. In my study I have identified important characteristics that may help define effective online learning communities in which deep learning is possible and with this article I mean to differentiate them from other forms of community.
Here the term “community” can be seen as a “label of quality” relative to group activities in which intense connected interactions occur. Communities are not fixed entities but a dynamic process. In traditional educational situations, all learners are required to learn the same thing at the same time. In communities of practice different levels of expertise are present in the space, and there is fluid progression from being a novice to an expert, and the tasks are completely authentic. The case I make is about OPLCs and OALCs that are conversational learning communities characterized by three major features.
- The context is exempt from constraints such as accountability, standards, and procedures.
- Participation is entirely voluntary, and relies on members’ personal intention(s) and responsibility.
- Interaction is informal, open-ended, self-paced, and autonomous.
Differentiating learning communities from other forms of community
1. Ethos and values-base.
An online learning community may best provide opportunities for learning together when it is a values-based community. Depending on the role played by the individual member, learning within a community can be either a positive and proactive or a passive experience. The collective wisdom of dominant members of the group shapes other individuals’ understanding of the community and its roles, norms and values. An OPLC recognizes the need to develop and fosters both:
professional learning – understood as the acquisition of content, data, tools and methods – and
professional development, understood as growth in the areas of values awareness, mindfulness, enjoyment, commitment and building of positive and stable identity.
The distinction places as much importance on members’ need to develop their competences and practice as their willingness to do so consciously by considering the values that they may embody – or not – within these practices. Such activity may thrust members into difficult knowledge: seeing themselves as living contradictions (Mc Niff & Whitehead, 2006, 2010) when their practices do not allow them to “live their values”. In my case study, the community values are democratic values, in the context of a democratic environment (the community). In this respect, conversational learning communities that are linked to strong democratic and emancipatory values are considered a transformative model of continued development.
Creating ethical agreements is worth every minute the time a community will spend on it. Values are at the core of the community microculture. Community values can be formalized in documents and agreements such as the charter of communication that I wrote about earlier. When framed this way, the conversation that deploys in the community space can benefit both from the intensity of the relationships and the values that underlie those relationships. Such a community then may negotiate, forge and transmit a microculture which defines norms, values and ideologies within which the members of the community co-construct professional – and personal – identities.
In learning communities, members share an intention to transform practices, and to invent new and next practices. Conversational learning communities that are linked to strong democratic and emancipatory values are equipped to be socially transformative.
3. Shared purpose
A learning community federates members’ goodwill around a joint purpose and a shared vision. Community members state their intention to transform practices from a traditional stance to the collaborative invention of new and next practices aimed at positive social transformation. Teachers shared stories of their practice, of what happens in the classroom when they try out new methods and design new lesson plans. There is relative freedom when the community is not place-based. Then, in community with peers who are not my direct colleagues, I can vent frustrations or talk about my colleagues and my organizations’ management without them knowing about it! In the process of sharing stories, members of the community start developing a common body of concepts, terms, knowledge, and lore. A common language develops with a shared “lexicon”, that is not merely a jargon but rather a “repertoire” which helps negotiate meaning across opinions and understandings.
In the process of learning with peers, participants negotiate meanings about what their shared purpose is. For example, teachers in OPLCs are thinking about learning and teaching while engaged in specific actions in actual classrooms. Practice then becomes the source of coherence of the community, made possible by the mutual engagement its members. Thus, in learning communities, practice does not exist in the abstract, but exists because members are engaged in actions whose meanings, they negotiate with one another, co-developing answers to issues of practice by discussing, exploring, and developing workable solutions together.
Praxis becomes the source of coherence of the community
4. Welcoming: onboarding, support and community life cycle
Learning communities appear to have common patterns of affiliation. Successful communities can sustain themselves over multiple generations of members without becoming ‘brittle’ when attention is paid to its lifecycle. Researchers have observed the following stages of community development: initial bonding, early membership, and late membership. When creating or facilitating community activities, attention to lifecycle is crucial.
Welcoming newcomers is done by moderators and peers. Coaches, mentors, facilitators, teachers… are different stances moderators that moderators can adopt. They might design inductive activities (games such as treasure hunts, creative self-presentation activities, etc.) to onboard newbies. For example technical aspects must be dealt with to make sure all participants will know how to navigate and find the content they need in order to engage.
