HERDSA 2012: Informal Communities of Practice: What are the advantages?

One of the talks I went to today was on “Money, Mountains and the Law, The powerful process of interdisciplinary collaboration”. I’m afraid that I can’t give you all of the names of the presenters as there were two physical and three virtual (Edit: The speakers were Leslie Almberg and Judy McGowan – thanks, Leslie!)- and the paper was submitted by Symons (spelling corrected!), Almberg, Goh and McGowan, from Curtin in Western Australia.

The academics in question all came from different disciplines, and different generations and cultures of academia, and found that they had a key thing in common: they considered themselves to be “constructive dissenters”, people who are not happy with how things are in their own patch but rather than just grumbling, they’re looking to make positive change. In this case, these academics had to stop outside of their own discipline, looking in a framework for embedding language elements into their courses, and their similarities were identified by a facilitator who said, effectively, “You’re all saying the same thing from your own discipline.”

The language expert, in this case, worked as interdisciplinary hub – a meeting point for the other three academics. For me, what was most interesting here was how the community of practice was defined between people with similar ideas, rather than people from similar disciplines.

One of the academics, who self-described themselves as an end-of-life academic, was musing on the difference in the modern academy from the one that she had originally entered. The new academy is competitive, full of Roosters (in the strutting sense, rather than the sitting on eggs sense [ Edit: Roosters don’t sit on eggs, do they?]), and requires you to be constantly advertising your excellence. (I’ll speak more on this in another post.) This makes it harder to form an in-discipline community of practice, because there’s always the chance that you will think about the person across from you as a competitor first and a collaborator second.

I have a blog!

The advantages of the interdisciplinary community of practice, as outlined in the talk, is that it is outside of your traditional hierarchies, formality and established space for competition. It doesn’t matter if you tell someone your amazing teaching secret – you won’t be competing against them for promotion. Better still, telling someone something good doesn’t have to make them (if they’re keyed this way) feel bad because you’re outperforming them on their home turf.

In the words of the speakers: these interdisciplinary communities of practice are “organic, outside of hierarchies and silos, provide support mechanism, remove the undercurrent of competitiveness and liberate”.

This forced me to carry out some reflection because I am, to a great extent, someone who would be easy to describe as a rooster. I am a very visible, and mildly successful, early career academic who has a number of things to talk about. (Long time readers will know that an absence of content hasn’t actually slowed me down yet, either.) I try very hard to be inclusive, to help, to be a mentor in the small circle of expertise where that would apply, and to shut up when I can’t help. I work with just about anyone who wants to work with me, but I do expect people to work. I collaborate inside my school, outside of my discipline and outside of my University and, to be honest, the feeling of liberation of working with someone else who has the same problems is fantastic – it makes you feel less alone. The fact that I can share ideas with someone and know that we’re building bridges, not being boastful or accidentally (but implicitly) belittling people who haven’t achieved the same things, is one of the best reasons to work ex discipline.

But I realise that I would not be some people’s first choice to work with because I am still, to many interpretations, a rooster. Obviously, I have a lot of personal reflection left to do on this to work out how I can still achieve and maintain a position as a positive role model, while being fairly sure that I don’t end up as a point of division or someone that is seen as a glory hound. I would be slightly surprised if the last were felt widely but it’s a good time to step back and think about my dealings with the people who are more successful than me (have I been resentful or subordinate?) and the people who are on my level (are we helping each other?) and those people who might benefit from my help (am I helping them or am I being unapproachable)?

The Community Lessons of In-Flight Entertainment

Now, this post isn’t just a reason to reuse that picture of the world’s most worrying looking pilot.

A pilot

How YOU doin'?

It carries on from the discussion of blended learning that I started yesterday. These days we tend to mix face-to-face, on-line and mobile learning methods in order to deal with the varied nature of students who take part in our classes. It’s partly driven by accessibility, by geography, by the market and lots of other factor. My question yesterday was ‘What will the classroom look like in 2020?’ – my concern today is what will happen to our student communities if we don’t properly manage the transition to 2020.

Let me take you back to when I was much younger, flying from the UK to Australia on a 747. Back then, planes had smoking and non-smoking sections (with no real divider, apparently the smoke just knew), and the in-flight entertainment was some dodgy music channels on stethoscope-like headphones and one (or two) films played on big screens at low resolution. This was the norm for long haul (except for the smoking) up until the mid-late 90s. (Except for Business Class, I’m told, where the advances came in much earlier)

People in business class on a Qantas plane in the 70s.

It's always better in business, even in the '70s.

