Supported Student Success: Communities of Practice in Higher Education


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This research tells a story about how students form communities of practice that help them succeed in graduate school. Told within the context of individual and collective experiences, it holds valuable lessons for how student success can be supported across the higher education landscape. Communities of practice can develop spontaneously when individuals involved in a common activity or with a sense of shared identity come together to deal with organizational complexities or establish a forum for continued learning. The practice of becoming an accomplished and successful student who is able to develop scholarly abilities and deepen disciplinary understanding, experience personal growth and achievement, while at the same time maintaining a healthy school-work-life balance is a non-trivial exercise. Membership in a community of practice can help students achieve success as part of the process of navigating this complex journey. Generously informed by the experiences of sustainability education doctoral students, this research used survey responses, anecdote circles, interviews, and grounded theory methods to determine how communities of practice develop among graduate students in support of their success. This presentation asks and answers questions about what communities of practice are, how and why they develop, and what value they can bring to higher education.

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Supported Student Success: Communities of Practice in Higher Education

  1. 1. Supported Student Success Communities of Practice in Higher Education Aimée deChambeau May 15, 2014 Prescott College Symposium on Sustainability Education
  2. 2. Study focus and goals • Focus • Graduate student success • Development from novice to experienced student • Goals • Deepen the available research in the area of student success at the graduate level • Formulate a theory of supported student success • Inform graduate program development • Contribute to paradigm shift for sustainable education
  3. 3. CoP? Practice? CoP and the practice of being a successful student • a set of relations among persons, activity, and world, over time and in relation with other tangential and overlapping communities of practice1 • intrinsic condition for the existence of knowledge… because it provides the interpretive support necessary for making sense of its heritage1 1 Lave & Wenger, 1991
  4. 4. Problem Statement • CoPs develop spontaneously • Common activity or shared identity • Deal with complexity and continued learning • Becoming an accomplished and successful student is non-trivial • Graduate student ≠ Expert student • How might development of CoPs be fostered to support individuals in their practice of becoming successful students?
  5. 5. Assumptions • Communication rhythms develop • Essential information is exchanged • Knowledge is co-created • Stories, advice, experiences are shared Given a sufficiently strong and focused network of relationships and communication patterns, a CoP can develop that supports students in their practice of becoming and being successful students.
  6. 6. Asking the questions
  7. 7. Rationale and significance • Student success at graduate level • 43-50% of graduate students do not finish • Success currently focused on big data type metrics • This study provides additional data • Mentoring and advising • Curricular and administrative processes/procedures • Program environment • Repeatable research design • Study different types of programs • Comparisons might lead to better insights
  8. 8. Rationale and significance • Sustainable education • Contributes to epistemic learning necessary for paradigm change in higher education (learning about learning about learning) • Reflects systems and ecological metaphors • CoP has potential to cut across disciplines and de-silo programs in higher education
  9. 9. Research Approach Grounded Theory
  10. 10. CoPs and graduate education Published research falls into 5 categories: • CoP as a framework for analysis • CoP as a framework for reflection • CoP as a learning strategy • Development of a CoP • Within the context of multi-memberships
  11. 11. Roles of CoP in student success
  12. 12. Methodology • Participants • Influences on design • Data collection methods • Data analysis
  13. 13. Participants 44 individuals participated
  14. 14. Influences on design • Qualitative, mixed methods approach • Community of practice theory • Whole systems thinking • Appreciative inquiry • Anecdote circles
  15. 15. Data collection • Participant observation • Documents • Survey • Anecdote circles • Interviews
  16. 16. Data collection
  17. 17. Perceptual data
  18. 18. Data analysis • Grounded theory methods • Coding • Preliminary and axial • Provisional and emergent • Memos • Constant comparative analysis; iterative process • Themes and categories
