Posted by: MandyS | January 5, 2012

Activity 36.1 (a) – Community perspectives

Well if I thought AT was bad…

In Chapter 13, Seale focuses on the practice of communities i.e users, providers and their context, and how their combining to discuss issues and problems helps practice to develop.

In doing so, Seale considers the application of Wenger’s Communities of Practice i.e. a group of individuals who share their interests and problems with a specific topic, and gain a greater degree of knowledge of and expertise on a topic through their regular interaction (Wenger 1998). The learning experiences develop through an ongoing process of ‘negotiation of meaning’, which involves the interaction of participation and reification.

Participation is the “complex process that combines doing, talking, thinking, feeling, and belonging. It involves our whole person including our bodies, minds, emotions, and social relations” (Wenger, 1998, p. 56). It is essentially about shared experience rather than individual knowledge. I have tried to think about examples of active participation and this is what I have come up with: conversation, reflection, discussion, researching, experimenting, demonstration and coaching.

Reification is the “process of giving form to our experience by producing objects that congeal this experience into thingness” (Wenger, 1998, p. 58). Essentially, it is about putting our thoughts into words and this can be achieved by producing ‘tools, rules, procedures, databases, missions, plans, contracts and stories’ that reflect their shared experience.

Whilst delving around in Google, I found this blog which gives what I think, is quite a good explanation of participation and reification in practice: “in the nursing profession (like many other professional bodies) there is an enduring assessment and discussion of what it means to be competent. The word competent is reified to mean capable and knowledgeable to be able to do all the duties and activities prescribed for a Registered Nurse. A competent Registered Nurse in 2011, however, would look quite different in terms of their skills and abilities than a Registered Nurse in 1950. Both are deemed competent at the point in time but what defines competence has changed significantly. So, the term competent has remained reified for many years in the nursing profession but new meanings to support the understanding of it have been negotiated by the members of this community of practice.” Applying this example to accessibility in elearning, I suppose one could argue that through discussion etc.  the meaning of ‘accessibility’ and how it can be achieved is reified in the guidelines etc.

To work effectively, the two processes have to be balanced; “If a community focuses too much on participation, it leaves less time to share what they learn with each other and others. If they focus only on the production of artefacts, there may be less opportunity for making sense of and interpreting new knowledge and learning. Both are important and both must be monitored to ensure they are happening”.

Seale also makes the point that ‘a large portion of reification’ comes from ‘outside communities’ (RNIB, WCAG) whereas, to be meaningful ‘reification should be re-appropriated into local processes i.e. adapting generic accessibility guidelines to suit specific or local purposes, developing manual evaluation (p. 184).

For coherence, a community must have three dimensions:

a) mutual engagement – people are engaged in actions whose meanings they negotiate with one another, draws on what we do and know as well as the contributions and knowledge of others.

b) joint enterprise – i.e. common purpose

c) shared repertoire – e.g. routines, words, tools, ways of doing things etc. which are part of the practice.

If this wasn’t enough to get to grips with, there is then the application of boundary objects, brokers and constellations:

a) boundary objects – artefacts e.g. documents, systems, tools, which work at the edges of communities of practice mediating their external relationships. In the accessible elearning world this would be legislation and guidelines.

b) Brokers – make new connections across communities, enabling coordination and opening new possibilities for meaning. To be effective they need to; have legitimacy, link practices and live on the boundaries.

c) Constellations – groupings of individual communities of practice e.g. the 6 stakeholders in accessible e-learning practice.

With this in mind, Seale goes on to consider whether Wenger’s concept of communities of practice applies to accessible elearning and the issues it raises:

1) more focused on reification, although by ‘attempting to reframe and adapt tools and procedures’ the communities are engaging in interactive negotiation and sharing of experiences.

2) there is some evidence of a ‘shared accessibility repertoire’ but without actions, ways of doing things, stories and concepts, this is woefully incomplete.

3) Disability officers are ideal brokers but they lack legitimacy and have issues with identity and isolation.

4) The brokers need to work to ‘blur the boundaries between different communities’.

Turning now to answering the activity questions:

What artefacts inside and outside your organisation have created (or could create) points of focus for you and your colleagues when it comes to developing accessible learning resources?

The difficulty with answering this question is that the Law Programme is not actually engaged in discussing issues of accessibility; any dialogue would probably take place with disability services if and when issues arose.

Instead, I have tried to think of artefacts which could create points of focus. Internally this could be e.g. OU and College of Law policy on accessibility, tutorial materials, course manuals. Externally, accessibility guidelines and evaluation tools.

Are there any artefacts that you think you and your colleagues have over-relied on or misused to the point that they are now negatively influencing your practice? If so, why do you think this is?

The only artefact I can think of is the procedure for supporting students with additional requirements. There really needs to be more emphasis that tutors have a role to play in making their materials accessible just as much as the OU has a role in providing assistive technologies.

Is there any evidence for mutual engagement, joint enterprise or shared repertoire in the community (or communities) you belong to?

The use of the tutor forum, attendance at staff development days, eTMA monitoring and student feedback are probably the extent of their being any mutual engagement. The joint enterprise is that Law Programme and the College of Law work together to support students in obtaining their law degree and the shared repertoire is probably the manuals and online support materials; tutors may share their materials with their students but don’t actively do so with other tutors. Beyond that, there is little evidence that we are in fact a community of practice.

What has influenced whether or not the people in your community are all working in pursuit of the same accessibility enterprise or objective?

I think the difficulty here is that being a part of the OU, rightly or wrongly, accessibility is not really seen as an issue for the Law Programme.

Seale discusses the development of accessibility within an organisation as the creation of a constellation of practice rather than a community of practice. How helpful do you think this approach is?

I have tried to think of this in terms of where the Law Programme sits, which is essentially straddled between the College of Law and the wider OU community. On that basis, I think it has to be a constellation of practice i.e. groupings of individual communities.

Do you think that the model shown in Figure 13.1 on page 182 would be useful as a trigger for discussion within your organisation?

I think it would help to identify the various communities involved with the Law Programme but I am not sure how this would trigger a useful discussion of accessibility; as I have said previously, this is not the aim or (as yet) an identified issue for the Law Programme.

Would it enable you and your colleagues to identify what changes or developments are needed and why they are needed?

As Seale identifies, the one thing the model does not determine is the conflicts and contradictions that influence the development of practice, and is this aspect which is likely to lead to the greatest change/development of the Law Programme.

Would the labels on the figure be different for your organisation? If so, how and why?

The labels need to identify the community of the OU as distinct from that of the College of Law; essentially the latter provides the module materials and the platform for support materials, but not the students or the tutors.


Seale, J. (2006) E-Learning and Disability in Higher Education: Accessibility Research and Practice, Abingdon, Routledge; also available online at mod/ resourcepage/ view.php?id=569013&direct=1 (accessed 14 December 2011).
Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

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