Digital Learning in a Community of Practice (Part V of V)

Silence. Total silence.

It was after one of the highlights for me of the Digital Education Masters program through The University of Edinburgh. Two world experts in their field had been discussing their topic together in a Skype class, with the rest of us listening in from around the world. When they finished, we were asked for comments or questions. That’s when silence came. Eventually someone spoke up and expressed what I think we all were thinking. He described that after hearing these two experts talk at such a ‘mountaintop’ level, no-one dared bring it down again to ‘valley’ level. I concurred totally.

I learnt a lot that day. Not just on the topic, but on much, much more. I learnt how two respected members of a Community of Practice discussed their subject, how they queried each other, how they disagreed and how they interacted with those like us who were finding our feet within that community. It gave me something to aim for.

There are two approaches I have come across to learning and we did both that day. One approach is learning through knowing, usually of skills or concepts; the other is learning through becoming. The latter is about achieving the ability to communicate appropriately within the community associated with the discipline and acting according to its norms. It comes through engagement with its Community of Practice. It can be the case that in traditional classroom contexts, the body of knowledge, skills and attitudes are taught decontextualised from the practices to which they belong. How can including a digital aspect help address that?

  • One way is illustrated above, where experts interact about a topic online. This adds more to the teaching than one person talking about their topic. Those selected to converse can model how the community wishes to conduct itself. Of course, all of this need not be done digitally, but digital makes available experts not otherwise available. If digital is used, then the interaction doesn’t even need be live. However if it is done, it is a promising way to teach attitudes as well as knowledge about the discipline.
  • Another advantage of digital is also what some perceive as a drawback of digital. Teachers may feel that learners are less ‘present’ online compared to face-to-face; a learner less present online means they are more present elsewhere! A digital environment makes it possible to apply learning directly in the context in which it will be used, while being mentored by the social presence of an online community. It is akin to a traditional master-apprentice model of learning where the master encourages the apprentice to increasingly direct themselves. This can work for some topics though not necessarily all.
  • Another advantage of digital can help address a longstanding issue with classroom training, which can be hard to follow up afterwards. We have all done courses where we set the manual aside to come back to later, yet ‘later’ may never come. The 70-20-10 concept of learning holds that 70% of learning is through on-the-job experiences, 20% from interactions with others (both of these after the course), and only 10% from formal events such as classroom or digital training. Exact figures are debatable but the idea of a lot of learning coming after is not. As well as helping provide the 10% of formal training, digital can also help with the 20% of social interaction through such as online forums, and tools like short videos for mobile phones can help with the 70% on-the-job training.

Undoubtedly new issues come with digital, particularly if learning is within a fully digital community. One example is how to know how ‘lurkers’, who don’t take much part in online activities, are still ‘on board’ with learning? But in addressing such issues, it is good to keep in mind the bigger advantages above of making use of digital within a community of practice.

How can you use digital to integrate learners into a community of practice related to your topic?


Read more blog posts by Peter Tate. This is the final of five posts in this series.

Peter Tate designs and delivers interfaith and cross-cultural training in both classroom and digital formats at the King’s Centre Southall, London. This is alongside his studies for a Masters in Digital Education with Edinburgh University on how to implement a Dialogue Education (DE) approach in online environments. He previously provided training consultancy as Brainy Training Solutions for various charities, including financial management training for the WaterAid charity. Before that, he delivered DE-type training for UK based charities Hope Consultants (developing digital training to make use of DE) and Wycliffe UK (training trainers to implement DE within their adult learning programmes).


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