Special Section on Learning in Communities
- Professor of Information Sciences and Technology, Center for Human-Computer Interaction, Pennsylvania State University, USA. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Associate Professor, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois, USA.
Community learning is an area of investigation that goes to the heart of community informatics as we attend to questions of how knowledge is shaped and shared at the local level. Learning in communities spans a wide variety of institutions devoted to formal and informal educational processes and is deeply rooted in the goals and capacity inherent in participating individuals, groups, and organizations. How does a community learn across difference? How do information and communication technologies support learning? How do they threaten to reify harmful socioeconomic divides?
This special section of the Journal of Community Informatics is based on a multidisciplinary workshop organized by John Carroll and held in August 2005 at Penn States School of Information Sciences and Technology. It contains an informal report of the workshop, as well as 'mini papers' contributed by some of the participants.
We hope that this Special Section on Learning in Communities will contribute to the field of community informatics, stimulating further conversation among researchers, practitioners, and policymakers.
Informal Workshop Report:
Learning In Communities, August 14-17, 2005, University Park, PA
Most learning takes place in communities. People continually learn through their participation with others in everyday activities. Such learning is important in contemporary society because formal education cannot prepare people for a world that changes rapidly and continually. We need to live in learning communities.
A discourse on learning in communities encompasses (at least) communities of practice, learning communities, community networks, communities of interest, learning organizations, learning-by-doing, cognitive apprenticeship, subjugated learning, collaborative/cooperative learning, situated cognition, design as inquiry, knowledge management, lifelong learning, informal learning, case-based learning, and learning cultures. Though it is difficult to find any contemporary technical work in the multidisciplinary space of informal learning and collaborative activity that does not appeal to at least one of these touchstone concepts, it is also difficult to find work that tries to confront or to systematize the full range of them.
Existing conferences tend to stovepipe such discussions: Thus, meetings of the Cognitive Science Society and the Journal of the Learning Sciences focus much attention on the concepts of cognitive apprenticeship, situated cognition, collaborative/cooperative learning, and even classroom-based learning communities, but ignore informal and collective learning, such as learning organizations, community networks, and learning cultures. Information Systems conference and journals focus much attention on knowledge management and learning organizations, but do not focus on community networks and informal learning. The Computer-Support Cooperative Work Conference and Journal address knowledge management, communities of practice, and to a limited extent, community networks, but rarely consider case-based learning, learning cultures, life-long learning or subjugated learning. The Communities and Technology Conference and the Journal of Community Informatics focus on communities of practice, community networks, and subjugated learning, but typically do not address issues such as cognitive apprenticeship, situated cognition, and learning communities.
On August 14-17, 2005, a multidisciplinary group of scholars met at Penn State's School of Information Sciences and Technology to discuss "learning in communities." The goals of this workshop were to bring together a wide range of perspectives and approaches to learning in communities, to articulate the state of the art, and to define agendas for research and technology infrastructures and initiatives. The group included the following:
- Ann Peterson Bishop, Community Informatics Initiative, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign: Bishop is interested in community information systems for traditionally marginalized groups; she was a founder of the Prairienet community network.
- John M. Carroll, School of Information Sciences and Technology and Center for Human-Computer Interaction, Penn State, University Park: Carroll investigates social and computational infrastructures for community-based learning, and is Principal Investigator for the National Science Foundation's Civic Nexus project in sustainable information technology learning.
- Andrew Clement, Faculty of Information Studies, University of Toronto: Clement has worked in community informatics for 30 years, and is currently Principal Investigator for the Canadian Research Alliance for Community Innovation and Networking.
- Gerhard Fischer, Department of Computer Science and Institute for Cognitive Science, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO: Fischer investigates reflective communities, tools and environments to support lifelong learning and facilitate creativity.
- Christopher Hoadley, Department of Instructional Systems and School of Information Sciences and Technology, Penn State, University Park, PA: Hoadley is interested in knowledge-building communities, and in techniques for measuring community achievements.
- Andrea Kavanaugh, Center for Human-Computer Interaction, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA: Kavanaugh investigates communication behavior and effects in the context of community networks; she made a decade-long study of the Blacksburg Electronic Village, and is now evaluating Internet services in local government.
- Nancy Kranich, Library Consultant and Past President of the American Library Association: Kranich is interested in the role of libraries in providing an information commons, facilitating community-building and democracy, and in enhancing civic literacy.
- Lynette Kvasny, School of Information Sciences and Technology and Center for the Information Society, Penn State, University Park: Kvasny is interested in how inner city and third world women understand and recruit information technology to build social, cultural, and economic capital.
- Jenny Preece, University of Maryland, College Park, MD: Preece has studied behavior in health-related communities, contrasting face-to-face and online interactions; she is currently investigating community-development in the context of the International Children's Digital Library.
- Paul Resnick, School of Information, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI: Resnick is interested in the role universities could play in information technology cooperative extension, and in how to cultivate information technology careers in the civic sector.
- Mary Beth Rosson, School of Information Sciences and Technology and Center for Human-Computer Interaction, Penn State, University Park, PA: Rosson investigates end-user programming and design, particularly in community computing contexts.
- Jorge Schement, Department of Telecommunications and Institute for Information Policy, Penn State, University Park, PA: Schement investigates telecommunication policy implications for Hispanic-American communities, rural areas, and evolving conceptions of democracy.
- Mark Schlager, Center for Technology in Learning, SRI, Menlo Park, CA: Schlager is interested in community infrastructures, and has investigated community-based approaches to teacher professional development in TappedIn through the past decade.
