Graham Attwell on European Communities of Practice

DISCUSS only recently conducted a series of interviews with European project actors engaged in Communities of Practice. In this article we present an interview with Graham Attwell, research director of Pontydysgu - Bridge to Learning - , Wales. Graham Attwell's work over the past decades was focused on research and development of new applications and approaches to Personal Learning Environments and use of social software for learning and knowledge development.

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Dear Graham, you have long year experience in working on European projects, and the building of Communities of Practice in various areas of Lifelong Learning. Which communities can we address in this interview?

One which we are quite involved with, I do a lot of work with, would be … and it’s quite an interesting one … the CoP around education and technology. I think it’s an interesting community of practice for several reasons. First, the CoP doesn’t have strict membership, secondly I think we are emergent, and thirdly the persons active in the CoP are aware of being in it. And it does cross quite a lot of disciplinary boundaries. And I think the boundary crossing is one of the most interesting features of CoPs. Certainly in terms of creativity, but also change of practice. I could give you a website or a membership list, but I guess in Europe there is several hundreds of us who interact with each other, using a repertoire of tools and sharing a discourse. So, I think it’s a community of practice.


What is the specific theme of topic of these CoPs?

What they are doing? They are using technologies to support learning in its broadest terms. So, it’s a group of people who design, develop and implement ideas, research and applications for technology to supporting learning. And very typically in many projects you get 1 or 2 people who are more or less the technology partners, who have esponsibilities for supporting others. Of course, it’s not just a project based community. I mean the use of technology is mainstream, includes companies and obviously educational institutions, but it is a specific role and requires specific expertise to do it.


What are the key activities in the community of practice?

The key activies are research, development, evaluation, implementation of technology to supporting learning. Now, why do people interact with each other? For all kinds of reasons. Obviously research is a common activity. On the other hand technology is a fast moving area, and technology to support learning is an even faster moving area at the moment. And obviously, we are looking at what other people are doing and trying to share stuff, plus developing code is an expensive business. A lot of this development takes place within open source. So, you could say, there is a sub community within the CoP … a substantial one … that majorily uses open source software. Open source software is obviously an artifact of that community.

Can you tell us about concrete activities in the CoP that were either exciting or boring to you?

Let me tell you 2 examples. One is a micro example. The other is a macro example. The micro example, which I did with a Dutch company … we worked with a fairly large career organisation in the UK: CONNEXIONS Kent and Midway, where we were working with what we called „Super users“, which was a group of 10 people looking to support professional development and knowledge development within their organisation. And that was exciting, because we got such great feedback  from them and ideas coming from them. I think that’s of particular interest when you come to the borders and boundaries, where you got technology and technology developers … in this case we got developers working with end users, who themselves were part of a different CoP: a community of career advisors.

I tell you another example: obviously there are many conferences on this stuff. And I give you two examples of events I found particularly good. One is the „joint technology enhanced learning summer school“ (JTEL), which is sponsored by the European Commission and brings together experienced researchers and developers, together with mainly PHD and doctorate students. And so you get a real exchange of experience between more experienced developers and new developers, with a lot of mutual learning which comes both ways (and I go there as an expert and run workshops, and I learn a huge amount). This is a week-long event. Obviously these links help to build a community. They work all together, and I keep in touch with a lot of these people.

A third example would be the personal learning environments (PLE) conference, which started when a group of 5 of us were bored at another event in Crete and this got together rather lunatics, and said: „Let’s get together and have a PLE conference, it will be fun, and we are all interested in that. We didn’t have any professors onboard at all, neither do we have any funding and it was intended only as a one off event. But now it’s into its fifth edition, just because the people came together. We organized our own room style, an un-conferencing style. It’s the exchange of knowledge between people, who are all interested in a particular topic at this point, in a particular artifact or a CoP, which in this case is personal learning environments.

And I think it’s those events organized by the community, not organized for the community, which are particularly powerful in terms of developing communities of practice. Where CoP doesn’t work is when people read documents and say: „Oh, this is great. I’m going to organize a community of practice.“ And this happens an awful lot. CoPS work when the initiative and drive comes from within the community. That’s when the knowledge is advanced and exchanged. But where it goes long so often is the theory thing, where it is assumed that you can apply these organisational structures to something. For example, setting up a platform and then the people will come.


Have there been situations that have been positively (negatively) commented by your colleagues or by persons outside the CoP?

