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Learning technology as a community of practice

Grainne Conole, Bruce Ingraham and John Cook

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, 
11-13 September 2003


This paper attempts to define the current status of learning technology as an emergent area of research. The paper draws on the experiences of a group of practitioners involved in a series of research meetings, which provides a valuable lense on the nature and constitution of a new community.


This paper charts the emergence of learning technology, identifying the factors which define the area. It reflects on the multiple perspectives and discourses through description of the experience of researchers involved in a series of meetings initiated at a two-day symposium at Sudeley in 2002. It considers how the experience of the group aligns with Wenger's definition of a Community of Practice (CoP) (Wenger, 1998). The paper is a retrospective personal reflection, coupled with comments gathered via a questionnaire. It builds on two previous articles; one which reflects on the nature of learning technologists as a community of practice (Conole, Ingraham, Cook, 2003) and one which critiques learning technology as a research discipline (Conole, forthcoming).

In the last decade we have seen a shift from a focus on the information (and in particular content) aspects of ICT to an emphasis on communication, collaboration and understanding the factors which underpin the development of communities. In particular there has been a realisation that the development of content alone does not lead to more effective learning, and that there is a need to structure and foster learning environments to enable communities to develop. Indeed, community building and its importance in society more generally, beyond formal learning, is increasingly being recognized (Cook and Smith, 2002). However there is still a need to better understand how communities are developed and maintained, and the ways in which different learning technologies can be used to support them. There is a body of knowledge to draw on: the concept of legitimate participation (Lave and Wenger, 1990) and Communities of Practice (CoP) (Wenger, 1998), but also related work on collaborative and networked learning (McConnell, 2000; Steeples and Jones, 2002) and the importance of discourse within the learning process (Vygotsky and Kozulin, 1986; Mercer, 2000; Laurillard, 2001). Ironically, as practicing learning technologists engaged with helping academics to develop and foster online learning communities and effective use of ICT, we have little understanding of the nature of our own community. This paper reflects on the evolution of learning technology focuses in on the associated emergent CoP. It critiques this against the literature and draws out key characteristics which shape and formulate the area; in particular commonalities and tensions.

Mapping the territory

The Sudeley group began by mapping out some of the different perspectives of the area in an attempt to define it as a research field. A central aspiration was to articulate the relationship between the different voices which make up learning technology, through a process of dialogue and to highlight multiple perspectives. At the initial meeting in April 2002, there was a naïve assumption that outlining the research interests which constitute our area would be relatively easy. After all, surely we 'knew' what our area was about and what the different research and development activities were? In fact the first two-day meeting concentrated solely on agreeing a classification and definition of the field. Indeed, these discussions had already been initiated through a special interest group on learning technology theory which many of the group were involved with ( The group used this shared prior experience and dialogue to draw upon and develop the classification. Co-construction of a shared meaning and understanding of the area is an important part of the development of a CoP, particularly the reification of the area and the moving from an implicit assumed understanding to an explicit and shared one amongst the group. Throughout that first meeting we struggled to try and make visible what we felt implicitly.

The group also attempted to articulate the underpinning values of the area. It was agreed that it is by nature multi-disciplinary and eclectic, covering a wide range of research topics. These range from those that focus on the technologies themselves through to wider socio-cultural issues concerned with the impact of technology on learning and teaching, professional roles, organisational structures and strategy.

As a research area, learning technology covers a wide spectrum of topics, ranging from those that focus more on the technologies through to wider socio-cultural questions and issues concerned with the impact of technologies on learning and teaching, professional roles and identities, organisational structures and associated strategy and policy development. However, despite this diversity there are a number of common themes which link the different research areas, such as:

1. Interdisciplinarity and in particular the notion of multiple voices. This is concerned with how different research perspectives influence the area and also how problems in the practice of different disciplines differ in the adoption and use of learning technologies.

2. Access and inclusion, which includes issues around the widening participation agenda, equity, access to technologies, barriers to inclusion and issues around the nature and extent of the digital divide.

3. Change and in particular understanding its relationship to learning technologies. This is also concerned with motivational issues as well as exploring the drivers and rationale for change and the consequences and impact. This theme also addressed the strategies for managing and enabling change and mechanisms for implementation.

4. Convergence and interoperability, which includes exploration of different forms of convergence (technological, pedagogical, organisational, sectors, institutions, etc). This also considers issues associated with scalability and globalisation and the underpinning standards needed to support interoperability.