Observation shows that in most cases, it is only in a second step that certain members will latch on to the concept of the online learning community and perceive a benefit, for themselves, to participate in its dialogical spaces, and start sharing stories, engaging in critical reflection. This will in part be determined by the level of support and attention to members’ wellbeing , but also and importantly of how they gain awareness of their learning. This type of learning is most often tacit, (tacit knowledge), it is helpful to reveal it, to make the learning that occurs in the course of the conversation, visible to learners.
Other members will remain in the periphery either as ‘covert company’ (these people are sometimes called ‘lurkers’, who read but don’t post, perhaps downloading resources…)  or they will leave the community altogether. Members who remain peripheral are not to be ignored since peripheral members bring inside what they are related to on the outside, and as well they spread and promote community artefacts to the outer world. They thus benefit from knowledge exchange, contribute to the content, as well as the dissemination of knowledge even if this is invisible.
In the phase of late membership members start engaging with more autonomy and they may take initiatives such as creating new conversation spaces and, by doing this, they get involved in the design and creation of the common space, taking ownership of the ideas and issues present in the OPLC or OALC, contributing to knowledge production by taking on different roles.
This type of learning being most often tacit, it is helpful to reveal it, to make the learning that occurs in the course of the conversation, visible to learners.
As communities continue to exist over time, embracing new members, switching roles, creating tools and expanding activities, they are learning from their experience. Phrough their discourse, participants bring other presences in the humans that they write about on the platform: colleagues, clients, stakeholders, etc. Thus the community operates in what I call “an extended human space” in which the social actors of their social and physical environment and institutions participate vicariously in the conversation
5. Technical space
All platforms have a design that shapes the interaction that can take place in that given space. In other words, a platform is the technical support for what a community does or can do. I distinguish platforms that are ‘appropriate’ for such conversational learning from other platforms such as Moodle for example, because conversation needs the functions of a social network type platform and not a course integration type platform that is usually highly constrained (by the institution, via the teacher), less social, and sometimes even invasive when the user’s every move is tracked and recorded, as a means of control, and hence of domination, of power-over the learner.
I distinguish platforms that are ‘appropriate for conversational learning’ from other platforms that are highly constrained, and exert power-over the learner.
A platform includes the main activities that are promoted, and the spaces, which need to be created and in which the activities can take place. These aspects are translated into technological features, which in turn are determined by the technical base adopted for the community
The learning takes place among peers through self-directed learning and through reflective and critical friendships. The knowledge thus created is always “knowledge in the making” and is never accepted as an end-product. There is a paradigm shift in epistemology, and how we consider knowledge, its status and creation, where “insight tends to come from many people working in different settings, rather than a few Einsteins”.
There is a paradigm shift in epistemology, and how we consider knowledge, its status, and mode of creation.
A remaining question is how members perceive knowledge construction. In my study, this participant voiced how she perceives meaning making in the OPLC:
“I would describe it as a very strong and rich experience that empowers linguistic and cultural competencies. It provides opportunities to learn from different people, and is based on the same principles, which I personally support and try to live and work by in my daily life. (Personal communication, member of the OPLC).”
Practice is about meaning as an experience of everyday life which is essential in the activity of conversational learning thus, I define meaning making as making sense of the world by engaging in intersubjective dialogue. These elements elicit investigation into perspective-taking, defined as activity in which participants question their own principles and values, but also, beliefs, personal theories, ambiguities; and engage in self-reflection. Such activity conveys self-awareness, and exploration of cognitive and ethical dissonance.
In OPLCs/OALCs meaning making is about making sense of the world by engaging in intersubjective dialogue
Through their engagement in learning communities, members regain personal and collective agency .
We should not be led to think that they cannot act for the social good, while we anticipate substantial changes in policies made by others. I find it regrettable that such continuous processes of workplace and networked learning often fail to be recognized as professional development. As such, informal learning processes are often overlooked by policymakers – and education leadership – and thus they do not receive suitable attention. This work aims to redress this gap an invite a new kind of thinking on adult learning strategies.
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