The delusion, confusion and instrumentalism of 'community of practice' in educational technology research

Year: 2012

Author: Henderson, Michael

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


Educational technology research has been weakened through the frequent uncritical application of theoretical frameworks. This paper focuses on the prolific and generally uncritical use of the term "community" and especially "community of practice" (CoP) which has resulted in a body of educational technology literature, and a tradition of research, that ignores or treats as periphery the complex relationships between individuals, the collective, and the socio-cultural context over time. A large problem in the use of CoP in the literature is that it is often used to describe an aspirational state, or worse, an instrumentalist strategy in which to achieve that state, where people work together harmoniously to achieve externally defined goals. This simplified and arguably delusional understanding of CoP silences potentially valuable interrogations of the social milieu in situated learning. COP has become a buzzword that means something quite different from its origins as a critical perspective. For instance, the early theory of CoP disputes the necessity of harmony or homogeneity in achieving socially negotiated goals, indeed, community members could be aggressive, contradictory, competitive, and emotionally detached, yet still find a way to be cohesive.

Based on a review of the literature it is argued that the misuse of CoP in 'ed tech' research is largely related to three issues. First, CoP is often interpreted as a synonym for 'community', with connotations of harmony and purpose, and thereby used to reinforce implicit values if not hidden agendas rather than engage in critical research of the socio-cultural context and processes. Second, the fragmented and contested theoretical landscape of CoP has resulted in a confusion of language, concepts and processes which has weakened the validity of research findings. Third, the complex concepts within CoP as a critical framework of socio-cultural interactions are understandably resistant to instrumentalism which, in the context of intervention based research, necessarily results in the oversimplification and uncritical application of concepts. Consequently, it is argued that any future research purporting to use or cultivate a CoP needs to explicitly elaborate how the research conceptualises the link between CoP and social activity. Furthermore, the design and analysis of the data must adhere rigorously to a single framework of CoP. This also means that findings should only be qualified by research literature founded on the same theoretical basis.