5. Interactivity and social interaction and in particular the multimodal and social dimensions of interactivities. This explores the interactivity of different tools and the nature of the medium. It also considers interactivity at different levels of organisations and the ways in which boundaries and functional groupings have blurred as a consequence of new technologies. Finally it considers the potential of technologies in terms of enhancing communication and collaboration and in building new communities and networks.

6. Politics is a very strong theme that runs across all learning technology research. This in part relates to the over hyping which occurs leading to an over expectation of what is possible, is in part down to different local agendas and infighting and partly arises from a recognition of the major changes and impact that technologies can have.

Whilst these different perspectives bring strength and depth to the area, tensions also arise in terms of the different schools of thought and lack of shared language.

The emergence of the field

A review of research areas which have developed in the last hundred years or so show a similar pattern of emergence, involving the stages outline below. Rekkedal outlined a similar model for the emergence of distance education; in terms of mapping the terminology, definition, nature and focus of the field .

1. Pre-subject area - no evidence of the area or perceived need or interest.

2. Beginnings - individuals begin to research or ask new questions or issues arise which are triggered by some event or catalyst.

3. Emergence - more researchers begin to work in the area and a community begins to develop.

4. Diversification - the area starts to mature and different schools of thought emerge and the area begins to align or take place alongside more established areas.

5. Establishment - the area becomes recognised in its own right with a defined community, experts, associated journals and conferences, perceived of as 'respected' research with associated professional status, courses and career routes.

In terms of this, learning technology is currently between Stages 3 and 4 of this process. It is eclectic in nature, covering a broad church of research issues and is as yet not a rigorously defined area (Conole, Cook and Ingraham, 2003). A key tension is the struggle for recognition alongside established areas, issues of shared dialogue and understanding for the area, and articulation of the different schools of thought. However learning technology has not arisen in isolation and feeds on a number of cognate disciplines; research into technologies for learning per se has been an active area of interest with a long history (Mason, 2002).

The emergence of learning technology can be compared with a well-established discipline like Chemistry, which has a long history (at least 250 years as a recognised field, when it emerged from Alchemy). Chemistry is divided into defined schools of thought (Inorganic, Organic, Physical) and has refined and sub-divided into new areas over time. It is characterised by a set of shared values and interests, with key research questions and foci of study. There are favoured methodologies and approaches. It builds on a substantive body of shared and validated knowledge. The community is fostered and developed through established conferences, journals and experts.

In terms of researching the use of technologies for learning, there was a paradigm shift (Kuhn, 1970) a decade or so ago. This was in part due to the substantive impact of the Internet on learning but was also fuelled by a number of national initiatives and policy drivers (Conole, 2002). The research work and learning technology projects and developments which emerged as a result of these national initiatives in general lead to an increased interest in the role of technology across education, senior management engagement, and consequential change in strategy. This provided opportunities to experiment using developmental funding. Finally there was an influx of researchers and a growth of new 'centres' and expertise looking at learning technology. In parallel a series of dedicated conferences (such as ALT-C, EdMedia, Networked Learning, CAL) and journals (such as Computers and Education, JCAL, ALT-J) began to arise to foster the debate and development of the community, showing that the area was becoming established. These factors indicate that learning technology is now a recognized, albeit young research area. In the next decade or so we are likely to see the area diversify, although it is likely that certain core research areas and foci of interest will emerge. However, as part of the process of becoming established the area will need to demonstrate that the research being carried out in the field is methodological rigorous, building appropriately on existing knowledge and theories from feeder cognate disciplines.

Research questions

This section outlines current research themes and questions in the field. Early work tended to focus on technological aspects, in particular the development and use of multimedia applications and software navigation. Now there is a broader base of research which has expanded in part because of the impact of the Internet and the ways in which it can be used to support learning and teaching, but also because of the increase of different learning management environments and systems. In particular there has been an expansion of research exploring the ways in which learning technologies can be used to support communication and collaboration, coupled with an increased focus on the associated pedagogical and organisational issues. Current research interests in learning technology can be grouped around three main themes - pedagogical, technical and organisational. These themes sit within a wider socio-cultural of factors which inform and influence the research agenda.

