Adult Learners in the Workplace: Online learning and communities of practice
Seven in-employment postgraduate Master's level students in an e-learning unit participated in this research, designed to identify tensions between participation in a community of learning that was part of their studies, and participation in the communities of practice that they were engaged in at their workplaces. It was hypothesised that participation in both these forms of community in their different contexts may enhance each other, or could potentially have a disrupting effect on each. The research employed an interviewing technique. The students' perceptions of the impact of participation in the one form of community on their participation in the other was mixed, with some suggesting that it was enhancing, and others suggesting the contrary, or that there was no impact. The findings indicate that the enhancing effect of participation in communities of learning relevant to a learner's workplace community of practice occur when the learning tasks are designed to enable negotiation of tasks and collaboration with learners who have similar workplace issues.
The field of online learning, which has grown into an active area of research over the last decade, is increasingly described by a range of commentators and researchers in terms of community. As a way of explaining the cognitive and affective interrelationships that students develop online, researchers have explored the nature of online communities, from Rheingold's (1992) “virtual community” of people linked by the Internet, computer mediation and shared interests, to the more purposeful educational “community of inquiry” defined by Garrison and Anderson (2003). Many adult learners in online communities are also workers in enterprises, who are studying to develop knowledge that can be expected to have some relevance to their professional lives and their communities of practice. This additional notion of a community of practice, well developed in the writing of Wenger (1998, 1999) and defined by him as those “groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis” (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002, p. 4), means that adult learners studying online have potential simultaneous memberships both of online learning communities and of workplace-based communities of practice. We perceived that a tension could exist between the communities of learning that are formed through the use of computer-mediated communication (CMC) and the communities of practice that exist in workplace settings. This article describes our exploration of this possibility. Wenger's (1999) conceptual explanations of communities of practice, though developed in studies of situated learning in workplaces, help to provide an understanding of the shared concerns and similarities of context that form effective online communities and explain their growing prevalence in workplace practice and training (Schlager, Fusco, & Schank, 2002). The notion that such communities of practice have to meet face to face has been overtaken by the pervasive use of the Internet and network technologies to provide a means of communication to community members wherever they are situated. In a context of distance education, CMC has also provided the capacity to develop communities of learners among groups of learners who are geographically or temporally distributed, and who would not otherwise have an opportunity for the collaborative experience that is afforded online. Paloff and Pratt (2003), who draw on Wenger's ideas of communities, describe an online learning community as “engaging in collaborative learning and reflective practice involved in transformative learning” (p. 17), and acknowledge the importance of the teacher and the learners in structuring and forming such a community.
As CMC has become widely used in the field of higher education for small group collaborative learning, so the social constructivist theory of Vygotsky (1978) has been reassessed as a theoretical framework for understanding the effectiveness of this communicative medium in small group learning (Bell, 2003; Stacey, 1999). The social nature of cognition as theorised by Vygotsky and further developed through neo-Vygotskian research (Forman & McPhail, 1993) is seen as influential to adult learners' construction of knowledge. The provision of dialogue within a community of learners has been seen as a significant factor, with knowledge construction being perceived as a dialectic process in which individuals test their constructed views on others and negotiate their ideas.
The notion of situated learning (Billett, 1996; Lave & Wenger, 1991), where the learning is situated within workplace practice and is more powerfully facilitated through communities that evolve through such practice (Barab & Duffy, 2000; Hung & Chen, 2001), has become an accepted assumption.
Situated learning also extends the importance of the social nature of learning, where learning takes place through the communication and participation of members within a community. It frames the underlying theory in this study of postgraduate learners whose learning is distributed within multiple communities.
The development of online learning and the changes in information and communications technologies (ICTs) have meant that both communities of practice and communities of learning can coexist in the same locations, or be distributed geographically or temporally, are a new and different study that has not been thoroughly investigated. A review of the research literature has indicated a clear place for CMC to support workplace training (e.g., Newton, Hase, & Ellis, 2002; Smith, 2001), but there has been little attention paid to how CMC can impact upon—either negatively or positively—the communities of learning and practice that are already established in workplaces.
