Education

Communities of practice in higher education

Introduction

Academic universities and universities of professional education are currently in the midst of modernising their education to better suit the demands of present and future students. Higher education is becoming more vocational and occupationally-orientated: there is more and more interest in (learning) the application of theories and concepts. This requires a new approach in the coaching of learning processes. Demand-driven, the exchange of experiences and collaborative learning (community-learning) seem to be promising elements when giving shape to modernisation.

What is a community of practice?

A CoP is a group of people who share a (great) interest in a certain subject or theme. They meet to exchange, develop and make explicit knowledge, which arises from questions and problems they have (Wenger, McDermott & Snyder, 2002). CoPs can be initiated by individual staff members, experts or by teams (for example, after completion of a project) and exist thanks to the ‘give and take’ attitude of the participants. Participants are usually active: formulating a problem or learning-question, giving feedback, asking questions, giving tips or answers, supplying literature, etc.

CoPs can differ in method of working (formal with agendas or informal), accessibility (open/closed) and size. These aspects are related to the extent to which it is important to know one another (trust) and the wish to cooperatively – as a community – apart from sharing experiences, also develop knowledge. Knowledge-development requires trust and this best grows in a small community or in a secluded part of a larger community.

Cop’s and their benefits

If both the organisational and personal dimensions tum out to be positive then there is a safe environment within which staff can cooperatively leam from experiences and new ideas can be formed, focussed on the mission and strategy of the organisation. Whenever people come together in the context of their work with such an open-minded attitude, the organisation as a whole benefits.

Li the table below the benefits for the individual and educational organisation are sketched. Examples of CoPs in the University for Professional Education and Applied Science, Utrecht, the Netherlands illustrate these benefits.

Success-factors communities of practice

Within our university there is gradual recognition of the importance of communities in educational innovation: managers approach communities for advice on policy. Staff functioning in multidisciplinary teams seek out communities, depending on their learning needs.

Conclusion

Above we provided a description of what Communities of Practice are, what benefits they bring for individual and educational organisation and which success-factors can improve learning and working in communities. Communities of Practice can play an important role in the exchange, development and making explicit of new knowledge.

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