The first of the these themes, is concerned with the pedagogy of e-learning, and in particular the development of effective models for implementation, mechanisms for embedding the understandings gained from learning theory into the design of learning technologies and their use in learning and teaching. This area also focuses on the guidelines and good practice to support the development of e-learning skills, the literacy needs of tutors and students, understanding the nature and development of online communities and different forms of communication (and associated issues of overload) and collaboration, different mechanism for delivering and increasing flexibility and modularisation of learning opportunities and exploration of the impact of new emerging influences on learning, in particular the impact of gaming. This also covers the instructional aspects such as understanding effective design principles and promulgating good practice in the design and development of materials, exploration of different models for online courses, cultural differences in the use of online courses, requirements in terms of tutor support needs, time investments, mechanisms for improving the student learning experiences and improving retention rates.

The second area is research into the underpinning technology of e-learning, including the development of the technical architecture to support different forms of learning and teaching, different mechanisms of monitoring and tracking activity online, exploration of the nature of different types of virtual presence, context sensitive, mobile and smart technologies and the hardware and software requirements. There is now a substantive body of work on the development of technology standards, interoperability, learning objects and educational modeling languages.

The third area researches issues which arise at organisational level, including effective strategies for integrating online courses within existing systems, development of organisational knowledge, new methods and processes for developing a learning organisation and for the seamless linking of different information processes and systems.

Reasons for the emergence of the area

The emergence of the area is due to three main factors. Firstly learning technologies now have a significant impact at all levels of universities and colleges, from organisational and structural issues, through to changing the nature of roles and functions and impact on learning and teaching. However, little is understood about these processes and how they are changing. Secondly, the variety and complexity of new technologies and the potential ways in which they can be used is changing rapidly. Thirdly, partly because of the first two factors, more academics and support staff are now becoming involved in learning technology as part of their roles or as a means of understanding how learning technologies can be used effectively.

Credibility of the area is important in terms of educating senior management about the complexity of the area to help inform the decisions they need to make in terms of different ways in which learning technology impact on their business. Otherwise there is a danger that they will make ill-informed and rash decisions based on scant evidence or will a superficial knowledge rather than understanding the complexity of the area. This surface approach is evident in the ways in which many institutions have to date gone about choosing a Virtual Learning Environment to support learning activities, where senior managers often made the mistake of decreeing that all courses must use the system without considering whether or not this might be pedagogically appropriate or thinking through the associated staff development needs and time implications. Similarly senior managers frequently demand evidence of the cost effectiveness of the use of a particular technology without thinking through whether they have a genuine understanding of the comparative costs of traditional teaching methods or indeed whether a direct comparison is actually possible given that the introduction of the technology may result in a significant change in the learning and teaching process.

The Sudeley group as a Community of Practice

Wenger's work on Communities of Practice (CoP) forms part of the broader school of socializing theories, which are defined by a number of shared characteristics (Wenger, 1998). The focus is on the acquisition of membership, defined around CoP with shared understanding and values. A central tenet of these approaches is the concept of learning as a social process, through inclusion and participation. The premises which underpin this are that we are social beings and this is an important aspect of learning, and developing our ability to experience the world and our engagement with it is the ultimate aim of learning. In essence there are four main components of Wenger's model - meaning (in terms of experience), identity (in terms of becoming), practice (in terms of doing) and community (in terms of belonging). In terms of becoming part of a community there has to be a process of becoming a member of that community, feeling a sense of identity and belonging; there also needs to be shared meaning and practice through shared values and practices. This section reflects on the experience of the Sudeley group and discusses how the group aligns with this model.

Identity - in terms of becoming

One reason for the formation of the Sudeley group was the feeling that we were developing and forming as a CoP but that we hadn't clearly articulated what constituted that community. It also evolved as a result of a feeling that many of the 'main stream' conferences did not allow space for in-depth critical debate and didn't present opportunities for researchers to develop shared understanding or argue different perspectives. Members of the group gave a range of motivational factors for getting involved, from a desire to work more closely with likeminded colleagues, an ability to learn from others, the opportunity to work in multi-disciplinary groups:

A desire to get to get together with a small and dedicated group of people interested in this area outside the context of large conferences

It is the opportunity to come away and sit in a room and have a discussion with a clever bunch of people

Hence these factors, along with our common interest in the area, were contributors to beginning to feel some sense of shared belonging and ownership of the community.

Representing - community identity

The reasons given for becoming involved in the group also illustrate some of the shared values and sense of a common identity, as the following two quotes show:

I really liked the multi-disciplinarity of the group ... I anticipated richness in debate stemming from the variety of expertise and knowledge of the group and saw an opportunity to learn from and with the group members as a professional development activity in itself.

