Communities of Practice at U-M

Eric Joyce, Marketing Specialist

What are unique models of residential education at the University of Michigan and what would it take to scale those models?

These were the questions faculty and staff asked during an informal conversation last fall exploring how to identify and support communities of practice at Michigan.

Faculty and staff sitting on out couches in discussionFirst, the group worked to establish a common understanding of a “community of practice.” Popularized in the 1990s by social anthropologist Dr. Jean Lave and educational theorist Dr. Etienne Wenger, one definition suggests a community of practices is, “a process of social learning that occurs when people who have a common interest in a subject or area collaborate over an extended period of time, sharing ideas and strategies, determine solutions and build innovations.”

In the context of higher education, the group suggested communities of practice are often problem-based, interdisciplinary and intergenerational, spanning undergraduate and graduate students to faculty and alumni and may include members of the greater community.

“The community of practice is defined by the problem that they are working on,” said Dr. Barry Fishman, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Education and Information. “Different people bring different things to the table to help solve the problem.”

Rebecca Quintana, Learning Experience Designer for the Office of Academic Innovation, echoed Fishman’s definition.

“It has to have a real need, it has to have something really driving it,” she said. “We have a common goal we are trying to accomplish that we can’t do without working together.”

Fishman mentioned communities of practice are commonly misunderstood as restricted only to “practitioners,” or a professional in the particular field relating to the problem. He suggested successful communities of practice include participants from different levels of expertise who all approach a particular problem from diverse viewpoints without the constraints of hierarchical dividers.

The group was interested in viewing a public institution through the lens of a community of practice and they looked for examples at U-M.

Dr. Mika Lavaque-MantyDr. Mika LaVaque-Manty, Arthur F. Thurnau Associate Professor of Political Science, said Michigan’s 19 schools and colleges are Living Learning Communities, but do not necessarily represent a community of practice. He pointed to the Community Action and Social Change undergraduate minor through the School of Social Work and the Detroit City Study co-learning experiences as examples of communities of practice at Michigan and asked how the University can best continue to support these communities.

“What could the University do to make things more possible?” he asked.

Participants identified challenges when attempting to conceptualize a group of learners connected to a 13-week class as a community of practice. They asked how best to sustain the community both before it begins as well as after students complete the course.

Dr. Elisabeth Gerber, Professor of Public Policy at the Ford School of Public Policy, said the U-M Law School approaches a single issue across multiple courses.

“The institutional commitment to the problem and the study of this problem is very cool,” she said.

Gerber suggested creating a public catalog to identify communities of practice across the University would help to build connections between existing and new communities.

“How do we aggregate what’s going on as a way of learning about practice at our University?” she asked. “We should be learning from each other, this is a great way to start.”

The group said they were interested in exploring ways to identify which students do and do not have these experiences at U-M. Fishman said a next step is to find promising programs on campus and discuss ways to provide additional support. He said the best way to engage is to identify hindrances preventing a community’s “current state” from reaching its “ideal state.”

“What stops it from realizing its real potential?” Fishman asked.

Join us during the next Innovation Hour! View our list of upcoming events to learn about future Innovation Hour discussions.

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