Communities of Practice (CoPs)
The rationale for using Twitter for Academic Purposes (TAP) in my EAP class this term is that it has the potential affordance of nurturing a community of practice, as outlined by Wenger.
CoPs assume social theories and practices of learning, and because I approach academic writing as a social practice (at all stages and levels of competence and confidence), I am exploring the extent to which Twitter – as a social medium – can build a writing community of practice for my students (we only have 10 weeks!). The literature on Communities of Practice is also on my students’ reading lists because it is a guiding principle of Nottingham University’s EAP provision.
Lave and Wenger establish 3 requirements designed to ensure that CoPs remain distinct from mere ‘groups of people who have things in common’. For CoPs to be communities of practice, the following must co-exist in combination with each other:
A community of practice is not merely a club of friends or a network of connections between people. It has an identity defined by a shared domain of interest. Membership therefore implies a commitment to the domain, and therefore a shared competence that distinguishes members from other people.
In pursuing their interest in their domain, members engage in joint activities and discussions, help each other, and share information. They build relationships that enable them to learn from each other. A website in itself is not a community of practice.
A community of practice is not merely a community of interest–people who like certain kinds of movies, for instance. Members of a community of practice are practitioners. They develop a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems—in short a shared practice. This takes time and sustained interaction. A good conversation with a stranger on an airplane may give you all sorts of interesting insights, but it does not in itself make for a community of practice.
The affordance of Twitter in building relationships that involve a commitment to shared practices is reflected in these two resources: Five ways in which Twitter can be useful in an academic context and Using Twitter in university research, teaching and impact activities: A guide for academics and researchers.
In deciding to use twitter with my students, I am also mindful that any use of computer-mediated learning should support or reflect recognised theories of second language acquisition (Chapelle (1998): in using Twitter, I am recognising the social, affective, and motivational dimensions of language acquisition, as well as exposure to the range of genres needed in academic communication.
I have only just met this term’s cohort and only have 2 lessons a week with them. We have so far managed to create our own Twitter handle which is locked. This ensures our CoP remains relevant to our practice this term and that we can build our relationship in class and online: the idea is that our Twitter space is integral to classroom conversations, not an open access, free-for-all sharing of our lives.
To this end, students have created ad hoc handles for the sole purpose of interacting with our class account. Our class account (currently managed by me, but depending on how things pan out, it could be managed by the students) only follows those who have set up ad hoc personal accounts: this is to ensure that the class account doesn’t follow personal accounts because if it did, this would mean the class feed would be full of tweets that have nothing to do with our work this term.
Students’ first task for Monday is to buddy-up with someone who is familiar with Twitter already, and to tweet on their first collaborative research task (which is to write a biography of Einstein and his impact on our understanding of the notion of Time) and then meet f-2-f to agree on what to write.
Note on ethics (and other such caveats)
This project is unofficial and voluntary, i.e. not prescribed by my syllabus, nor is it part of my research. I am doing this as a form of scholarly activity and as a professional commitment to good teaching and learning practice. My students are not obliged to get involved and I am not at liberty to share what we do without their consent and without my university’s consent. I therefore need to be mindful of what I share, how much I share, and how I share it. I will therefore limit myself to posting vagueries on my blog and announcing these #twitterforacademicpurposes.
Chapelle, C. (1998) ‘Multimedia CALL: Lessons to be Learned from Research on Instructed SLA’. Language Learning and Technology 2 (1), 21-39