For some time I have been working at the boundary of elearning and digital
librarianship, and have felt very strongly about certain issues, as well
as having gained quite a valuable insight into what is taking place, and
what could take place, at this interface. I was excited to have found a
venue to perhaps begin making some of this explicit, and trepidatious
because of my perception as a librarian that the language and voice of
my profession aren't easily heard and understood by academics and other
related elarning groups.

It is also true that some members feel less so connected and are positioned more at the margins of the group, as the following quote illustrates:

I would maybe suggest that my own role is one of 'legitimate peripheral
participant' in that others involved in the same part of the book have
clearly had more (and richer) experience in this area than I.

However, communities are not static; membership changes for a variety of reasons. Induction of new members into an existing community raises a number of issues - how they fitted into the existing group and how their inclusion affects the dynamics of the group. Communities also develop and evolve, with potential mutation into different or fragmented communities. This aligns closely with Wenger's notion of peripheral participation and boundaries of communities.

Meaning - in terms of experience

Wenger states that

Practice is... a process by which we can experience the world and our engagement with it as meaningful (pg. 51)

Part of the process of the Sudeley group was an attempt to translate our practice into a common shared dialogue and understanding, by agreeing what constitutes and defines the area, with relation to Wenger's notion of negotiation of meaning through participation and reification:

Exchange of and joint building of knowledge; consolidating a community of learning technologists

As one participant observed, this reflects what Jarvis associates with social constructivism:

A central (constructivist) method is 'real talk' which includes discourse and exploration, talking and listening, questions, argument, speculation, and sharing, but in which domination is replaced by reciprocity and co-operation. (Jarvis, 1998).

Similarly, Beetham and Conole have previously described the importance of the development of a sense of shared ownership and co-participation (Beetham and Conole, 2001).

Practice - in terms of doing

A number of members noted the importance of the relationship between the face-to-face meetings, social dimensions, email and also the need for a focus on a set of activities and associated deadlines. The process of "doing" in effect also altered and shifted the nature of the group; some members began to exert an influence on the group dynamics as different schools of thought emerged. This is the practice in terms of doing aspect of the community build and development and the importance of having a shared goal and something to work towards:

genuine commitment to a common goal despite greatly differing backgrounds and approaches

But the process of doing also alters and shifts the focus of the group, meaning some may begin to feel more central whilst others adopt a more peripheral role:

It explicitly states that (a) there is something new going on in terms
of the boundaries shifting and changing among previously rather
disparate groups and that (b) it is worth providing a space to discuss
and work on the issues found at these boundaries, at a higher level than
just arguing and teasing them out on individual research projects and so
forth. And it does attempt to provide the most useful ways possible of
doing that.

This leads to a tension, for the future of the group. What is the optimum size for effective collaboration? How should the group deal with emergent schools of thought? What types of engagement and activities might help focus and shape future activities?

The mixture of formal and informal working space has made the meetings work for me to date. The 'meetings' re docs posted is useful also to allow a route to exist for slower thinking and reflection after the face-to-face work. The group feels 'led' and it seems that people are willing to deliver on that which they have attached their names to ....... It is quite a motivated, interested group of people.

Research methodology issues

Learning technology research in general is concerned with understanding how technology can or could be used to support learning and teaching with an underlying motivation of improving the student learning experience, as well as exploring the impact from individual through to institutional level. To achieve this it is worth reflecting on which research methodologies might be appropriate to address these questions. The choice of methodologies and the way in which it is carried out in terms of the data collection and analysis will have a critical impact on how well this is achieved.

Choice of appropriate research methods will depend both on the nature of the questions being considered and on the associated stakeholders in the research findings, as stakeholders may have conflicting agendas and are likely to place different values on methodological approaches. Broadly speaking there is a tension between the needs of policy makers and senior managers and academics and support staff on the ground level. The former are more interested in potential efficiency gains and cost effectiveness associated with learning technologies and will want to see evidence-based practice with comparison of the benefits of new technologies over existing teaching and learning methods. Oliver and Conole argue strongly against this push towards evidence-based practice in elearning, (Oliver and Conole, 2003) stating that

Policy makers are increasingly looking to evidence-based practice as a
means of ensuring accountability and validity in education and more
recently in e-learning

But that this results in:

a number of implications for e-learning, including the problems facing practitioner-researchers working on project funding and the potentially distorting effect of e-learning policy on research in this field.

