Spiders in the Net: Universities as Facilitators of Community-based Learning 

Gerhard Fischer

Center for LifeLong Learning & Design < gerhard@colorado.edu >

Markus Rohde

Information Systems and New Media, University of Siegen, Germany < markus.rohde@uni-siegen.de >

 Volker Wulf

Information Systems and New Media, University of Siegen; Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Information Systems (FhG-FIT), Germany < volker.vulf@uni-siegen.de >




This paper explores the importance of universities in the knowledge society beyond their traditional role in research and education. It argues that, especially in the fields of applied sciences and engineering, they have the potential to exploit local knowledge and provide opportunities for students to become lifelong learners. First, they need to reinvent their conception of education by taking industrial practise and social networks into account.



Universities play an important role in the knowledge society (Brown & Duguid, 2000). Beyond their traditional role in research and education, they have the potential exploit local knowledge in (regional) innovations and to provide opportunities for students to become lifelong learners. To realize these potentials, universities, specifically in the fields of applied sciences and engineering, will have to reinvent their conception of education by taking the importance of industrial practise and social networks into account (Tsichritzis, 1999).

Traditionally, university teaching is based on an “instructionist” understanding of learning which assumes that the instructor possesses all relevant knowledge and passes it to the learners (Noam, 1995). The learner is seen as a receptive system that stores, recalls and transfers knowledge. Such an understanding has been criticized from theoretical and practical points of view (cf. Collins et al., 1989; Jonassen and Mandl, 1990). In a highly differentiated world full of open ended and ill-defined problems it is rather unlikely that an individual (professor) or an academic organization (faculty) alone will possess sufficient knowledge to foster learning among students and practitioners sufficiently (Arias, et al., 2001).

We believe that socio-cultural theories of learning (Bruner, 1996) and the concepts of social capital (Huysman & Wulf, 2004) and social creativity  (Fischer et al., 2005) hold considerable promise as a theoretical base for the repositioning of universities in the knowledge society. Learning is understood as a collective process (Rogoff, et al., 1998) that is linked to a specific context of action. In socio-cultural theories of learning, communities of practice are the social aggregate in which learning and innovation take place. Knowledge emerges by discursive assignment and social identification (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998). Social capital is about value derived from being a member of a social aggregate. By being a member, people have access to resources that non-members do not have (Bourdieu, 1985; Huysman & Wulf, 2004; Putnam, 1993). Social capital can serve as an enabler to social learning processes (Cohen & Prusak 2001); Fischer et al., 2004; Huysman &Wulf, 2004), and it represents a precondition for the emergence of communities of practice.

The Information Systems Research Group (IS) at the University of Siegen will be taken as an example of how universities may draw on the concepts of communities of practice and social capital to reposition themselves in societal learning processes. Supported by research funds from public and industry sources, the IS group has grown from three to ten staff members (faculty and research associates) during recent years. Research is organized around individual, typically externally funded, projects and practice emerges within these projects or groups of them. To set up a network within the regional IT industry, the IS group got specific funding from the European Structural Fund.

In Siegen, opportunities for enculturation into specific communities of practice are considered to be a major instrument of education at the university level. This approach complements “learning about” with “learning to be” (the second objective serves as the fundamental principle underlying the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program at the University of Colorado, Boulder; for detail see: http://l3d.cs.colorado.edu/urap/). So far, experiences have been primarily gained with enculturation processes into two different types of communities of practice: those within the research group and those within regional IT companies. We have reinterpreted the following elements of the IS curriculum to offer opportunities for students to participate in our practice: seminars, project groups, and the diploma thesis. With regard to each of these elements of the curriculum, we define tasks that are relevant to actual and future research projects in our group (e.g., elaborating the state of the art of a new research area within a seminar, implementing specific software components in the framework of a project group, or designing a prototype in a Masters thesis). We also offer paid jobs for students to work within our research projects on an ongoing base. Since the relevance of these tasks is obvious to students and researchers, an important precondition for processes of enculturation is met. Enculturation processes into the research group get more likely and intense in those cases when the students follow up on more than one of these learning opportunities.

Though the research projects are typically conducted in cooperation with industry, our practice is more research-oriented compared to the one our graduates will experience in industry after finishing their studies. Therefore, we offer additional types of learning opportunities to students by integrating student teams into the communities of practice of local IT companies. To host teams of two to three students, IT companies define projects close to their core business. The student teams work on these projects in close cooperation with actors from the companies. When working in industry our students are closely coached by members of the research group. The student teams are connected to each other and to their supervisors in academia by means of a community system. Rohde, et al. (2005) present results of an evaluation study of an earlier implementation of this approach in entrepreneurship education.

Community-based approaches to university education provide learning opportunities for academics and companies. While enculturation into the companies’ communities of practice is seen as the main mechanism for student learning, students often mediate between university and company practice. Since the students are coached by their advisers during their experience in the company, they carry ideas back and forth between the communities of practise within companies and academia. Companies get word of innovative ideas out of academia while researchers get feedback on the applicability of their concepts. This boundary spanning activity is especially intense when the students have been enculturated previously in academia.

To establish community-based approaches to university education, academic visibility and a sufficient level of social capital are required. The enculturation processes require substantial efforts from companies as well as from students. Companies are only rewarded in the end and in those cases when their proposed project turned out to be successful. Mutual trust between companies and academia is built over time through cooperation in successful projects. To get the process started, a certain reputation built through other (regional) activities is instrumental. Regional networking activities and the joint acquisition of research projects have turned out to be an important means of building social capital. In the future, we will extend this community-building effort to include our network of alumni. To offer appropriate learning opportunities to their students, academics will have to building and maintain a dense web of social relations.



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