We have to work constantly with communities outside our community, so there are necessarily comments. But let’s say in general it’s an interesting problem. CoPs develop their own discourses, and even their own language. For example, if we go to a tech-nerd conference, the language used there is fairly intangible to people who aren’t part of it. Most human beings would not understand what the people are talking about. However, that’s what the community does a lot of the time. I suspect there is layer of people, rather play the role I play. I see myself much as a bridge or interpreter between the learning community, which is a slightly different community - or shall we call call them users even, but certainly people who commission the development of applications - and the heavy tech community. I thought to bridge the two.
Though I had a problem. Let’s take ourselves as an example, which is the real life example: I’m working with the largest construction training company in Germany to develop mobile applications to support apprentices with both, in the workplace and in the training center. Now, what’s, the „Meisters“ (the trainers) in a sense themselves are skilled workers, and quite a few of them are interested in technologies, especially in high technology areas like horizontal drilling. They don’t even know the possibilities of what we can develop. Equally the hard tech developers – we’re using programmers from Austria and Barcelona – don’t know what learning support is needed. Now the traditional way which is done in the business is requirement analysis. But requirement analysis to me is not a pretty effective device, because one doesn’t know what’s possible, the other doesn’t know what’s needed. What ends up is a mess in the middle which neither is satisfied with it at the end of the day. So, we work on processes, to get communication between parts of the community of practice, where people in other communities of practice are thought to enable that feedback, dialog and discourse. If you talk to people in education about ?-developers, they say it’s quite impossible.

You can’t talk to them. And for that you need boundary objects, and identify where the boundary is between the communities, and start working on objects, which in itself can be very dynamic … to enable a two-ways flow between a community and another community and vice versa.


This sounds interesting, but a bit theoretical. Can you explain what is meant by „boundary objects“ and give an example?

Certainly, I mean, in one or two workshops I participated in, I worked with some people in? He got a huge table full of bits of blaster scenes, bits of card-board papers, string, glue … whatever. And we went through a series of exercises, looking at what’s the pain point, what’s the problem. And how you might overcome it. And got them in the end to build mockups in paper (there was a lot of paper prototyping). You could see a type of paper prototyping in the video in the end. there was a lot of drawing, exercises and discussions.

I tell you another issue. There is a big issue around sharing at the moment. We‘re working with people in multiple occupations, in multiple companies. Now sharing is seen in the technical community as rather desirable and very good. And there is all kinds of technology enhanced approaches to social networking, sharing, and communication. On the other hand, people in the companies, in the educational communities are far less convinced about this. So how to mediate the technical discussions around sharing with the human „what does mean sharing“? We often use paper protoypes, draw things, and that becomes the boundary object. To make stuff clear. We often draw things on paper, and then we use wireframes (which got no coding in it) to explain it to others. We do that before coding anything.


How did the participation in the CoP affect you as a person?

It’s not so much the community itself, but the technologies enabling the community to interact, which changed my ways of interacting. However, It think what effects me is that I work with lots of people, and my learning is faster. But also quite often in the past I tried to know everything about something.


How did the participation in the CoP affect your social connections?

Now I often refer to people, who know more than me. And quite frequently I find somebody within CoPs, who knows more than me and put questions about it. There is a lot more collaborative work. A very important point is to make people aware of the fact, that they are part of a wider community, not only members of a educational project. Moderation, or community champions are very important. But, at the moment we are also messing with new applications, allowing to tag the people’s expertise within communities. And I think this is quite an interesting approach. Because we have far more knowledge than one knows through qualifications (linkedIn-knowledge). I am very interested in tagging other people, about what they know, what they do …


How did the participation in the CoP affect your professional work?

You build collaborations with people you get on with, don’t you? This comes back to the social I suppose. Collaboration with people you like and people who are good in doing things. Certainly in the area I’m talking about, education and technology development, people in many cases work in collaborative projects. But, let’s take a different example: the construction trade. For most construction contracts you got 5 or 6 different people working together. And the communities are fairly important for developing that collaboration. An the CoPs are extremely good where they serve the purpose to sharing knowledge and understandings. And given the growing complexity of the work we do, and the fast speed in the development of technologies at the moment, CoPs are critical in sharing knowledge.


How did the participation in the CoP affect your competences?

I think CoPs and participation in them is a very rich source for informal learning, especially when you are working in small and medium enterprises, which don’t have formal training programs.

Thanks Graham

Interview mit Graham Attwell, Pontydysgu, Wales
Interviewer: Randolph Preisinger-Kleine, PW, Germany