People in workplaces operate in communities of practice, and construct knowledge through interactions with their colleagues in situated learning environments. There is the capacity for CMC to disturb those communities of practice and reduce the engagement of individuals in them, even when an online community of learning exists within the same enterprise. The possibility of this is even greater when the community of learning is the structured community of learners within a higher education course. These new types of online learning communities and their effects on the workplace communities of their student members have not been fully explored. This study was set up to pilot research investigating the effects of intersecting online and workplace communities and to explore the impact and interplay of one on the other.
The study was designed within an interpretive methodology using semi-structured interviews that were analysed principally along qualitative lines, with a simple quantitative analysis as supplement. Two research questions were posed:
• How does participation in a community of learning enhance participation in a workplace community of practice and how can participation in a workplace community of practice enhance participation in a community of learning?
• How does participation in a community of learning interfere with participation in a workplace community of practice and how can participation in a workplace community of practice disrupt participation in a community of learning?
The expected outcome of the study was an improved understanding of the value (or otherwise) of the practice of establishing online learning communities for students in the selected postgraduate education and training program as well as for students in similar online programs. It was expected that the study would inform pedagogical design features and strategies for educational programs that attempt to incorporate students' communities of practice in the program, to some extent.
The research was conducted around a unit of study in a Master of Education program at Deakin University, a multi-campus university in Victoria with a history of online distance education at the postgraduate level (Stacey, 1998). The online unit, which was about the theory and practice of E-learning, was taught using WebCT Vista as its learning management system. The unit was designed to use the online environment as the main source of unit information, of resources (Web links and content files of readings as well as links to online journals and databases) and of computer conference discussions with the teacher and fellow students. Central to the design of the unit was the use of small online groups: first, to report researched resources and discuss studentselected issues moderated by the students and, second, to complete a final assessment task through collaboration in a small group discussion and assignment.
The participants in the study were students enrolled in the E-learning unit who worked in various professions and, in the main, held training and educational roles in their organisations. Each member of the class of 22 students was initially contacted by letter and asked to consider whether they were prepared to take part in the study. The letter, as well as explaining the nature and scope of the study, advised students that a research assistant would contact them to ascertain their interest in participation and their availability for an interview.
The first seven students who responded positively became research subjects: Three of these were students who had spontaneously e-mailed their willingness to participate on receipt of the letter. Each participant in the study was in an ideal position to contribute to the research questions because, as well as belonging to a community of learners, through the unit, they also had an involvement with a community of practice in their professional lives. Some were located in teaching institutions, some in government departments and some in business or community organisations. The sample of seven students (about one-third of the class) was representative of the group as a whole in gender composition, type of professional role, age, experience in online learning, and level of progress in the Master's program.
At a time when they were about mid-way through the 13-week semester, each participant was interviewed individually. The interview protocol that was followed (see the Appendix) asked each participant to describe their Master's studies and their online experiences, their communities of practice and learning, and any interrelationships of these. They were also asked about their participation in the online conference for the E-learning unit and about their participation in their community of practice associated with their place of work.
Some of the students were involved in more than one community of practice. The interviews followed topics of interest if these arose but essentially kept to the areas described above. A telephone interview was also conducted with the lecturer for the unit of study.
The recordings of the interviews were transcribed and the transcriptions analysed through use of an analysis table that recorded responses, in summary form, to the main questions. Similarities in response, as well as differences, were therefore easily identified, as were common themes from the comparatively open questions asked at the interview. Additionally, responses to the key Table 1. Responses indicating the influence of communities of practice on communities of learning, and vice versa Yes No Other Enhancement Participation in an online community of learning enhanced 4 2 1 participation in a workplace community of practice Participation in a workplace community of practice enhanced 4 3 participation in an online community of learners Disruption Participation in an online community of learning disrupted 4 participation in a workplace community of practice 3 Participation in a workplace community of practice disrupted 3 4 participation in an online community of learners research questions, that is, those pertaining to enhancement and disruption or disturbance caused by multi-membership of communities of practice, were interpreted as “yes” or “no” answers to obtain a quantitative record of the findings (see Table 1); this was carried out as a supplement to the qualitative analysis. The analysis and coding of transcriptions was undertaken by the research assistant. The research team then separately reviewed both the raw interview data, its summary through the analysis table and the quantitative data (see Table 1) to ensure that the findings and the conclusions drawn were consistent.
