2001 Conference Proceedings

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John M. Slatin, Ph.D.
Institute for Technology and Learning
University of Texas at Austin
Email: jslatin@mail.utexas.edu

According to Etienne Wenger (1998), a community of practice is characterized by mutual engagement in a joint enterprise using (and creating) a shared repertoire of tools, artifacts, ideas, and information. Wenger writes that the boundaries of such communities do not necessarily coincide with formal institutional or organizational boundaries-classrooms, grade-levels, etc. But successful teaching and learning in computer-based environments often depend heavily upon pedagogical designs that foster development of and participation in such communities, and, in the present instance, on the computational environments that support them.

The fundamental premises of Wenger's social theory of learning are (or seem to be) deeply inimical to the assumptions underlying the title of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1994 (amended 1997). IDEA's mandate that each child receive an "appropriate education" in the "least restrictive environment" conducive to his or her learning has led to significant increases in the number of children identified as having disabilities who are placed.in "inclusive classrooms" together with peers who are not disabled. Judging by the frequency of references to classroom discipline in the literature of inclusiveness, one important side-effect of IDEA appears to be an increase in concern about the difficulty teachers experience in maintaining order in classrooms where students with disabilities are present. Such difficulties are likely to increase even further in proportion to the extent to which learners are treated only as individuals, and not also as participants in a community with a shared sense of purpose.

This presentation will explore the possibility that Web-based teaching and learning environments can promote successful learning in the inclusive classroom by shifting the focus from making information accessible to individual students to providing support for those students' participation in emergent communities of practice where learners with disabilities collaborate with teachers and peers in a joint enterprise that none of the participants could create independently. Illustrations will be drawn primarily from a Web-based, interdisciplinary project called TX2K: The Texas 2000 Living Museum, developed by the Institute for Technology and Learning at the University of Texas at Austin.

Shifting focus in this way requires that we resist what Brown and Duguid (1995, 2000) call the "container model" of the Web as a vehicle for delivering information to individuals isolated from one another in place, time, and awareness. We must learn instead to treat the Web as a medium for the interplay of participation and reification which Wenger sees as critical to successful communities of practice. To reify is to turn an abstraction into a thing and then risk mistaking that thing for the original abstraction, as when information about the way one person in an organization carries out a task gets codified in mandatory procedures for the entire organization, or when test scores are seen as completely synonymous with learning.

In online collaborative environments, however, participation often proceeds by means of reification. That is, learners register their participation by writing messages and submitting them to a Web-based forum, where they appear as persistent elements of an evolving text. It would seem, then, that the Web should provide excellent support for communities of practice which enable individuals with and without disabilities to participate on an equal basis, to the full extent of their individual capabilities. But it is precisely here that Web-based teaching and learning environments often break down. Real-time chat clients are often inaccessible to would-be participants who use speech-based browsers or screen-readers, and many asynchronous forums rely exclusively on visual layout to represent the relationships among messages.

The shift away from the container model is more difficult than one would think it should be. As John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid argue in their important essay "The Social Life of Documents" (1995), the structures of the Web encode the social practices from which they emerge and to which they give rise. What is not so encoded is no less instructive in this regard than what is.

Wenger writes that a focus on participation has important implications for the way we think about learning and what it takes to support it. A focus on designing Web-based environments to support participation in collaborative activities by learners with and without disabilities reveals a curious hole in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, published in May 1999 as a Recommendation of the World Wide Web Consortium. Except for a few checkpoints having to do with Web-based forms, the the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are silent on support for accessibility in what Jakob Neilsen (2000) calls user-produced material, and indeed the Guidelines are silent on the question of support for collaboration in general. This is true of HTML itself: the specification includes no elements whose primary purpose is to support collaborative activity. (By contrast, the more powerful and more complex XML offers many ways to imagine such structures.)


Brown, J.s., and Duguid, P. 1995. The social life of documents. http://www.parc.xerox.com/ops/members/brown/papers/sociallife.html

Brown, J.S., and Duguid, P. 2000. The social life of information. Boston.: Harvard Business School Press.

Chisholm, W., Vanderheiden, G., and Jacobs, I. 1999. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Cambridge, Mass. World Wide Web Consortium. http://www.w3.org/TR/WAI-WEBCONTENT/

Slatin, J., et al. 2000. TX2K: The Texas 2000 Living Museum. Austin, Texas: The Institute for Technology and Learning. http://www.ital.utexas.edu/tx2k.

Wenger, E. 1998. Communities of practice: learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge (England): Cambridge UP.

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