Posted by Tricia Seifert
I had the great opportunity the other week to speak to the residence life and housing professionals at #NWACUHO14 (Northwest Association of College and University Housing Officers) about communities of practices and how they can be instrumental in developing relationships, sharing practices through a variety of means (listservs, twitter chats, webinars, websites to name a few), and creating new knowledge to inform one’s practice. A few days later, I spoke at the Ontario University Registrars Association’s sold-out conference about the ecology of student success. The two presentations are clearly connected. Communities of practice increase the linkages between students’ microsystems, thereby supporting student success.
Okay, let’s take a step back to sketch out the basic tenets of Urie Bronfenbrenner’s theory of ecological human development. The Person-Process-Context-Time model presents individual development as a result of a person interacting with a host of processes within a specific context and time. Bronfenbrenner also states that development is individualized because how one interacts with these processes within the environment depends on that person’s characteristics.
Intuitively, that makes sense. We all know twins who approach the world in vastly different ways despite sharing the same DNA and growing up side-by-side. Bronfenbrenner asserts the twins’ unique characteristics influence how they interact with processes that comprise their immediate environment. Each process within a person’s environment is a microsystem in Bronfenbrenner’s theory.
Imagine these twins are first year students at your university. Their microsystems may consist of friends, family, classmates, job, faculty members, staff in the Registrar’s office, and staff and peers in their residence. Bronfenbrenner argues that the mesosystem is the space in which these microsystems link or connect. Although other systems comprise the full ecological model, I am going to keep the discussion to microsystems linking within the mesosystem. The figure below represents this ecology for a hypothetical situation involving one of the twins, Julia.
In the case of our twins, Julia is not doing well in several of her courses and fears she will be placed on academic suspension. She has mentioned her struggles to her Residence Don but has not confided in her twin sister. Her Residence Don, Mark, knows that he doesn’t have answers to all of Julia’s questions so he takes her confidential inquiry to his Residence Director.
Recently, the Registrar’s Office initiated an early alert system on campus and convened a community of practice across campus to discuss issues related to academic success. Along with staff from the Academic Skills Centre, Accessibility/Disability Services and Counselling, the Residence Life staff have attended community gatherings to learn about the early alert system and how thy can support students who have been identified as experiencing academic difficulty. Because of her engagement with the “academic success” community of practice, the Residence Director provides Mark with information on the programs and services designed for students who have been identified through the early alert system.
In this example, staff from Residence Life, the Registrar’s Office, and the Academic Skills Centre (all members of the community of practice and individual microsystems) interacted in Julia’s mesosystem in way that supported her success. From our data, we found positive linkages across microsystems that support student success like that of this fictional community of practice appear to exist more often at institutions where faculty and staff from across the campus recognize they have an important contribution to make in supporting student success.
What communities of practice exist on your campus? What microsystems do they connect? How has your institution used the relationships and knowledge from this community of practice to support student success?
We want to learn from you. Please leave a comment so that others can learn from the communities of practice you have on your campus.
Wenger, Etienne. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Wenger, Etienne; McDermott, Richard; Snyder, William M. (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press.
Bronfenbrenner, Urie. (1979). The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bronfenbrenner, Urie. (1993). The ecology of cognitive development: Research models and fugitive findings. In R. H. Wozniak & K. W. Fischer (Eds.), Development in context: Acting and thinking in specific environments (pp. 3–44). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
For a great application of Bronfenbrenner’s theory within higher education, I recommend Kris Renn and Karen Arnold’s 2003 article, Reconceptualizing research on college student peer culture. The Journal of Higher Education, 74(3), 261-291.