Cristina Costa on Online Communities of Practice

In this article we present an interview with community activist Dr. Cristina Costa, who is a lecturer in Lifelong Learning (Technology Enhanced Learning) in the Centre for Lifelong Learning, School of Education, Strathclyde University. Her research focuses on the intersection of education and the participatory web through a sociological lens, especially Pierre Bourdieu’s key concepts. She is also interested in broader issues regarding the participatory web in the context of a changing society. She is a co-editor of the Social Theory Applied blog/website. The interview was conducted by Prof. Thomas Eckert, who is full professor at the Institute of Pedagogy at Ludwig-Maximilians University Munich, Germany. His major field of interest is qualitative and quantitative methods in quality measurement and participation in adult education.

The first thing is that we want to know some things about you. What you're doing within CoPs, meaning what can you tell us about some CoPs you are working in or with? About the actors that are involved, the type of the CoP and day-to-day activities.

Right now I am working as a lecturer at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow / Scotland. I run a program for "lifelong learning" and the idea is to develop a communal approach as part of my degree. So that’s the kind of thing that I am doing now.

My experience with CoPs goes back to 2004 and when I say CoPs, I mean online CoPs. I never had experience with face-to-face CoPs, as it was originally developed by Wenger / Trayer. I always ended up on the deep end with an online perspective which later on he also picked up with this new book.

It happened in 2004, when I took part in an interesting CoP. Probably one the longest lasting online CoP called ‘webheadsinaction’. It’s a group or community of international teachers that are spread throughout the world to teach mainly English as second language. And they come together as a way to learn to use great technology in their classes and as a form of engaging in a kind of space where they cannot only share experiences but also collaborate. I became a moderator in that community, I became an insider of that community and that resulted in a kind of, let’s say at least in a personal understanding of what it takes to conduct a CoP.


Lessons learned


When I came to the UK, I was involved in a couple of European projects, and UK based projects as well. Those projects tried to set up CoPs, most times after the project, because for the project itself there was a deadline. And you know, people are motivated by project deadlines, they don't sustain or become more disperse.

So there is a couple of lessons there. As a big difference between 2004 and 2014, the technology has made a big step forward and has changed practices. Where in 2004 technology was not as much available, or at least it was the diversity of platforms and tools was not so big, people tended to congregate in one single space. Today communities become more dispersed, they become more networks. So if you want to know, I would give you an overview and then maybe from that you can ask more things that you’re more interested in.

My perspective in CoPs is that it has been an evolution or a change that is based on technology change and, how people socialized into that technology. That’s one of the big differences; before we had like yahoo groups and might have blogs and everyone hung out in the same kind of space. It was quite specialized and the group was quite small compared to the ones today. We had like around 300 people at some point, and there was a core group of 30 people that were very active. And because everyone was kind of involved in just that bubble, cohesion was much stronger then today.

Today you have Twitter, you have Facebook you have, you have research-gate you have local ones as well. The choice is quite big, so people tend to divide themselves into smaller groups and, that creates probably a sense of distributed belonging where people hang out in different places. So the community is not that tight.

However, it doesn't mean that communities cannot be developed. That takes me to the other point which is on looking at the experience with the ‘webheadsinaction’ and looking at the experiences of the communities, evolving from projects that had the aim to create communities.

So, ‘webheadsinaction’ was already there. It was set up in a very organic way. There was no methodology or a methodic approach to it. It just happened. And that was the key to its success. Compared to that, the communities which were funded had a very short live because they were tied to a project. People here think in that way "I am here as part of a project and I am expanded".

The ‘webheadsinaction’ was personal effort, it was personal willing. There was no funder, there was no structure. The structure was created as people engaged and that made the big difference for the own development, for the duration of the community and, also the ‘webheadsinaction’ are still active. They are not as active as they were before and that, again, has to do with people migrating to other networks and other platforms.


Role and importance of the social dimension


So one of the things I find extremely difficult is to create a community from scratch. Because communities cannot be created. They happen. They emerge. From a shared purpose, a shared reason, a shared willing. And people usually tend to put more effort in if they are the ones that have the idea. Or they feel, that it was a shared effort.