Though this was a small study, designed to pilot a way of testing the assumptions described above, the results analysed within the conceptual framework of Wenger's (1999) communities of practice and the literature associated with this area of research have yielded meaningful results for the field of online learning.
Although the size and scope of the study was small it yielded clear findings about the interplay between the two types of communities investigated. It showed that, overall, the enhancements resulting from the simultaneous involvement of the study's participants in both workplace and learning communities outweighed the disturbances or disruptions experienced. Even though some participants reported a significant level of disruption, it was because their intensive involvement in a workplace community interfered with full participation in the online learning community. There was no sign that the reverse situation occurred—that is, that participation in an online community of learning had a negative impact on participation in a workplace community: the idea that online studies could distract an individual from interaction with their work colleagues or possibly even alienate them from their work colleagues was not supported by the data generated through the fieldwork. The data revealed, however, that the issue of participation in workplace communities of practice was of considerable importance in itself. Factors such as uncertainty about entering a new community, finding the “right” connection with people and developing a sense of belonging seemed to be regarded as of great importance to the participants in the study as they spoke about their experiences of “communities of practice.” As this information complements the findings on multi-membership of communities of practice and has implications for the interpretation of the data, it is included in this report.
Participation in Communities of Practice
Becoming part of a community of practice is a key component of attaining competency in any field of endeavour, but entering a community is not always easy (Wenger, 1999, p. 125). The research indicated that becoming a member of a community was indeed problematic in all circumstances—in communities of practice oriented specifically to learning, in communities oriented specifically to work, in “virtual” communities and in “real” communities.
Feeling a sense of anxiety on entering a community of practice or feeling a sense of detachment from a community of practice for a period of time was something about which several of the participants in the study spoke. Although at least five of them acknowledged strong links with either one community of practice or another, it was a relatively common experience for most to feel not entirely a part of one or the other. Some referred to the frustration caused by the inability to become “full” members, especially where co-workers inadvertently excluded them because they were, in some way, different. Two participants, for example, spoke about the sense of exclusion arising from having an educational role amongst workers dedicated to other tasks in their organisation, and a research officer in a university observed that there was a barrier he was unable to break through because “As an academic you always find it a bit hard to be accepted in some circles. You are seen as … a bit ‘airy-fairy' because of your involvement with the theory and not the practice.” Forming a community of practice involves people engaging with each other to develop common ways of doing things and also involves complex transactions such as negotiation, which can be difficult to achieve. As Wenger (1999) notes: “The work of engagement is basically the work of forming communities of practice” (p. 184). Bell (2003) would take issue with the notion that a semester-length course of 12-15 weeks is long enough for an online learning community to be defined
as a community of practice. This time limitation could explain the responses of the participants when asked to what extent they felt they were part of a community of learners. Students experienced varying degrees of belonging and some, describing their situation as “it's borderline” and “a little bit,” felt a minimal sense of belonging. People located on the edge of communities experience discomfort, the interviews showed, for as Wenger (1999) acknowledges: “When we come into contact with new practices, we venture into unfamiliar territory.… We do not know quite how to engage with others. We do not understand the subtleties … We lack the shared references …” (p. 153). A few students in the group—those who quickly found colleagues with whom they shared common ground—were able to feel part of the learning community not long after the semester commenced. The sense of belonging that one student experienced caused her to say, with relief, and somewhat jubilantly, “I'm interacting,” after having experienced difficulty participating in her workplace community of practice. There was no suggestion that participation in communities of practice or in the online community of learning was linked to a person's capacity for, or interest in, interaction with others. Rather, it seemed that individual circumstances, especially those in the workplace, determined the level of participation.
Anticipating that there would be difficulties for some course participants in becoming active members of the online community of learners, the lecturer for E-learning intervened proactively to facilitate the small group communication.
