Acknowledging the Transition

Life is full of transitions. Usually they involve an alteration in the people around you, the environment, or both. Looking at this phenomenon through an instructional design lens, we can observe two things:

  • individuals coming into a new learning environment have a learning curve and
  • that process changes the environment and potential knowledge transfer.

As a recent graduate of a M.A. in Psychological and Quantitative Foundations (within the field of Learning Sciences), and starting a new job at a university that acknowledges similar learning principles, I’ve become more aware of the transition process. It helped me realize the experiences our students go through, and how we can help give them the best learning opportunity available—especially in an online environment where community becomes a unique concept that we need to actively pursue.

Learning Within a Community of Practice

One way we can investigate a learning environment is by using a “community of practice” lens. As pointed out by social anthropologist Jean Lave, a Community of Practice (COP) is based in the idea that all learning is situated (within a certain time, place, and community) and can be explained as:

“participation as members of a community of practice shapes newcomers’ identities and in the process gives structure and meaning to knowledgeable skill. I have treated this process as a seamless whole. But there are ubiquitous structural discontinuities in learning processes. Learning in any setting is a complex business” (Lave, 74).

Within these ideas presented by Lave, we find a “socially shared cognition” (Lave, 65) where the ideas of a community are shared: such as an eLearning environment—where what is posted on the site or discussion and collaboration creates the courses unique identity.

Joining a New Community

Moving from an entirely online master’s program to a face-to-face work environment, I’ve found differences in how I interact with those around me: both because of location and commonalities of interest and work—which can be difficult to discover online. But, through the use of conferencing software or discussion boards we begin to get glimpses of our students and help build that community and shared cognition. This community is essential for effective knowledge transfer—not only from professor to student but also from learner to learner.

A while ago, Ann discussed social presence in reference to a Community of Inquiry. Let’s recap:

“Students begin to recognize and interact with the three presences through the community they build with their instructor and (independently of their instructor) with their peers. Students realize what they believe, become more willing to share their beliefs, and as a result, also become more respectful of and open to the beliefs of their peers” (Model eLearning – COI).

We need to pay attention to the environment or “community” that a learner is leaving or entering—and how that may alter their perceptions of learning and its application. The assumption that everyone begins on an equal playing field cognitively cannot be the foundation for how communities are built and sustained. Thankfully, I was able to walk into this new environment with these ideas in mind. I feel I’m better able to understand my role by categorizing this work environment as a new space filled with unique co-workers who all maintain a socially shared cognition I need to decipher. This new community of practice doesn’t fit the same mold as my previous educational environment—just like any learner starting in a new class or school experiences.

From Newcomer to Expert

While the concepts that define instructional design and eLearning may seem to transcend across groups, the way these ideas are implemented and acted upon vary. It was essential for me to recognize the unique nature of each environment, including workflow, trends, and personalities—and then implement some of my previous knowledge based on similarities found in theory and ideas.

From there I can then understand what happens in the work environment through engaging in peripheral participation (as referenced by Lave). Even though I‘m now working on staff at a university, this doesn’t change the fact that I remain a life-long learner. I can’t assume I have all the information I need to become an expert. It’s easy for anyone to fall into this trap due to any accolades from previous communities of practice.

So, how does this apply when you aren’t the newcomer, but the one responsible for training or teaching?

The best thing we can do is be aware that the communities we’re in are all unique. Each has its own learning curve based on its members. The process of learning new intricacies of a classroom or work environment can be difficult for anyone—either online or in person. And finding how you effectively fit in can create its own set of struggles.

But, by remembering both eLearning and face-to-face environments have quirks that effect how easily an individual can move from newcomer to expert, we can hopefully become more aware on how to improve the learning experience. Because every newcomer will not fully become an involved expert or critical participant of their new community until they feel like they truly belong.


Lave, J. (1991). Situating learning in communities of practice. In Resnick, L. B. (Ed), Levine, J. M. (Ed), Teasley, S. D. (Ed). Perspectives on socially shared cognition. (pp. 63-82). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.

Author: Jessica Pierce, Instructional Designer

Jess enjoys the science behind learning and cognition and how it applies in multiple modalities, including eLearning. In the off hours, she likes spending time with her husband and three kids, going out for coffee, or running the occasional road race for the “free” shirt (to counteract the caffeine).

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