Professional communities, experts have their say
What do we know from research on the role of professional communities in the creation and sharing of open educational resources? When does it work and when does it not? We asked Karel Kreijns, Professor of Technology-Enhanced Collaborative Learning, and Peter Sloep, Emeritus Professor of Technology-Enhanced Learning.
Both professors agree that professional communities can play an important role in developing and sharing open educational resources. Collaboration in education does not take place spontaneously and there are different barriers to sharing learning materials that can be removed by participating in a professional community. Karel Kreijns lists them: 'In a professional community, you discover the reference level. This makes you more inclined to create materials that are also intended to be used by others, not just by yourself. You know the material is good and you have a channel in which to distribute it. In addition, you can gain inspiration from your peers. Thanks to all these factors, a professional community helps to achieve better quality learning materials.'
A shared need for learning materials that do not yet exist can be a good reason to launch a professional community, such as materials about Blockchain or about making cities more sustainable. More mature disciplines are also suited to the joint creation and sharing of learning materials, as the SAMEN HBO-verpleegkunde (nursing) professional community has shown. 'The crucial trigger for the emergence of a professional community is shared interests,' says Peter Sloep. 'Of course, professional communities need to be fed, but all things being equal, what's known in the field of chemistry as activation energy arises - you have to put energy into it first, but once it runs, it keeps on running. The idea is that the joint creation and sharing of learning materials will become a working method and not just a one-off. ' A successful professional community feeds itself because the participants benefit from it. For example, it provides them with time savings, high-quality materials and contact with friendly colleagues.
Nevertheless, research shows that in practice this activation energy is not always enough to keep the professional community alive. As a supervisor of many communities of practice in education, Kreijns regularly observed that the end of funding often also meant the end of the community. Institutions should consider the creation and sharing of open educational resources so important for their own education process that they free up people to participate in the professional community,' he says. Financial support from the institutions is needed.
Sloep refers to an insight from game theory from the field of economics: people are usually willing to make a modest initial investment to see what it will bring. If they don't get anything in return, they'll quickly give up. 'In psychology, this is called rational choice theory: People want to invest in things that are stable and seem to have a long life.' If the community seems to stop when funding stops, it will put people off from continuing to invest.' It is therefore important to set up a professional community that aims to function independently from the outset, because the participants will have sufficient benefit from the cooperation.
Conditions for succes
What makes a professional community successful? From the theory of Communities of Practice by Etienne Wenger, we know that an absence of hierarchy is a prerequisite for a successful professional community. Only establish roles that are strictly necessary, such as author or project leader, but make as little distinction as possible between the members. In addition, everyone's contributions must be clearly visible, says Sloep. 'From game theory, we know that people work together because it produces a better outcome. But we have a shared allergy of participants who are pushy. You have to arm yourself against this, for instance, by making it clear who is responsible for what and, to a certain extent, by making members accountable. Participation is not without obligation.'
Wenger distinguishes another condition: the prominence of individuals. 'Anonymous networks don't work,' says Sloep. 'Similarly, a network must not become too big, because then anonymity looms.'
Kreijns believes that it will be more difficult to keep professional communities active since members now rarely, if ever, meet in person. He therefore recommends not just organising regular video meetings, but also scheduling 'water cooler moments' where the conversations can be about anything and everything. A successful professional community is a close-knit community in which the members know each other well and are therefore far more likely to share learning materials and other knowledge products with each other.