I have just moved on to the main part of my research study after having completed the pilot study and pilot chapter for the thesis. I perhaps naively thought it was going to be a perfunctory exercise, that pilot project, but truth be told it revealed quite a bit in terms of emergent themes and subsequent design adjustments that needed to be made. Based on the results from the pilot study and after writing the pilot chapter, I went back and adjusted my chapter on theory. I am using a combination of Community of Practice theory and some aspects of Multimodality as a means of engaging with that community.

However, my data suggested that perhaps the implicit argument in Community of Practice theory, that the desired or natural trajectory of legitimate peripheral participants (in my case, graduate students), is towards the center, towards greater participation in the community. I now don’t believe this to be the case. More importantly, zeroing in on this centering process of becoming a full participant in a community, I believe, removes a bit of the agency that the learner has in this process. Some are not thwarted in their efforts to become full members of the community; some are intentionally remaining on the peripherals of many communities, the state of liminality that I referred to in my last post.

So I decided I needed a few adjustments to how community might be defined and a stronger focus on trajectories of participants in this space to account for movements. I believe all of these movements to be legitimate. The sources I am drawing from for this post are

  • Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Oliver, M., & Carr, D. (2009). Learning in virtual worlds: Using communities of practice to explain how people learn from play. British Journal of Educational Technology, 40(3), 444-457.

Wenger discusses trajectories and Oliver & Carr build upon that a bit, but mostly I use these sources as they are quite accessible. Nothing wrong with being succinct. So first how CoP defines community and then how I am defining it for this thesis. Spoiler alert: I am broadening it, or reiterating Wenger’s (1998) broadening of it by emphasizing some of the different trajectories, defined below, that I was seeing in the pilot data. Ultimately, we assume, or at least I did at the beginning of this study, that the desirable, almost unavoidable movement of these graduate students was towards the center, or towards full participation. This is why I focused on graduate students and not undergraduates, an assumption that there was a greater commitment or identification with a chosen discipline. However, the data doesn’t support this (so far). These graduate students were all over the place in terms of their identification with their discipline and their trajectories towards and around it. It reminded me a bit of some of the open learning trajectories we are seeing with MOOCs and open courses; dabbling, nibbling at the edges, picking and choosing are all perfectly legitimate learning engagements. It all depends on what their larger goals and aspirations are.

How Community of Practice defines community

To review, Community of Practice is defined through a shared domain, a shared repertoire of processes, and shared sense of community. It involves social interaction, which, for the purposes of this thesis, is defined as social activity across formal and informal communities towards formal disciplinary understanding. It acknowledges social interaction, particularly in communities supported by technological use, as the locus of practice, a necessary element of community development (Constant & Edward, 1987). For the graduate students involved in this research study, a community of practice directly involves legitimate peripheral participation, which is a process by which newcomers to the community engage with the community towards becoming full members of that community (Lave & Wenger, 1999). Legitimate peripheral participation is of relevance to the community; is peripheral, and therefore potentially less risky than full members may experience; and is participatory, which means that it involves interaction with community members. Legitimate peripheral participation is being broadened in this thesis to include learning and participatory processes that generate environments for community engagement to occur, specifically those informal processes of preparing to learn outlined later in this thesis.

Legitimate peripheral participation also assumes learning is a process of “coming to participate in a community” (1999). This suggests that the intention of all learning activity is towards greater participation in a community, which this thesis challenges to some degree. This challenge comes in the form of “learning trajectories” that Community of Practice advances; these trajectories assume that people do not just magically appear within these communities as full-fledged members, but begin on the outside and slowly progress towards the center. Wenger (1998) outlines five trajectories as follows (taken from Oliver & Carr, 2009), all of which are useful in establishing the range of activity that will be included in this thesis:

“peripheral trajectories (which provide community access but never lead to full membership), inbound trajectories (which move from peripheral participation to identification with the community), insider trajectories (the ongoing renegotiation of identity within a community), boundary trajectories (involving participation in more than one community, which may lead to links being established or practices shared) and outbound trajectories (which involve leaving one identity behind in order to take up another).”

Particular trajectories are focused on in this thesis, namely inbound trajectories, peripheral trajectories and boundary trajectories as they broaden the scope of participation to include informal learning processes that directly or indirectly prepare students for disciplinary participation. These trajectories might be striated rather than smooth (2009), yet they all reveal the participatory processes of the graduate students involved in this study. In short, the community as defined by Community of Practice theory includes legitimate peripheral participants and their learning engagements along the boundaries of the community. Whether or not these trajectories and participatory processes are specifically designed to move from periphery to center is challenged by this thesis as some evidence suggested that perpetual peripheral participation in a multitude of communities was perceived as more desirable than full participation in one or few. However, this should not diminish the fact that Community of Practice theory is a useful tool for analyzing how participants engage with their communities and how their participatory processes carry them through several communities routinely.