First, she established a culture of participation:… I insisted on a structure where students had to make clear, at the outset, how often they were going to join the conference and if they couldn't be there, to say why. …I think the structure of the unit is very important and it is the defining of what the expectations are and how you set that up and how you communicate that to them.
The lecturer had intensive involvement with the students in the first weeks of whole group discussion and followed this with personal e-mail and telephone calls if anyone was slow to come online. She sought ways of including the students in the class, encouraged those who were hesitant and monitored the discussion carefully. Once aware of the particular interests of students, she organised them into small group discussions:
It starts off being teacher-directed, with me as facilitator of the group but I then, very quickly, put the students into smaller groups—student-directed groups… and I give them a task that requires them to investigate how to work collaboratively, focussing on an area of common interest to the group. One group, unable to prosper by itself, was supported and nurtured, as far as possible. The problem appeared to be related to finding a focal point for its members: online group discussion was difficult for those who did not share common ground but were, nonetheless, in a group to collaborate. The challenge was to find a topic in which they could all engage and to which they could all contribute: community membership was associated with the feeling of having something to offer the other students. Even though the online conference had provided students with the opportunity to “take part in meaningful activities and interactions, in the production of sharable artefacts, in community- building conversations, and in the negotiation of new situations” (Wenger, 1999, p. 184), they were unable to grasp that opportunity and responded by engaging in the work of forming the new community to the extent that circumstances permitted. For a few students the lack of “common enterprise” and the failure to identify “shared experiences” with others in the group caused them to be located on the margins of the community rather than in the heart of it. Circumstances prevented them from full participation.
Interaction Between Communities of Practice
Belonging to one community of practice has been shown to be difficult in particular circumstances and multi-membership of communities has the potential to increase that difficulty. The research project's exploration of how participation in one community of practice influenced participation in another and of whether the interplay between participation in the two led to an enhancement of work and study or a disturbance or disruption, produced a range of findings. Multi-membership of communities of practice affected the study's participants in a number of ways. The most common experience was for the participants to feel a stronger sense of belonging to their workplace community of practice than to the online learning community because the former offered a “real” experience while the latter, in an online environment and of short duration, was a “construct of the mind” by which one could imagine its existence on one occasion and yet doubt it on another. Most believed that workplace communities of practice seemed more significant because they dealt with “real issues” while learning communities essentially dealt with “theoretical issues” that did not influence daily life. Participants in the study also pointed out that interacting with other students is a temporary or transient experience while interacting with colleagues in the workplace is an ongoing one, forming a substantial part of one's professional life.
However, at least two of the study's participants found their experience to be considerably different. They found that participation in a community of learners was, in some ways, a potent experience: It was, for example, an excellent compensation for their peripheral participation in their community of practice at work and it gave them the support they needed (and did not get at work) when they had ideas they wanted to discuss. A few participants in the study, therefore, found the learning community at least as significant as their workplace community, if not more so.
Several participants in the study moved with ease and a sense of fulfilment from one community to another, taking advantage of the positive interplay between the two. Three members of the group, at least, appeared to have effectively exploited the synergy that resulted from multi-membership of communities of practice but this was not the experience of the other four members of the research group. Moving between communities was, for them, a complex experience, which required them to make a conscious effort to resolve differences and uncertainties. Wenger's (1999) view that “reconciliation may be the most significant challenge faced by learners who move from one community of practice to another” (p. 160) became a point of interest as the research data were collated and analysed. Though writers comment on the productive links between learning and workplace communities (Mentis, Ryba, & Annan, 2001), the idea that one community may be adversely affected by another explores new ground and, potentially, expands our understanding of professional education and practice and the role that online learning plays in it. The grounds for exploring this idea in a new study were explained in the words of the lecturer herself, who referred to students sometimes “experiencing tension between the two communities of practice because the links between them were not strong.” She described the effect of this tension as a struggle “to reconcile this difference,” a struggle that caused disruption to the learning program in some instances. Both enhancements and disruptions or distractions resulting from multi-membership of communities of practice are detailed in the four sections that follow and are subsequently summarised in Table 1. The Influence of Participation in an Online Community of Learning on Participation in a Workplace Community of PracticeEnhancement The influence of the learning community on the workplace community was strong and positive for those participants whose circumstances enabled engagement with other students through the online conference. Just over half of the participants (four out of seven) experienced an enhancement of their engagement with their work through the E-learning online conference.