  19. 19. Findings • Student Characteristics • Digital Habitats • Preferred communication methods • Impact of social media on student communication • CoP Characteristics • Meaning • Community • Learning
  20. 20. Student characteristics • Diverse backgrounds • Little overlap among prior degrees • Little overlap in professional organizations • Households • Half have life partners • Slightly less than half have dependents at home • Approximately ¼ are single female householders
  21. 21. Student success • Completion of their degree as a personal accomplishment as well as an earned credential for further professional advancement • Increased scholarly abilities, including deeper understanding of disciplinary content, improved academic skills, contributions to knowledge and the ability to put theory into practice • Personal growth and transformational change, including confidence in their own voice, finding and maintaining balance during and after completing school, and unity between their avocation and personal lives • Expansion of lifelong learning skills and tools, including the foundation of a network of like-minded colleagues with whom they can continue the conversations, scholarship, and work of sustainability education
  22. 22. Digital habitats an experience of place enabled by technology2 2Wenger, White, & Smith, 2009 Men Women Same cohort email Skype email phone Other cohort email Facebook email Facebook Small groups email in person email phone conference
  23. 23. CoP characteristics practice is about meaning as an experience of everyday life3 • Meaning • Negotiation of meaning • Participation • absorbing and being absorbed in the culture of practice1 • Informal participation is extremely important • Reification • Making the abstract concrete 3Wenger, 1998 1Lave & Wenger, 1991
  24. 24. CoP characteristics • Community • Mutual engagement • Collective work of members in negotiating meaning • Joint enterprise • What the community does • Becoming and being successful students • Shared repertoire • Resources for negotiating meaning • Learning • Shared histories of learning
  25. 25. Answering questions
  26. 26. Answering questions
  27. 27. Conclusions A theory of supported student success • A CoP is possible and beneficial • Social microclimates are critical for development of a CoP • Cross cohort microclimates are critical for sustaining a CoP
  28. 28. But is it a theory? Criteria for applicability of theory to phenomena: • Fit • Conclusions faithfully represent what the data illustrate • Understanding • Interrelated conclusions can be easily understood • Generality • Interpretation is broad and conceptual • Control • Can be used to guide future actions
  29. 29. Recommendations • For institutions and faculty • Be aware and responsive • Facilitate and support, especially physical and virtual events and spaces (digital habitats) • Help make connections • Never mandate or interfere • For students • Be mindful of what’s happening • Engage in community maintenance • Initiate and sustain cross cohort connections • Remember this when you are faculty in a program…
  30. 30. Recommendations For sustainable education: Sterling’s Whole Systems Shift4 Sterling Prescott College CoP Paradigm Reflects living systems or ecological metaphor CoP reflects systems or ecological metaphor Purpose Broader education; no longer simply preparation for economic life CoP can facilitate trans- and inter-disciplinary thinking and problem solving; diversity helps de-silo Policy Development of potential and capacity; continuous learning Student definition of success reflects this; same group developed a supportive CoP Practice Participative, active, social learning; situated learning CoP is a social learning structure; epitomizes situated learning 4Sterling, 2004
  31. 31. Recommendations • For further research • Continue to develop the concept of microclimates in the context of educational delivery models • Explore the development of CoPs as a response to a specific need, and use as program evaluation and improvement tool • Study cohort drift and its effect on cross cohort communication • Dig into story content for insights into lived experiences of graduate students • Continue to research CoP as framework for epistemic learning (learning about learning about learning)
  32. 32. References 1Lave, Jean & Wenger, Etienne. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. 2Wenger, Etienne, White, Nancy, & Smith, John D. (2009). Digital habitats: Stewarding technology for communities. Portland, OR: CPsquare. 3Wenger, Etienne. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press. 4Sterling, Stephen. (2004). Higher education, sustainability, and the role of systemic learning. In In Peter B. Corcoran & Arjen Wals (Eds.) Higher education and the challenge of sustainability: Problematics, promise, and practice (pp. 49-70). Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  33. 33. Contact Aimée deChambeau Email: Phone: 330.972.7488