What did this heavily synchronised central resource focus mean to the planes and their passengers?

  1. Individual requirements were ignored
    If you needed to get up to go the bathroom, you missed part of the film. If the stewards asked you a question, you missed part of the film. If you fell asleep, you missed part of the film. The film was never replayed. Worse, films on planes were shown well in advance of their release into Australia (still happens occasionally) so it would be potentially months until you could see the rest of the film. Interestingly, and I remember this because I was very young, they showed films that would appeal to the majority of their paying passengers – grown-ups. One I remember was “The Drowning Pool”, rated PG, being shown. Violence, some blood, intense scenes and some swearing. Or so I found out after the fact because (a) I was 7 and couldn’t see over the seats and (b) I fell asleep. But you can probably imagine that a number of parents would have preferred that children not be exposed to a long and rather dull movie that nearly kills Paul Newman with a fairly intense drowning scene. (Sorry, spoilers, but it’s from 1975. And not very good. Watch Harper instead, the original movie about the character.)
  2. It created an artificial scarcity
    There are never enough bathrooms on a plane. Force people to sit down for 2 hours to watch a movie where they can’t pause it, stop watching or do anything else and you’ll cause a rush for the bathrooms at the end of the film.
  3. People were still part of the plane ‘community’
    If turbulence happened, as it does, or the pilot needed to make any other announcement, the fact that we were all wired into the same dissemination mechanisms meant that we could all still be reached. There was only one game in town, such as it was, and you were watching it, reading to ignore it (in which case the intercom would reach you) or asleep (but still reachable if the intercom pings are loud enough.)

Of course, this meant that a lot of people weren’t happy but they were all in one contactable community. Lots of conversation happened before the movies, while people queued in those big groups, and, depending on when the movie stopped, after the movie. Ideal? No. Frustrating? Yes, occasionally. Isolating? No, not really.

Then, of course, we moved to individual screens in the backs of seats (for most long haul carriers across the European Singapore to UK run and the trans-Pacific run) and, initially, this allowed you choice of title, but all synchronised to a repeating loop. Now you could have some control and, if you missed something for any reason, if you waited a couple of hours you could see it again. So point 1 was a little better. Point 2 still held because the end of movie times still ran into each other and bathroom queues were huge. We were, however, all hooked into the one entertainment system and still part of the plane community.

Next we got true video on demand – you could watch what you wanted, when you wanted (even from the moment you sat in your seat until the plane pulled up, recently). Now point 1 is dealt with. You can pause films, lock out the bad channels for your kids, rewind, flick, change your mind – and the queues for the toilets are way, way down. Point 2 is dealt with. What’s weird here is the change in community. Back when movies were synchronised, stewards would know roughly where everyone was in their movies and could, if they wanted to, work around it. With movies being personalised, any contact from a steward may force you to interrupt your activity – minor point, not too bad, but a change in the role of the steward. You are, however, still on the main information distribution mechanism, which is the intercom. I can still be reached.

You know where I’m going, I imagine. Last night I jumped on a plane that was only a 2.5 hour flight. Sometimes they have seat-back VOD, and I watched Tom Cruise on the way over on that system, and sometimes they don’t. I packed my iPad with lots of legally downloaded BBC goodies and, when I discovered that the plane only had an old AV system, I watched Dr Who episodes all the way home. Isolated. So disconnected from the plane community that a steward had to tap me on the shoulder to let me know that the announcement had gone through to tell me to switch off the iPad as I hadn’t heard it.

Right now I can completely meet my own individual requirements, without using the plane’s, and because so many other people around me were doing the same thing, we never got the synchronisation going to the point that we created artificial scarcity. Only one problem – we were completely divorced from the ‘official’ distribution systems of the plane, such as the intercom announcements, seat belt signs (why look up?) and dings. Sufficiently immersed in my personalised viewing that aircraft attitude changes, which I usually notice, passed me by.

Airline stewards talking to a man playing a piano on a 747.

Excuse me, Sir, we need you to close the keyboard for landing.

As we develop the electronic communities of the future we have to remember that while allowing customisation and adaptation to individual needs is usually highly desirable, and that artificial restrictions, choke points and other points of failure are highly undesirable, that we have to juggle these with the requirement to be able to create a community. Lots of good research shows the value of a strong student community but, without the ability to oversee, suggest, guide and mentor that community, we end up with a separate community that may take directions that are not the ones that they should. Our challenge, as we work towards the classroom of 2020, is to work out which kinds of communities we want to build and how we construct systems around these that keep all the good things we want, while keeping educators and students connected.