Therefore, as a young field, learning technology research suffers in a number of respects. Firstly, the area is not yet clearly defined and scoped. Secondly, there is considerable criticism of much of the current research activities, as it is considered too anecdotal, case based, and lacking theoretical underpinning. Thirdly, as indeed is true in social science research more generally, there are divided views on the importance of quantitative versus qualitative research methods. However, Hammersley points out (1997) that a preference for quantitative methods in educational research is inappropriate stating that both quantitative and qualitative methods have roles to play in the process of research. This is particularly true in the field of e-learning which remains contested by the various disciplinary traditions that contribute to it (Oliver and Conole, 2003). This contestation means that no single model has arisen to explain how e-learning works; psychological theories such as constructivism sit alongside social scientific theories such as the notion of habitus and cognitivist theories such as cognitive load theory (Oliver & Aczel, 2002). Lacking any singular model, it is impossible to reconcile the diverse studies that are undertaken in any systematic way. Each has to be interpreted on its own merits and reconciled with other studies in a way that is sensitive to the theories involved. As such, it has been argued that all studies in this field should, methodologically, be interpreted as case studies, even when they adopt experimental approaches (Holt & Oliver, 2002).

Mitchell takes a different perspective, condemning the lack of research rigour in learning technology research (Mitchell, 2001). He argues that few of the papers in this area meet all or even most of the requirements of scientific research (theory-orientated, conceptually clear, measurements consistent with number and measurement theory, preconditions for parametric statistics met, appropriate logic, replicative validity).

Moving the community on...

It is important to recognise that a community will not always have a shared vision, but as Mercer states that members should 'interthink' (Mercer, 2000) or as Cook states:

[It] is the mapping out not of a specific theory, but a mapping out of how different researchers are working towards the creation of theories. As Mercer (2000, p. 73) points out "The creation of human knowledge is not simply the accumulation of facts, skills and ways of making sense of experience. It is also a process of evolution, in which alternative explanations, proposals and solutions compete for survival"

Cook goes on to argue that there is a requirement to be transparent about theories and models used, but that this requirement may not communicate well from one discipline to another, so words have different meanings in different disciplines (or even within disciplines). Cook believes that the only solution to this problem is careful and continued dialogue between all stakeholders, a process which soon became evident within the Sudeley group as the community developed. As such, recognition of the different perspectives and tensions within the group is an important part of the process:

There are doubtless tensions, but I don't see these as disadvantages.  I am
conscious that my own perspective is different to that of many, but I don't
feel excluded and the intellectual tension helps me to refine my position
and I hope vice versa is true for others who interact with me.

However, we need to strike a note of caution as we talk of the evolution of theoretical and shared perspectives in the field. Dennett warns us of the difference between determinism and inevitability . If our shared conception is determined it does not mean that all our futures are inevitable: we may not share the same perspective yet we are not doomed to hold unproductive perspectives. If we have an evolutionary process in a deterministic universe, then we get growth along particular paths but also an understanding that some things are avoidable. As an ideal CoP, we should be able to foresee that the outcome of certain forms of collaboration will be unproductive; we should therefore take action to anticipate these paths. That the learning technology CoP has started to evolve along such deterministic lines is, we hope, apparent from the work presented in this paper. However, we would still maintain that more interthinking is called for, because if communities such as ours are to succeed in the future, we need to base our decisions on as much knowledge as possible.


The paper has tried to demonstrate that learning technologies now impact across organizational structures. This is reflected both in the current research focus and questions, which explore broad organisational issues rather than specific local or individual concerns. There has been a shift away from isolated small-scale studies such as whether a particular technological intervention will work with students on a specific course with a particular department. This shift is reflected in the research methodologies that are used to explore the wider political and organisational context in which learning technologies are used. The development of learning technology research as an accepted field and discipline also reflects a move away from the 'individual enthusiast' working in their own subject discipline to a community of connected enthusiasts developing an exciting and dynamic discipline. Furthermore there is now more of recognition of the importance of the area, providing insight into the way technologies are fundamentally altering both individual practice and organisational structures and processes.

It is hoped that this paper gives a flavour of the richness of learning technology as a research area and a sense of the excitement of working in this fast moving field but also a feeling for the associated challenges and methodological issues. The next decade will be critical in terms of the area finding a clear niche and position alongside more established research fields. Then there is a real potential that the research findings will begin to offer us some real insight into the ways in which technologies can effectively support learning and teaching and an understanding of how they can be used to improve organisational processes. Hopefully we will also begin to see the development of new underpinning theories and models of explanation to account for the use of learning technologies and perhaps even the emergence of new learning paradigms and working practices. Only time will tell.


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This document was added to the Education-line database on 24 September 2003