I do understand your problem and I do agree exactly with the problematic that you're trying to solve there, because it's one of my biggest criticisms in terms of European projects. That there is no way that to sustain and most times it’s just an exercise to do something, but no one picks up to that, so the richness of all the knowledge and all the activity that is generated is most times lost after the project is gone.

So the thing that is important is to socialize people in creating a shared identity as part of that community. And, one of my advices is: don't underestimate the power of socialization; not just with serious activity, but having people bonding over things, that they can find communality, that they can find an interest and bond between themselves. It’s an emotional link that brings people together, that was the thing that brought the ‘webheads’ together in such a strong way. It was not only the fact that they were learning together but that they could relate to each other, that they saw them almost as a second family. That sounds a bit overrated but it’s not. It’s the feelings, the emotions, the relational aspect of relationships in that sphere.

And that for me is the part that is harder to crack. Especially when you have sponsored projects, you define what you're going to do, but a lot of socialization that does not just have to do with work, but has to do a lot with what people want, has to be taken into consideration. And that has been the part that I always found in my own teaching. When I teach, that it becomes more effective if I socialize people in ways that they want to come back to that space, because they find it a space not only where they learn, but having a good time. So, I am not sure if that makes sense, but that is probably the best, the biggest lesson that I have learned. And you know, you can always only hope that it will sustain the activity, because people want to.

So, as part of that, of sustaining the activity what I found that is important to do is to distribute the leadership, engaging people in a shared leadership, which is not a top-down approach. Seeing things more from the purposes of community where everyone has something to share, where everyone shares responsibility of animating if you will, of creating activities generating activities for the community so that there’s not top-down activity also that not everyone relies on you or whoever is going to lead on that activity to develop the community. When it becomes a shared effort and, the shared effort becomes the glue. So, those are the kind of things that I find important.


If I understood you right, that means that whether a CoP is successful or not depends on what you have done during the lifetime of the project, so you have to prepare the CoP, otherwise you have no chance?

Yes, if you give them a space basically, is the same thing as if you go to a bar which is there. But if you don't create an environment, people are not likely to come back. They need to feel comfortable, they need to feel that they are welcome to participate and, they need to feel that they can actually take part in the show. In a more prominent way.

So it’s how you shift roles and it’s how you create an environment where everyone feels belong to. I find that to be the easiest way to set these things up. A problem that you ever get is the fact that, if you’re doing that with funding, once the funding stops you face with the question: how are we going to continue? So, again it’s about creating shared honorship, so that everyone feels that they can contribute beyond, at any time and beyond any kind of timeline that is given.


Developing meaningful activiities


Did you encounter events in CoPs that were boring or exciting, or situations that have been positively commented by your colleagues?

So far, in the ‘webheadsinaction’ there was a lot of affection and you know that seems a bit like more kind of emotional, but it was the thing that it was a very strong perception that people belong to their group, although they didn't necessarily have met each other face-to-face. The sociability of the interactions was very high and that created a sense of duty of people, always trying to share and contribute things, which became kind of a way to create a very strong bond. So much that I have met quite a few of the people now, although people had to travel long distances to meet you. And to kind of, send you messages of appreciation as well.

A couple of years ago, when I was still teaching in Portugal I had a project with adult students that were learning English for the first time ever. They were in their 40ies and I couldn't get them to speak in class because it’s hard for older people to make mistakes in class, than it is for kids. So I had this idea of developing a podcast and, we worked towards that podcast and that’s how I convinced them to create a podcast for valentine’s day with messages for their beloved ones and, we put that online on valentine’s day and I wanted to proof to them that their message was actually understood although the pronounciation might not be the best in the world.

So, I asked the community, the ‘webheadsinaction’ to provide comments to those messages, those podcasts that have been published and we got amazing and huge numbers of comments. Because everyone thought that they could relay to that activity and because I have been an active member of the community they now wanted to give back. And that’s not only for me a proof that I have a supporting group that I don’t find anywhere else. For my students it was a validation of their own learning and of their own effort. And that was a quite important experience, something that stayed with me and I actually ended up writing a little article about that for a magazine.

It’s been part of that community that it’s answering every time that you need it and that changed a lot. People do that because they know that value will attribute to their contribution. That makes sense. So again, it’s not because they have to do that. They didn't have to waste time with such a silly thing like “the CoP is there, so that everyone now could learn from each other”. It was just an extra-request, could you please comment on my students so that they realize that their work is actually valid. And they did it. They didn't have to.

