Darrell A. Dromgoole, Associate Professor and Extension Specialist, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
Scott Cummings, Associate Department Head and Program Leader; Professor and Extension Specialist, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
Extension education has the benefit to have a wide array of educational theory to draw from as Extension educators implement educational programming. In this post the application of communities of practice and how this theory can be applied to the vocation of Extension education.
When we think about a ‘community of practice’ we typically think of a group of Extension educators (specialist & agents) who work as a team to address critical issues on the state or national level. However, the same principles that guide these state-wide or national ‘communities of practice’ can be utilize and applied at the county, multi-county or regional level.
The term community of practice (CoP) was proposed by Lave and Wenger (1991) to capture the importance of integrating individuals within a professional community, and of the community in correcting and/or reinforcing individual practices. At the county level County Extension educators with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service have historically identified with “Community of Practices” as being groups of specialist who share technical information regarding a specific topic among themselves through face to face forums, on line bulletin boards, web conferencing, etc. As reported by New Zealand researchers the establishment of formalized county level “communities of practices” has the potential to enhance clientele learning and practice change (Gray, D., Sewell, A., Hartnett, M., Wood, B., Kemp, P., Blair, H., Kenyon, P., & Morris, S. , 2016). A county level “community of practice” could be effectively utilized by County Extension Educators when addressing complex subject matter area where the goal of the program is to have clientele adopt a practice or technology. When County Extension Educators utilize a “community of practice” it is imperative that they begin with the basic premise that learning or knowledge gained is a precursor to action or change. Figure 1 illustrates the Extension Educational Continuum.
Figure 1. Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service’s Educational Continuum.
In today’s Extension educational landscape, knowledge or intent to adopt practices may be less significant. With information inundating our clientele their knowledge related to subject matter is at an all-time high. Therefore, a knowledge acquisition-like learning environment may be less effective if the goal of the program is to have clientele take deliberate steps to adopt a technology or practice. When County Extension educators think about adding a formalized ‘communities of practice’ to their educational portfolio their goal should be to move clientele from knowledge to intent to adopt to ultimate adoption or change in behavior.
Central to a ‘community of practice’ is having the appropriate people involved. The ‘community of practice’ could involve Extension subject matter Specialists, clientele, County Extension Educators, AgriLife Research Scientists, etc. Another key factor is to create a climate where clientele take ownership in their educational experience. In the study sited in a previous blog article the education team made it clear to clientele that they were involved in a ‘community of practice’ and that continued reinforcement of this concept during the subsequent workshops was reported to be an important factor (Gray et al., 2016). Figure 2 provides an illustration of the first critical factor (establishing a community of practice) and the associated principles of the first critical factor:
Figure 2. First critical factor and associated principles.
If a “community of practice” is utilized to promote practice change it should be made clear to the clientele that they are involved in a dynamic learning group to address a complex issue and this involvement should be reinforced during various educational activities (Gray et al., 2016). Essential to the creation of this “open” learning forum is the development of mutually respectful and trusting relationships (Figure 2) (Gray et al., 2016). Trust and mutual respect should be further fostered by the willingness of the Extension educators and/or researchers to share both positive and negative educational outcomes and take note of the clienteles’ recommendations (Gray et al., 2016). Trust and mutual respect will be developed because the Extension educators actively listening to clientele and placing value in their knowledge and experience (Gray et al., 2016).
Informal dialogue is another principle that is imperative in fostering a learning community. Research suggests that clientele prefer to discuss issues in small groups that normally consist of three to six people (Gray et al., 2016). Space should be created by the Extension educators /researchers for informal dialogue by providing time within the educational activities schedule for dialogue (Gray et al., 2016). During these interactions, clientele can investigate ideas with other clientele and the Extension educators/researchers (Gray et al., 2016). The research suggests that as trust and mutual respect is developed, clientele confidence increases (Gray et al., 2016). This increase in confidence will result in more robust interaction among all participants enhancing the educational experience (Gray et al., 2016).