Some commented that they had had similar experiences in comparable courses using online discussion forums. (There was an indication that a fifth person benefited but as he did not articulate this directly it has not been included here.) The enhancements included:
• growth in understanding;
• clarification of thinking;
• ability to present ideas to others;
• capacity to initiate or develop programs; and
• leadership in professional practice.
Being active in the online discussion gave a number of the study's participants the opportunity to transfer their learning to their workplace for the benefit of that community of practice. Some experienced the influence of one on the other very strongly. One participant said: “I'm taking my influences from the online community into my work community, very much,” as she spoke of her professional role as a lecturer in community welfare. For others, the tangible outcomes of the enhancement of the community of practice through the learning that occurred in the online community of learners included suchthings as writing papers for an organisation or community to consider, formulating proposals for the development of an organisation or business, designing learning programs on sound theoretical principles, all of which involved the generation of ideas amongst working colleagues. There was, in addition, an appreciation amongst the students of the value of experiencing online discussion and collaboration: they became aware that they could learn about e-learning by engaging in it.
The sense of satisfaction that the participants gained from having been able to draw on one community for the benefit of another was made apparent in the interviews. One, who was researching the value of e-learning for his organisation, a government department, indicated this when he said: “I've gained some insights into online learning… I've raised questions relevant to my context and I have got responses. It has been a selfish engagement, I admit.” A colleague of this person, working in another state, in similar circumstances (they did not know each other but met online), explained her sense of satisfaction at having made her learning community contribute to her workplace community by saying: “… it's been a wonderful frame of reference for me to learn, for a start, and to check some of the ideas I've got, in case they're too wacky. I've loved it. It's been wonderful.” There was no doubt in the minds of a group of students that there was a strong influence, a “real and direct relationship” between the two communities and that the outcome for them had been, among other things, professional recognition in their workplace community for what they had contributed.
Those participants who missed out on the fortuitous connection between communities of practice were quite definite about this outcome: “I struggle to see the connection between the two” said one research participant, who could not use the online discussion for any practical purpose in his workplace. As mentioned above, some students did not find others with whom to share common ground and their failure to do so appeared to affect their participation in the conference and their assessment of its worth. They struggled to see the relevance of the online conference to their work and faced the challenge of reconciling the differences between the two communities of practice as they completed the online components of the unit of study.
Disruption and distraction None of the participants identified participation in the learning community as having had an adverse effect on their participation in their workplace community of practice. Nobody felt that any disruption or distraction had occurred as they reconciled their membership to both learning and workplace communities. Although the research results showed no evidence of an adverse influence of a person's participation in a learning community on participation in a workplace community, the idea that things can go wrong when people try to spread themselves across different communities is a possibility: there is potential for tension to arise. According to Wenger (1999), “Multi-membership may involve ongoing tensions that are never resolved” (p. 160), but it seems, from this study, that the chance of this occurring is not particularly great. It seems, in fact, that if there is a likelihood of disruption or distraction at all, it will be the effect of the workplace on participation in learning communities—the reverse situation. This is covered in the fourth section.
Adult Learners in the Workplace 117 Enhancement Four of the participants believed that their workplace experience contributed to their ability to participate in online communication in E-learning and one, who had not been a good online contributor at the time of interview, felt this would certainly be true for him once he contributed more regularly and effectively. There was just one person who indicated that participation in his workplace community of practice had not contributed to his involvement in the learning community in any way and one who was somewhat uncertain about the effect of one upon the other. The participants who spoke of workplace influences that enhanced their online participation in the unit of study attributed this enhancement to:
• the close relationship of the unit of study to their work; and/or
• the interest and support of their organisation.
