#H800 Communities of Practice, Networked Individualism, Network Dynamics and Mycorrizhal Networks

Communities of Practice

The concept of Communities of Practice (COP) was introduced by Lave and Wenger (1991) to highlight and conceptualize forms of learning that focus on participation and are not limited to the individual level (don’t stop ‘at the skin of the individual’).  Legitimate peripheral practice is the conceptualization of the apprentice learning a craft with a master, thereby gradually gaining mastery in the subject. Learning was an inevitable aspect of all productive practices and not limited to a formal setting within schools or institutions.  The communities in the COP can be characterised as:

Clearly bounded structure, with rules for membership.

  • Single centre of supreme skill and mastery
  • A hierarchical structure where new members (apprentices) start at the ‘periphery’ and gradually move toward the centre of the community as they obtain mastery.  Also called a ‘centripetal’ structure.


However, recent work by Engeström (2007) challenges Wenger’s analysis by pointing out oppression by dominant figures in communities and rebellion by apprentices.  He argues that learning is not smooth and necessarily centripetal. Instead, the movement of learning is shaped by learning’s participants.  Those at the hub of the learning experience exert the greatest influence.
Jones (2004) recalls the successful application of network dynamics in domains like transport and politics.  He argues that mathematical network principles like power laws, clustering and the strength of weak ties can be applied on learning networks.  Networks can be identified from the level of societies and institutions down to individuals and ideas.  Individuals can be nodes in a network, engaged in linking to other persons, agents and resources.  Or, ideas can be considered as nodes with associations between them forming the links of the network.  His ideas remind me of Connectivism – discussed in an earlier blog post– which claims to be a learning theory for the internet age.  Connectivism describes learning as building networks, not only of physical persons, but of associated ideas.
Engeström considers COP as a-historical structures (unlike activity systems in Activity Theory) , which means they are not connected with the varying dominant organisational structures in a society.  Engeström argues that COP are mainly useful in a society dominated by craft and industrial production.  Craft is characterised by a master-apprentice relationship and industrial production is characterised by teams, small groups with well-defined membership and with members who have complementary competences and work together on certain task.  Gradually, however, a ‘co-configuration’ model is evolving in which companies are becoming more susceptible for input from customers and other outside sources (co-creation of value as described by Prahalad and Rawasmamy, 2004).  Adler and Hecksher (2006, cited in Engeström, 2007) call the organisational structure for the post-industrial society a ‘collaborative community’.
A collaborative community is different from a team in 4 aspects:
  • Boundaries become more fluid;
  • Very high level of division of labour and diversity of knowledge;
  • Authority based on knowledge and expertise instead of status;
  • Values are orienting and motivating elements for members of the community.
  • Increased importance of motivation follows from looser membership rules.
Engeström points out that such a collaborative community is no longer a team, but a network.
Social production and the mycorrizhae analogy
For Engeström the organisational structure of the information society is social production. The flagship example of social production is the open source movement.  Thousands of developers and bug fixers work together in a loosely-structured network without a clear centre – although a success factor of the Linux and Moodle open source networks is arguably the role of their respective leaders -, but with a compelling common goal, called ‘runaway objects’.  Examples are global warming and a free operating system.
Engeström develops an analogy with a mycorrizhae system.  This is a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and the roots or rhizoids of a plant.  The fungus delivers nutrients and water to the plant, which returns the favour by providing the fungus with energy-rich sugars.
The analogy plays out as follows:
  • A underground network of roots with interspersed nodes resembles a loosely connected and expanding network of individuals, exchanging information and with multiple loyalties.
  • Visible fungi resemble the visible, erect, bounded and institutionalised structures that emerge from this network.  Engeström uses the term ‘wildfires’ to describe sudden bursts of activity – in the same of a different place – with long dormant periods in between.
  • There is no hierarchical structure in mycorrizhae as is the case in the root system of plants.
  • The mycorrizhae work in symbiosis with plants as informal learning networks can work in symbiosis with formal structures.
  • The mycorrizhae is hard to kill, but also vulnerable due to the lack of clear leadership.
Networked individualism
The model is very suitable for a mobile generation of learners, who form very easily temporary networks, dominated by weak bounds.  Castells (2008) calls this a ‘networked individualism’, claiming that not mobile, but individual is the defining property of the mobile generation, since people experience a much higher freedom.

Final remarks

These post-industrial organisation modes seem fit to explain learning activity in a Web 2.0 environment.  Students are developing personal learning networks (PLE) as a complement to the institution’s learning management system (LMS), in which they communicate not only with peers, but with a wider network of friends, alumni, bloggers, staff and domain experts.  Twitter seems the ultimate tool to facilitate this kind of weak-tie dominated networks, much more than Facebook, which has a more personal and bounded network structure.  An interesting analysis how Google + mixes weak-tie and strong-tie networks was made here by George Siemens.  Traditional classroom practice can be described as a community of practice, with a clear master (the teacher), a bounded membership structure (the classroom) and a clear, externally defined objective (the curriculum and assessment).  The current trends in (higher) education towards a more student-centred learning approach, with a higher responsibility for the student to create a learning network, more flexibility in courses and more fluid boundaries between formal and informal learning seem fit with a network approach and a mycorrizhae analogy.

Main references

Engeström, Y. (2007) ‘From communities of practice to mycorrhizae’ in Hughes, J., Jewson, N. and Unwin, L. (eds) Communities of Practice: Critical Perspectives, London, Routledge.

Jones, C. (2004) ‘Networks and learning: communities, practices and the metaphor of networks’, Association for Learning Technology Journal, vol.12, no.1, pp.81–93

Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge university press.

Castells, M. et al (2004) ‘The Mobile Communication Society: A cross-cultural analysis of available evidence on the social uses of wireless communication technology, A research report prepared for the International Workshop on Wireless Communication Policies and Prospects: A Global Perspective, held at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, 2004

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