- Murali Venkatesh, School of Information Studies, Syracuse University, NY: Venkatesh investigates power and progressive social action in the context of broadband civic network planning.
- Volker Wulf, University of Siegen and Fraunhofer Institute of Applied Information Technology, Germany: Wulf is interested in supporting knowledge management in communities and social networks, especially in the context of multi-cultural communities.
Orienting themes and questions
We developed a set of orienting questions, as part of the planning process for the workshop and successively elaborated through the course of the workshop itself.
- Design: What are effective strategies and methods for initiating (designing) and sustaining communities of various types? How do and how can communities evolve over time?
- Learning: Is learning, in the sense of human development, constitutive of healthy communities? How can communities facilitate various educational objectives, such as lifelong learning, cross-generational learning, knowledge-building, and universal technology literacy? What is the role of the university in facilitating communities, with respect to service learning, better integration of community action and research, and support for careers in civic information technology?
- Context: How can communities cultivate and leverage indigenous/subjugated knowledge? How do communities cope with power structures of the cultures and institutions in which they are embedded?
- Agency: How can communities facilitate innovation and collective action?
- Measurement and evaluation: How can we know when a community project or a community succeeds/fails? What are effective strategies and methods for assessing the impacts (e.g. learning, knowledge sharing) of communities on their participants individually and collectively? What are current success stories?
- Infrastructure: What are useful information technology tools and techniques for promoting community objectives (end-user programming, participatory design)? How can information technology support community building (for example, by increasing opportunities for civic discourse and by visualizing the community to itself)?
- Theory: What are useful models, theories and frameworks for understanding community dynamics (activity theory, distributed cognition)?
- Diversity: How can different audiences' needs be met? What power issues relate to different participants' roles and backgrounds? Are there ways that communities can be designed to enhance interconnection between different types of people? How can communities facilitate communication and cooperation across international, cultural, and social boundaries?
Our discussion wound up focusing on three theme clusters: (1) learning in the context of community informatics, (2) paradigms of research and action for studies of learning in community, and (3) community infrastructures that facilitate learning.
Learning in the context of community informatics
We distinguished "learning in communities", in which learning is often informal, incidental, and integrated with participation in community activity, from "learning communities", which exist for and are all about learning. Learning in communities is not just reciprocal or mutual learning, it is the collaborative construction of ideas in practice.
This concept of learning in communities is implicit in democracy, and discovering how to facilitate such learning is a challenge in the future trajectory of democracy in an age when face-to-face learning may become less important. A key issue for community informatics is how to construct environments that encourage sharing of knowledge, particularly about content and perspectives that are not in the mainstream.
Paradigms of research and action for studies of learning in communities
There is a tension between research and action in studies of learning in communities. Many of the workshop participants engage in some form of participatory action research. These methods are appropriate, but they are very costly with respect to the time and effort of faculty and students. Standard promotion and tenure values do not weigh community outreach highly.
In US land grant universities, there is a well-developed concept of cooperative extension, though its history is primarily agricultural outreach. Perhaps a concept of information technology cooperative extension could be developed as a more standard model (Boyte, et al., 2001). One issue to consider is that within universities, there often is a clear distinction between cooperative extension faculty and "regular" research and teaching faculty. Perhaps the extension model would just institutionalize the tension between research and action.
One approach to this tension is to clearly divide consultancy and research engagement. For example, school systems and commercial organizations have well-articulated concepts of consulting. In such a role, one can efficiently provide guidance for a client's problem. But successful consulting often requires focusing totally on solving a specific problem at hand, and not abstracting or generalizing that problem, or on enrolling practitioners as research collaborators.
Consultancy as an action research paradigm produces case studies that can subsequently be reflected on and developed as research activities. (Donald Schöns (1983) work might be a good example of this.)
Community infrastructures that facilitate learning
Infrastructure is the socio-technical background that allows work activity to move smoothly. It includes hardware and software, processes of governance, social facilitation of learning, and cultural and cognitive models.
Infrastructure is often invisible, but invisibility can entail neglect and breakdown, and can replicate existing power structures. Different segments of society are differentially able to shape infrastructures.
One strategy for managing infrastructures is to make them more visible and participatory, especially during periods of transition when infrastructures are changing. A related strategy is to slow down adoption through collective resistance. One tool for this is raising questions about infrastructures.
We are in a period now of rapid development and adoption of new information technology infrastructures. Several workshop participants are exploring alternative infrastructure initiatives that attempted to deliberately strengthen specific aspects of community-oriented activity, such as discussion and debate or visualization of the community.
Where do we go from here?
We want to both report on this workshop and to use it as a catalyst for further multidisciplinary discussions, developments, and investigations of learning in communities. We decided to initially organize a sectioned report on the workshop for the Journal of Community Informatics. In the longer term, we hope to organize a set of special issues for key journals in the research space.
The first of these special issue projects could emphasize learning as a core function of communities. A second special issue project might address the distinction and integration of descriptive research and action research with respect to methods and theories, and to the role of universities and university faculty in such activity. A third special issue could discuss infrastructure for community-based learning, and in particular, the objective of deliberately designing infrastructures to facilitate learning in communities.
Boyte, H., & Resnick, P., with P. Levine, R. Wachbroit, and L. Friedland. (2001). White paper: Civic extension for the information age. Draft. Available at: http://www.si.umich.edu/~presnick/papers/civicextension/index.html
Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.
The Learning in Communities workshop was partially supported by the US National Science Foundation (IIS-0511198).