A number of interesting examples from the research group illustrate the way in which a community of practice may influence participation in a community of learning. One involved a college whose mission was to develop leadership programs for indigenous people in northern Australia. The need for the organisation to explore ways of keeping in touch with students once they left the residential component of the leadership training program led to two of the staff exploring online learning through the unit E-learning: the idea was for the college staff to gain knowledge and experience through participation in an online unit of study and to use this knowledge and experience, in the coming years, for the development of the college program. The enhancement, one student explained, occurred as a result of the support of the management of the college because “… that support had been vital in us undertaking further study and ensuring its relevance to our work.” In the case of the leadership program for indigenous leaders, as in others, the workplace influence was to pose questions, not provide knowledge or information to the online conference, but it was, nonetheless, an influence on the online learning community.
A few students had the advantage of being able to transfer knowledge they had gained in their workplaces to a new community of practice—the online community of learners—directly. One participant was well prepared to contribute to discussion about online learning because, as he explained, “I actually taught a bit online myself and put up a few Web sites on my own… and I've taught using WebCT.” This student used his experience in Web design and online conferencing to contribute ideas to the learning community's discussion.
It is clear that the structure of the unit, E-learning, contributed directly to the students' sense of engagement with their subject matter. It gave participants the chance to group with people of similar interests, to negotiate the curriculum to a degree, and to shape their learning experiences so that they were 118 E. Stacey et al. relevant for their own work situations. The lecturer explained how she structured the unit to obtain maximum engagement:
Having the assignment something that the student, to a certain extent, controls, in terms of the content and focus, apart from the theoretical basis from which they work and the basis of reading, they define the immediate focus and apply it to their area. … So they link it to the community of practice they're coming from.
They divide up the task and research the area that is most interesting for them. I observe that happening very quickly: They see the relevance of something and are very engaged with it.
An example of this could be seen when two groups involved in teaching in the Vocational Education and Training sector situated their critique of e-learning in their sector, discussing its possibilities within that sector's prevailing attitudes and practices. The relevance of the online community's discussion to the shared experiences from their workplace communities of practice gave them a shared repertoire with which to engage in their joint enterprise. The result was engagement in relevant and authentic discussion, research and writing tasks.
Distraction and disturbance Four participants in the research group indicated that there was no adverse effect of the community of practice at work on the online community of learning, but the other three felt that there was some negative influence. One of those who replied that there was no distraction or disturbance created by the workplace for participation in online discussion made a point of confirming what she had said earlier in the interview: that there was a “definite two-way influence” between the two. She emphasised that the influence was a positive one. However, problems that sometimes arise from multi-membership of communities of practice involved three of the seven participants: one student was overburdened with work, another had a substantial commitment to travel, and another experienced a feeling of alienation in the learning community. In the first case the student felt stressed because she felt pressure to participate in online group activities, to investigate a topic in collaboration with others, and her lack of contribution made her feel guilty. She had, she explained, mismanaged the situation of balancing work with study by enrolling in two units in one semester rather than one and simply could not cope. In the second case a student whose work forced him to be away from his home base for periods of time reported a disturbance factor between his community of practice at work and the learning community he belonged to at the university. His work took him to rural communities where, commonly, Internet connections were unreliable and prevented him from connecting with the learners, and this, along with the disturbance the travel itself caused, amounted to disruption: “It does cut me off, at times,” he said, “But then I can discuss what I've learnt through my community of learners with my community of practice, so I do transfer between the two.” He seemed to have developed a successful process of reconciling conflict between communities.
The third example was a more complex case where a student felt unable to become involved in the community of learning because discourse differences, Adult Learners in the Workplace 119 as well as frustration with the tedium of computer-mediated communication, created a problem. The conventions of language the research participant used in his workplace community were, in his estimation, incompatible with the conventions used in the online learning community: One was based on “short, sharp” communication typical in the business world whereas the other, used in the learning community, was based on long, extended exchanges, which he believed were needed to explore issues in the course of study in depth. This difference in the style of communication, exacerbated by the student's relatively poor keyboard skills, made it difficult for this person to build connections between communities of practice. As well as the culture of the two communities being very different there was an additional aspect to this student's difficulty in reconciling differences between communities of practice; technology and the learning environment. They formed a barrier which he had encountered in other situations and did not care to face again, as he explained in the interview: “It's possibly because CMC and me have never really clicked.” This is a type of situation that it is not unusual for students to encounter as newcomers to online communities of learning.
