Silence. Total silence.

It came after one highlight for me of the Digital Education Masters course I was doing through Edinburgh University. Two world experts in their field had been discussing their topic together over Skype, with all of us as a class listening in online from around the world. When they finished, we were asked for any comments or questions. That’s when the silence came. Eventually one of us 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 wanted to bring it down again to everyday ‘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. Often in the case of traditional classroom contexts, the body of knowledge and skills, and the 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 teaches much more than one person talking about their topic of expertise. Those selected to converse can be a model of how the community wishes to conduct itself. Of course, all this does not have to be done digitally, but digital makes available experts maybe not available otherwise. If digital is used, then the interacting doesn’t even have to be done live. But it is a promising way to teach attitudes to the discipline as well as knowledge about it.
  • Another advantage of digital is what some perceive as one of its drawbacks. Teachers may feel that learners are less ‘present’ online compared to face-to-face learning. But 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 can be akin to the traditional master – apprentice model of learning where the master encourages the apprentice to increasingly direct themselves. This can work for some topics, though not all.
  • One further advantage of digital helps to address a longstanding issue with classroom training, in that it can be hard to follow it up afterwards. We have all done courses where we set the manual aside to come back to later, yet ‘later’ rarely comes. The 70-20-10 concept of learning holds that 70% of learning comes through on-the-job experiences, 20% from interactions with others (both of these after the course), and only 10% from formal educational events such as classroom or digital training. Exact figures are debatable but the concept 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 such as short videos for mobile phones help with the 70% on-the-job training.

Undoubtedly new issues come with digital, particularly if learning is within a fully digital community. For example: how can we know that the ‘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?

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