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1.6  Communities of practice

A photograph of Etienne Wenger.
Figure 5  Etienne Wenger

Lave and Wenger's (1991) book on situated learning and Wenger's (1998) influential book on communities of practice highlighted the social role in learning and the importance of apprenticeship. They proposed the concept of ‘legitimate peripheral participation’, whereby participants move from the periphery in a community to its core by engaging in legitimate tasks. A very practical example of this is seen in open source communities, where participants move from reading and occasionally commenting in forums to suggesting code fixes and taking on a range of functions such as moderation and code commenting. Crowston and Howison (2005) propose a hierarchical structure for FLOSS communities, consisting of the following layers:

  1. At the centre are core developers, who contribute the majority of the code and oversee the overall project.
  2. In the next layer are the co-developers who submit patches, which are reviewed and checked in by core developers.
  3. Further out are the active users who do not contribute code but provide use-cases and bug-reports as well as testing new releases.
  4. Further out still are the many passive users of the software who do not contribute directly to the main forums.

Bacon and Dillon (2006) suggest that some of the practices seen in open source communities can be adopted by higher education, in particular, the process of peer-production and the situated method of teaching and learning. With its practical approach, self-direction, user-generated content and social aspect, the communities of practice approach as realised in open source provides an interesting model, since it devolves much of the work to a community, from which all benefit. However, the number of successful open source communities is relatively small compared with the number of unsuccessful ones, and thus the rather tenuous success factors for generating and sustaining an effective community may prove to be a barrier across all subject areas. Where they thrive, however, it offers a significant model which higher education can learn much from in terms of motivation and retention (Meiszner 2010).