‘I can’t count the reasons I should stay, one by one they all just fade away’ – The power of community in higher education and work

The idea of a community, the spirit and goodwill it can create, the passions and arguments it invariably engenders and the potential for learning within one has been a passion of mine since I was a youthful, brown-eyed teenager running discos and band events for my peers at school.  At all stages of my career, I can point to where my practice has intersected with communities, either as part of one or linking to others.  It is the common thread that links my personal to professional life and has driven my daily activity for over two decades.

 

When I worked for one of Australia’s largest book chains in the 80s and 90s, I led a project to create communities of science-fiction and fantasy readers, many isolated by distance and context, where the store and a very primitive on-line and mail network became a hub got people to share opinions and passions.   I was involved in community media for over ten years as a producer and board member, which highlighted some of the difficulties that can arise from community building, however on the other hand, demonstrated the absolute power of being part of something that can change the wider community or its members and make things better.  This sense of community, of belonging, of interaction, collaboration and shared differences (and perhaps indifferences) has influenced my opinions and attitudes towards open access, creative commons, social media, learning and teaching and politics.  It is from these experiences that I have come to passionately believe that communities (or networks or group, or whatever you choose to call this collective of people) are one of the most powerful forces for learning, social interaction and emancipation.  Belonging, shared beliefs and practices, and a sense of ownership are emotional and personal tie lines, connecting us to others, both similar and different.

 

Prior to moving to the UK three years ago, I worked for a large public further education institute called TAFE NSW, located in the south-west of Sydney, Australia.  Within my department, the notion of a community underpinned both the way we worked and the way we engaged with our learners.  Within the department, I was lucky enough to work with one of the most amazing group of teachers I have had ever had the privilege to know. They were passionate about learning and teaching.  They never assumed the learners were incapable of learning, whatever level they were at.  They were open to experimentation and innovation.  They worked with each other, not against each other, sharing resources and ideas, coming to team meetings.  Everyone was part of the family and everyone worked towards making the community stronger.  It is a great example of how work practice was enhanced by community.  Work was collaborative.   Load and responsibility were shared.  People passionately argued for what they believed.  There was conflict, but it was generally constructive and creative, borne out of shared belief in the brand and the work we were doing.  This was often despite an organisation that more than often did not support them, reward them or value them.  The department met and exceeded targets, kept to budget and improved student outcomes.

 

A community of practitioners learns from each other, respects each other and draws on the expertise and experience of other networks and communities, developing links beyond the fuzzy boundaries of their own community.  All the members of this team have now spread themselves to the four winds (three different countries at least).  But the community still exists. It’s bigger, it’s influence different and it’s resonance more wide-ranging.  It has evolved.  This is what happens with communities, new members and new contexts ensure the community survives and changes.   It is another transdisciplinary skill critical to maintaining and keeping connections within and between communities.

 

The notion of community is not a new concept, social movement theory has linked community to the emancipation and democratic participation of individuals in society (Diani 1992; McAdam, McCarthy & Zald 1988; Pateman 1970).  Lave and Wenger (1991) have talked about the idea of communities of practice, where learning occurs through action and practice within a community.  John Seely Brown (2001) in a very interesting evaluation of ‘Learning in the Digital Age’ argues that ‘Learning is a remarkably social process. In truth, it occurs not as a response to teaching, but rather as a result of a social framework that fosters learning…it’s through participation in communities that deep learning occurs…by coming to inhabit the relevant community, they get to know not just the “standard” answers, but the real questions, sensibilities, and aesthetics, and why they matter’. (Brown 2001).  Writers such Kamenetz (2010) and Siemens and Weller (2011) argue that one of the fundamental processes of learning is social interaction and socialisation, which can occur within communities supported or enabled by social media. McMillan and Chavis (1986) in their landmark work on community, position the notions of understanding and acceptance as central to a community often formed by the creation of boundaries defining rather than celebrating difference.