Another attribute of a ‘community of practice’ is “sharing power” with the clientele (Figure 2) (Gray et al., 2016). Differentiating from a normal top down approach, where power exists exclusively with the Extension educators/researchers because of their expertise, the experience and practical expertise of the clientele should be highly regarded by the professional educators and drawn upon in discussions during various educational events (Gray et al., 2016).
The second critical factor that should be focused on if a “community of practice” is utilized to prompt practice change or adoption of technology is interest. Figure 3 provides an illustration of the second critical factor and the associated principle of the second critical factor:
Figure 3. Second critical factor and associated principle.
Extension educators/researchers should develop learning activities that create interest in the clientele (Figure 3).
The third critical factor that should be focused on if a “community of practice” is utilized to prompt practice change or adoption of technology is connection. Figure 4 provides an illustration of the third critical factor and the associated principle of the third critical factor:
Figure 4. Third critical factor and associated principle.
Learning experiences should be deliberately designed by the Extension educators/researchers where clientele can see the relevance of, and make connections to, their own diverse situations (Figure 4) (Gray et al., 2016).
The fourth critical factor that should be focused on if a “community of practice” is utilized to prompt practice change or adoption of technology is to align with science. Figure 5 provides an illustration of the fourth critical factor and the associated principle of the fourth critical factor:
Figure 5. Fourth critical factor and associated principle.
Sequential learning experiences where one concept is built upon another should be designed that aligns with the science underpinning of a new technology or practice (Figure 5).
The fifth critical factor that should be focused on if a “community of practice” is utilized to prompt practice change or adoption of technology is inquiry. Figure 6 provides an illustration of the fifth critical factor and the associated principle of the fifth critical factor:
Figure 6. Fifth critical factor and associated principle.
Research indicates as trust and mutual respect is developed, clientele will begin to participate with the professional educators in their inquiry processes (Gray et al., 2016). Research suggests that when clientele know that they can contribute ideas and that the scientists and Extension educators are receptive to such input clientele are motivated to be involved in the program (Gray et al., 2016). This inclusive culture fosters the inquiry processes (Gray et al., 2016). Research indicates that ultimately, reflective inquiry leads to significant practice change (Gray et al., 2016).
Some examples of potential “communities of practice” at the county level could include the following:
Research indicates that there is significant value in bringing together clientele, scientists and Extension educators and incorporating educational theory to better understand how to enhance clientele learning and practice change. The research conducted in New Zealand reveals that the on-going development of an inclusive formalized “community of practice” can positively impact change practices (Gray et al., 2016). Fostering clientele interest, making connections to their current practices, ensuring alignment between the learning activities and the science behind the new technology or practice, and supporting clientele inquiry into their current practices that is based on evidence was critical for learning and practice change (Gray et al., 2016). The five critical success factors and the seven educational principles provide guidelines for how clientele and Extension educators/researchers can potentially interact to foster effective innovation (Gray et al., 2016).
Barab, S. A., & Duffy, T. (2012). From practice fields to communities of practice. In D. Jonassen & S. Land (Eds.), Theoretical foundations of learning environments (2nd ed., pp. 29–65). New York, NY: Routledge.
Gray, D., Sewell, A., Hartnett, M., Wood, B., Kemp, P., Blair, H., Kenyon, P., & Morris, S. (2016) Improved extension practices for sheep and beef farmers. Hill Country- Grassland Research and Practice Series # 16.
Herath, C. (2013). Does intention lead to behavior? A case study of Czech Republic farmers. Technical report from Technology Transfer Division, Coconut Research Institute of Sri Lanka, Lunuwila, Sri Lanka.
Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Rahm, J. (2010). Science in the making at the margin: A multisite ethnography of learning and becoming in an afterschool program, a garden and a math and science upward bound program. Boston, MA: Sense Publishers
Sfard, A. (1998). On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one. Educational Researcher, 27(2), 4–13.