I spent a long but interesting day yesterday in Birmingham with a group of Intellectual Property teachers (OK, that may not be your notion of interesting, but, please, suspend your disbelief for a moment, not least because they were a nice group of people….)
The event was the inaugural workshop of the European Intellectual Property Teachers’ Network, an informal grouping that has grown out of an equally informal UK-based group that has met fairly regularly over the last six or seven years. The event itself was pretty packed, with two keynotes (from Steve Rowan, Director of Intellectual Property Policy at the UK Intellectual Property Office, and Marielle Piana from the European Patent Academy of the EPO) and four panel sessions. The spread of subject matter was also quite broad, with much discussion of appropriate content, design and delivery: the place of history, generalist vs specialist modules, problem-based learning, virtual delivery, and so on. Interdisciplinarity was a strong theme (music to my socio-legal ears!), recognising the extent to which an understanding of IP policy and practice benefits from, perhaps even necessitates, a strongly interdisciplinary approach. The need to teach IP management skills and issues also emerged from a couple of presentations, including an impressive example from the Technical University of Munich of the way in which student motivation and learning could be stimulated by a deep, problem-based, approach to learning using case studies based on real high-tech companies.
In a way what was most exciting for me was not so much the content (I’m not an IP lawyer) but that the event happened at all, and that it brought together people teaching aspects of IP from different countries, different disciplinary backgrounds, and for different purposes. In my experience its quite unusual to find a group of HE people from across a field of study like this meeting to talk about teaching and learning. There was certainly a sense of interest and engagement in the debates and a willingness to sharing ideas, and I have little doubt that the shared IP context enhanced the feeling of participation in a common enterprise. Full credit to Claire Howell (Aston Business School) and Duncan Matthews (Queen Mary, University of London) for pulling it all together.
The event has got me thinking rather more concretely about something that I’ve come across increasingly frequently lately – the idea of communities of practice (CoP). The term itself seems to have been coined by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger and used extensively in their book Situated Learning (Cambridge University Press, 1991). (In a later book -Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning and Identity, Cambridge University Press, 1998 – Wenger goes on to explore the notion of a CoP in much greater depth.)
Lave and Wenger’s work starts from the supposition that all learning is social and comes primarily from our experience of participating in daily life as a series of engagements with others in joint enterprises. From this perspective, at its simplest, a community of practice is a group of individuals participating in shared activity which is characterised by collective or collaborative learning. This process of “mutual engagement” in fact comes to define both the practice and the community itself. Communities thus develop over time around things that matter to the people involved. They develop a ‘shared repertoire’ of communal resources and symbols that carry the accumulated knowledge and experience of the group. Rather instrumentally, they interest me because they sound like potentially powerful mechanisms for sharing knowledge, solving problems and innovating.
I’m not sure that I know enough about CoPs yet to differentiate this concept from a lot of other work on organisational learning, but Wenger’s sensitivity to social complexity and what seems to be a strongly constructionist view of the world are, for me, intuitively appealing and I think the label itself is quite powerful. At UKCLE we are very much focussed on supporting the needs of our subject community. While I think that’s an important focus and a useful shorthand for us, not least to remind us where our primary responsibility lies, it is descriptively and developmentally rather a blunt notion. Even within law as a single discipline there is a multiplicity of more or less well defined ‘communities’ and interests which overlay what I suspect may still be a pretty individualistic sense of what it is to be a ‘law teacher’. Could CoPs be a useful way of not just thinking (‘sociologically’) about how sub-disciplinary cultures evolve, but a means of actually constructing and developing sub-disciplinary interests and activities? (The Society of Legal Scholars’ Subject Sections in the UK – broadly akin to AALS Sections in the US – perhaps perform some of that function already, but probably not all of it). Indeed, can you construct a CoP or is it more an emergent property of a field or organisation? What features appear to sustain and grow a CoP? One of the questions at the end of yesterday’s event, not surprisingly was, “what next”, and the CoP literature might generate some interesting ideas. I’ll try and write some more about this when I have more time, and have been able to do some more spadework!