Community as curriculum

Like so many terms around online learning, the word “community” has become slippery with overuse. It has been sequestered, reinterpreted, mixed, matched etc. until it is hard to know what is understood when the word is used. It is probably something to do with groups of people in a shared space, or domain, maybe with shared interests, maybe a shared history, maybe even a shared discourse, but tying it down is harder. The edges seem to be loose, and it might be ok to be on the edges. Mostly though it’s just warm fuzz, a kind of happy “social” word, and statistically the use of the word probably has more to do these days with your purchasing habits than any of these other factors. Certainly some way from the literature on communities from the 90’s (Wenger etc). This preamble just to clarify the lack of clarity.

So, when we say the community is the curriculum, what might we be getting at. There are two kinds of communities that might be referred to here. One could be a cousin of the “community of practice”, the people who are active in a specific domain, who walk its walk and talk its talk, they might be described as the experts in the domain. In some senses the “prescribed” or official curriculum has always tended to be presented as based on what is seen as relevant in the domain it purports to refer to. The number of layers in that sentence may make it clear that there are many ways in which curricula fail to actually match the realities they are supposed to relate to, but I will leave that for a possible later post

The other community we might speak of is the “learning community” or perhaps more accurately the “community of learners”. In any given domain this relates to the correspondent community of practice insofar as the objective for a good part of the learners is to become in some way participants in that community of practice. They want be able to “walk the walk and talk the talk”. It can be argued that by virtue of their interest, they are already legitimate peripheral participants in the community, and that the progress of their learning can be viewed as progress into the community.

The problem is that the learner community and the community of practice are very different in terms of what they know, what they know how to do, and how they talk about it, – if these can be separated. They also tend to be active in very different contexts, the locus of learning is often far removed from the locus of practice. In defining curriculum, which of the two notions of community should be given greater emphasis? This leads right back to what appears to be a recurring theme in #rhizo14; the way power relations play out in learning.

A further issue around curriculum is the issue of which curriculum we are focussing on. Is it the official curriculum as handed down from the “powers that be”, ministries agencies etc.? Is it the institutional curriculum, the interpretation by educational institutions of official curricula through their scheduling, staffing, resourcing, assessment and other decisions? Or the enacted curriculum, what actually goes on in the learning “space”? There are other curricula, such as hidden curricula, and learner curricula.

I get the sense, from the tenor of the issues raised so far in #rhizo14, that the statement is perhaps intended to mean that there should be no curriculum that is separate from the needs, interests, and focus of the community. The community (once we have decided what it is) should set the agenda. This is helpful if we are aiming to question the need for a received curriculum devised without reference to the community, or perhaps especially the learner community. However, beyond that it seems to me that the notion of community as curriculum becomes less useful. Any curriculum is in a sense a kind of map. It may be more or less effective as a map, but maps are necessary for orientation. We need to pay attention to who creates the map and how it is understood – power again – but the map cannot be the territory or it becomes redundant. If the aim of learning is to be able to participate actively in a community, then the community itself cannot be the curriculum.


One thought on “Community as curriculum

  1. I wish I had found this earlier but it is interesting to read it as rhizo14 is dying down. I share your view of the concept of (online/virtual) community as slippery (and have done for many years). I was fascinated yesterday to hear Dave C (in his MIT videoed talk) characterise a CMOOC as something from which a Community of Practice could emerge, given the doubts he expressed about CoPs during rhizo14. I am thinking a lot about the formation of community on rhizo14, and hence the implicit curriculum. I skidded across all of the ‘spaces’ G+, FB group, p2pu, Twitter and (my favourite) blogs but the ‘community of learning’ to which I felt I most belonged was small and distributed across several channels and back channels including email. I have just written and deleted three sentences so I guess that demonstrates my reluctance to discuss certain issues in public – though I have tried to do so.
    I enjoyed a couple of conversations on Twitter with yourself but it was hit and miss whether or not I found your contributions. I am sorry to have missed out on your blog. Have you thought of adding a ‘Follow this blog’ widget

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