How this thesis is defining community

Community as defined in this thesis involves participation in a disciplinary community either through direct formal engagement with the shared domain, or shared repertoire of processes that the discipline adheres to, or participation in the development of learning processes and informal communities that provide resilience or support for participating in these formal communities. In short, community is defined through participation in a shared exercise, whether that participation involves formal activity or informal support or learning for performing that formal activity.

This informal and formal participation is best illustrated through Wenger’s (1998) learning trajectories, which chart movement towards, away, or in parallel to the center. Trajectories provide a mechanism for making visible the movements of the graduate students involved in this study across formal and informal spaces and mediated through mobile technology, as this study intends to do. As such, this thesis is quite concerned with a few specific trajectories, The first, inbound trajectories, are trajectories from periphery to center, or from peripheral to full membership in the community. This thesis is working under the assumption that the graduate students involved in this study are moving from periphery to center much more than the average undergraduate student might be. It is assumed that several of these graduate students will be on an even stronger inbound trajectory as they move from graduate to doctoral school. Peripheral trajectories, defined as providing access to the community but not achieving full membership, are of great interest to this thesis as well. Several of the students in this study will remain on the periphery in their relation to the community, or will favor membership in another community over their engagement with this disciplinary community and choose to remain on the periphery. This represents legitimate peripheral participation and is included in this thesis to define the community itself as series of movements, some inbound, some peripheral, and some boundary.

The third trajectory, boundary trajectories, are of critical interest to this thesis as they involve the participation in more than one community which may provide links between these communities and potentially for processes or practices to be shared. An explicit concern of this thesis was to follow these students from informal to formal spaces, through informal and formal learning communities, and across informal and formal participatory processes. As such, this idea of multiple community memberships, which Wenger cleverly refers to as “multimembership” (1998), is critical to following this path. These additional communities include social and resiliency building informal communities, as well as the technological communities and media communities involved in mobile technology and the media being produced there. All of these directly influence participation in the formal disciplinary community of practice and all need to be considered in a broader definition on what constitutes community. This thesis focuses quite extensively on boundary trajectories, how these students are participants, consciously, in more than one community and how they move between them, either smoothly or with considerable friction. There is considerable work involved in the “reconciliation necessary to maintain one identity across boundaries” (1998), but this thesis suggests that this isn’t the point, nor is identity development the focus of this research. Multiple identities are crafted to fit particular communities and their reconciliation suggests a discomfort in these participants with identities that are seemingly in conflict. No such evidence of this discomfort was found in the data. What was more critical, or at least more evident, was the development of learning processes to participate or prepare for participation in disciplinary communities.

In summation, the community as defined in this thesis has a shared domain (discipline, either directly or indirectly), a shared repertoire of processes (formally, yes; informally, the data suggests that students are performing many of the same informal processes to prepare for learning), and shared intent. Intent is manifest; all of these students intend to graduate, all intend to pass a course or write a paper, or understand more about their discipline. All are involved in some degree in movements between informal and formal spaces, and between individualized and socialized spaces. These are the binding agents of this community. While Community of Practice theory implicitly suggest inbound trajectories designed for full membership are optimal, this thesis advances the belief that peripheral and boundary trajectories are more important for building resiliency in the multiple memberships that these students perform in on an almost daily basis. Community of Practice theory accounts for the movement between these communities; Multimodality will be used to unlock the transduction that is taking place when meaning from one community is translated into the disciplinary community (and vice versa).

By Michael Gallagher

My name is Michael Sean Gallagher. I am a Lecturer in Digital Education at the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. I am Co-Founder and Director of Panoply Digital, a consultancy dedicated to ICT and mobile for development (M4D); we have worked with USAID, GSMA, UN Habitat, Cambridge University and more on education and development projects. I was a researcher on the Near Futures Teaching project, a project that explores how teaching at The University of Edinburgh unfold over the coming decades, as technology, social trends, patterns of mobility, new methods and new media continue to shift what it means to be at university. Previously, I was the Research Associate on the NERC, ESRC, and AHRC Global Challenges Research Fund sponsored GCRF Research for Emergency Aftershock Forecasting (REAR) project. I was an Assistant Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (한국외국어대학교) in Seoul, Korea. I have also completed a doctorate at University College London (formerly the independent Institute of Education, University of London) on mobile learning in the humanities in Korea.

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