The development of communities should be a fundamental part of modern higher education.  It should sit within the process of curriculum design, learning and teaching, assessment and lifelong learning.  Teaching that is dominated by monologues such as a lecture, the use of technology that replicates the existing individual approaches to learning (such as the way a VLE is often used (Hanley 2011)) and the continued reliance on an assessment system that requires and privileges an assertion of individual understanding is not modern learning. It is memory, it is absorption and it is repetition; it is not application, use, social contextualisation and collaboration.  We often demonise collaboration and call it collusion, punished punitively or call it failed group work, where politics and personalities overrun learning.  At TAFE, our work with students occurred broadly within a restrictive administration and curricular system, with formal exams and nationally set and monitored curriculum and quality enhancement.  Despite this, much of our work with students was collaborative, using methods such as project based inquiry, simulations, case studies, work-based learning and student-led learning (for more, you can read this paper).  We tried to find ways to link the learners across disciplines, with marketers working with events management students and radio people collaborating with musicians and marketers.  It is in these spaces between disciplines that innovations and creativity will emerge.  We clearly saw in a number of projects we ran examples of where students learnt from each other, developed understanding through practice and did so with minimal intervention from the teachers.  These are powerful and resonant ways to learn (and a topic for another blog!) (Brown 2001; Nicolescu 1997).

 

When people enter the world of work, they will need to engage in socialisation, collaboration, team work and sharing, no matter what the context.  When they change jobs, new job opportunities will arise from within their community or because of their interactions with other communities. These communities won’t exist through old students clubs or reunions; they will be virtual, connected across and through platforms.  They will be lasting and agile, drawing on new members and connecting with others, without boundaries and managed intuitively.  Engagement may be more widespread and infrequent, as consumption in modern communities sometimes wins over interaction (how many people read your Facebook status vs. commenting on it…or read vs. comment on this blog!).  The technology supports the on-going viability of these communities, keeping them alive when in the past time would have seem them fracture.  However, it is a new range of skills that people bring to communities that make them functional and productive.  Brown notes that these are an ‘…ever-evolving language of interpretation and expression, an interactive approach to learning, creating, and responding to information through a complex montage of images, sound, and communication’ (Brown 2001).  Some of the current modes of teaching and learning are not fit for a new purpose; they are part of the toolkit, not the whole box and dice.  By themselves, at best, they only passively support the learner to acquire and the transdisciplinary skills required to make and develop their community.

 

My alum from my undergraduate days is still connected through Facebook, some of us a little greyer or balder.  Some of them are my closest friends, sharing outings, debate, monopoly and art.  These connections are strong and important, both emotionally and personally.  In some ways this community formed despite our education, which was didactic, non-interactive and individualistic.  We learnt these skills ourselves, as millions of other learners have over centuries past.  Perhaps we were lucky. But imagine the possibility if all of higher education supported as part of the broad church of education, this kind of skill development, collaborative knowledge creation and social interaction.  Imagine if every learner ‘left’ their degree with a community that they were an active and engaged member of and had the skills to form and lead other communities, linking each together where appropriate. If those communities then informed and created the curriculum that the next generation engaged with and were a part of the learning process not just for each other but for successive communities.

This blog post is dedicated to the memory of the wonderful Cathy Lee.  A valued and loved member of our community. You are missed.  

 

Brown, J.S. 2001, ‘Learning in the digital age’, The  Internet and the university: 2001 Forum, eds M. Devlin, R. Larson & J. Meyerson, EDUCAUSE, Boulder, CO, pp. 71-86.

Diani, M. 1992, ‘The concept of social movement’, The Sociological Review, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 1-25.

Hanley, L. 2011, ‘Mashing Up the Institution: Teacher as Bricoleur’, The Radical Teacher, no. 90, pp. 9-14.

Kamenetz, A. 2010, DIY U: Edupunks, edupreneurs, and the coming transformation of higher education, Chelsea Green Publishing.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. 1991, Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge Univ Pr.

McAdam, D., McCarthy, J. & Zald, M. 1988, ‘Social movements’, in D. McAdam, McCarthy, J., Zald, M. & Smelser, N (ed.), Handbook of sociology, Sage Publications, pp. 695-737.

McMillan, D.W. & Chavis, D.M. 1986, ‘Sense of community: A definition and theory’, Journal of community psychology, vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 6-23.

Nicolescu, B. 1997, ‘The transdisciplinary evolution of the university condition for sustainable development’, International Congress – Universities’ Responsibilities to Society, International Association of Universities, Chulalongkorn University, Bankok, Thailand., viewed 2nd May 2012 <http://basarab.nicolescu.perso.sfr.fr/ciret/bulletin/b12/b12c8.htm>.

Pateman, C. 1970, Participation and democratic theory, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Siemens, G. & Weller, M. 2011, ‘Higher education and the promises and perils of social network’, Revista de Universidad y Sociedad del Conocimiento (RUSC), vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 164-170.