But due the fact that everyone joined in and, the number of answers was overwhelming, that reinforced the sense of belonging and told people: “ok, because someone did this to me, then I now need to do it for them.” That’s that kind of loop of giving and taking all the time. And that’s what makes things very interesting, because the community is based around an altruistic purpose in which you learn but you also allow others to learn from your own contributions.

So, now I give you an opposite example, from a community that I belonged to. This was a funded-based community, and money was injected for a while for people in the community to develop projects, which actually divided the community, because there was not a shared purpose anymore. There was people competing for money, or competing for the best project and that in a way destroyed the community.

People came with a very, in a way quiet selfish purpose. They didn't come there just to learn. They came there to acquire funds, to increase their kind of probability of getting research-funds from a big machine. So, that created a different atmosphere and as soon as money stopped, the community stopped. And communities don't stop like that. So, that’s maybe why there wasn't a community. There was kind of a shared individual purpose why people were there. Whereas with the ‘webheadsinaction’ it was kind of “I contribute to this community because believe in this and I know this and I know that I am getting things back”. So, it’s about being together in a sense of togetherness, of connecting to each other, of being there to share purpose.

Creating value and personal impact


And what we are interested in is the question whether the work within a CoP did affect you as a person, or did affect your social connections, your professional work and your competences.

It does. If the community works, it affects all of that. It affects your professional and sometimes your social connections because they become linked. I have made quite a few friends (people that I actually call friends) out of those communities. So, they are in my professional circles, but they now also belong to my social circles. And even though they live away (they don't live necessarily in the UK) we do make efforts. There is those bonds that allow us to continue to follow the work of other people and that people follow your work; even if at some point because of the diverging technology the personal relationships are being more dispersed than in just one community.

So there is benefits on professional level and social level. There is benefits at professional development and that has to do with the sharing of information and sharing of practice. Because you find yourself in a group that you can trust, and people that you could work with. And that’s another important aspect.


And now the last question: You already mentioned some, but maybe you have some more tips for our work? Things that we should do or should not do?

I think what you should do is to bring different European projects or teams together into a CoP. The thing is community; the word can be seen, it already says it: there has to be a common agreement. It has to be something that is common to a unit and that is very important to take into consideration. That, as you start setting it up negotiate everything from the beginning with the community, make them part of the decision making and give them responsibilities. Because, if people don't see themselves as having a role within the community they don't put effort in it. It becomes just something that is done to them.

Rather than something that they belong to and you need to enhance or provide the space for people they feel to belong to. Although there is always someone that takes the lead, there should be a shared leadership that at some point other people can take the leadership. So, that it’s fluid. And also that distributes the load of work so that not everyone just has to do one thing. The other thing that works well is a mix of activities, so people can share experience valuable to the community in different ways. For instance, create a little event that people can participate in. You also could have an online meeting. I always felt that the synchronous interaction once in a while needs to be. It can’t be all the time, because it tires people but once a month re-energizes people and it could be that the members of the community have something to share. A kind of a little schedule of activities that again is shared by the community. So that the community can contribute to that kind of activity.

Again, building on the ‘webheadsinaction’ community experience: they used to have what they called a convertiance and, that was a 24h event. What they did was: they put an empty timetable in a wiki and people from the community would come and say I will claim this slot and I will invite this person to speak or I will speak about this and this one. So the events were created collaboratively, and everyone had responsibility for it. So I think that those are the aspects that are supportive.

Another thing is to allow for more social activity, not just work. You know, if people just want to tell a joke, people want to share a video that is funny, then they feel that they're allowed to bring something more social into it because, you know, on day to day practices there is a mix, isn't there? We don't always talk .... Sometimes we become more social. I doesn't mean that we are going to reveal everything about our lives but it’s kind of putting a smile on people’s faces, this kind of interaction and making things a little bit more fluid.

So for me is the aspect of socializing and a lot of people to belong to .... and the more you do that, the less work you have in that way, so you still keep a work of managing this kind of interfering if no one takes the role but it’s that shared leadership that I think that might make it work.

Thanks Cristina!