If we accept that the data, limited as they are, offer information about the interplay between communities of practice, the summary of the contributions of the study's participants, as provided by Table 1, enables a clear overview of responses.
From this we can gauge that the interplay between students' workplaces and learning communities is either favourable or unfavourable. Trends are indicated in the phenomenon of favourable interplay, where participation in one community enhanced participation in another (8 “yes” and 6 “no/other”), and a low level of disruption between communities (3 “yes” and 11“no”).
The lecturer, reflecting on the contents of the online discussion for E-learning, brought new ideas to the examination of the disruption/disturbance theory that are valuable in interpreting the research findings and forming conclusions. She agreed that disturbance and disruption could well occur from time to time but, in relation to the way that these factors have been represented hypothetically in this study, commented: “I can't say that I've observed it”. She said that she felt it was “a bit unreasonable” to assume that one community of practice might have had a negative influence on another when there were numerous other factors that could cause a disturbance or distraction for a student.
Important among these factors are the students' experiences and confidence in academic work and in their familiarity with the online medium. Some of the data support this observation. The following student, for example, may not have a problem in reconciling differences between communities of practice as much as difficulty re-entering tertiary studies: 120 E. Stacey et al.
I haven't studied for ten years and so jumping into two units per semester is very challenging. I think also the medium that I'm using, that is, WebCT, has its challenges as well.… I found that there had not been any initiation …there's a lot assumed about the prior knowledge a participant has. Another student voiced negative experiences with other elements of the unit, which are not related to communities of practice but may affect the way the person participated in the online discussions:
Well, I have mixed feelings. First of all the technology is frustrating: It needs to improve the experience. It can be a drag, sometimes, getting on and waiting for messages to turn up and that sort of thing. That way it's pretty frustrating.
The degree to which such influences affected participation is difficult to estimate. It was not part of the research aim to go beyond the effect of multi-membership of communities of practice, and information of such a general nature usually came to the fore when participants were asked to describe their experiences of online learning in E-learning. Another factor which might have significance in interpreting the data derives from this comment:
“It's my [low] level of participation and that's the same in any form of communication: you get back what you put in, don't you?”
This study was established with an expectation of an improved understanding of the value (or otherwise) of the practice of establishing online learning communities for students in the postgraduate education and training program under study as well as for students in similar online programs. It was also expected to inform pedagogical design features and strategies that could enhance or inhibit the development and transitions of communities of learning and communities of practice.
Ward (2000) implies that if workers/students are used to multi-membership of communities, the joining of another community of learning won't create undue tension, so creating the online community of learners with similar dimensions to workplace communities of practice should ensure that the outcome is an enhancement rather than a disruption. The results above reflect the importance of the lecturer carefully structuring the online course and its community of learning to establish the required dimensions of a community of practice as described by Wenger (1999). With the negotiated and relevant tasks in the online unit as its joint enterprise, the teacher selected collaborative groups of members who shared many points of commonality in context and purpose, had the online conference and their task as place and reason for mutual engagement, communicating about their common contexts to establish a shared repertoire. This course structuring enables the community of learning to mirror the more natural and informally constructed community of practice, ensuring that the learners perceive their membership of the online community
Adult Learners in the Workplace 121 as they do their other multi-membership of communities of practice with no more tension or negative impact attached. Notes on Contributors Elizabeth Stacey is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Deakin University. She researches and publishes in the field of distance and online learning with a focus on collaborative learning. Peter Smith is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Deakin University. His research and publications in the field of distance education include a focus on the use of technology to mediate the delivery of flexible learning programs in industry.
Karin Barty is currently a research fellow in the Faculty of Education at Deakin University. Her involvement with distance education spans primary, secondary and tertiary education, and her research interests include e-learning in the context of distance education.