Continuing growth: GSL as a community of practice

October 25, 2017

By Cynthia Toms, Associate professor of Kinesiology at Westmont College

Over the past twenty years, the GSL community has emerged as a movement with multiple identities and functions – a place of shared goals and best practices gathered in support of global learning and cooperative global development.

However, as our Community of Practice (CoP) expands and evolves, we must begin to question where our boundaries lie – where does our shared community of practice and knowledge begin, and where does it end? What are the boundaries that separate and/or unite this movement from other movements such as international volunteering, study abroad, service learning? Is it necessary that everyone in this community shares that value-base? These essential questions are the heart of our forward motion – for in determining what we are not, we also commit more fully to who and what we want to become.

The blog post linked here was initially posted to capture the evolution of global service-learning as a movement on the rise and bursting with potential. Since that time, the discussion and growth has continued. A recent article appearing in the journal, Globalisation, Societies and Education highlights a better understanding of global service-learning priorities in higher education through the use of empowering evaluation to assess the strategic trajectories needed for continued growth in the field.  You can download one of fifty free copies of this article for free either here or here.

But, more importantly, we hope that you join the conversation next April at the 5th GSL Summit where we will explore how bridges are being created among knowledge communities and how GSL as a Community of Practice is helping to connect distinct communities (NAFSA, IARSLCE, Campus Compact, International Development and Volunteerism) through shared values along the following dimensions: (1) coordination, (2) transparency and giving access to the meaning or the why something is “fair”?, and (3) negotiability and making room for multiple voices (Wenger, 2000, p. 234).

Scholars studying Communities of Practice (CoP) note that when it comes to social learning systems, such as GSL, deep expertise depends on a convergence between experience and competence. In other words, the value of communities and their boundaries are complementary and our innovative learning requires this divergence. Unlike the boundaries of organizational units, which are well defined because affiliation is officially sanctioned, the boundaries of a CoP are usually rather fluid. They arise from different enterprises, different ways of engaging with one another, different histories, repertoires, ways of communicating, and capabilities. Thus, the value of diverse participation – from scholars, volunteer-sending organizations, community-based organizations, campus communities – lies within our ability to delineate our differences and note our convergence.

One fine example of this lies in the knowledge contributions surrounding social enterprise, social innovation, and social entrepreneurship, which are informed by three somewhat distinct communities at practice– yet share the commitment to entrepreneurial activities based on social impact. Thus, the very notion of CoP implies boundaries around a shared value. For many of us, facilitating global service learning experiences gathers us around the value of capacity building for global development, education of the next generation, and just institutional partnerships that promote mutually beneficial relationships between global south communities and students/volunteers. However, that is often where our similarities end. Membership within the GSL community can place us as citizen in one CoP, while being an interlocutor with another. Namely, you may find yourself in the role of “broker and translator” – a position of both power and reliance upon host communities (Lewis & Mosse, 2006) while also attempting to broker meaningful educational experiences. In this way, your own membership and positionality within the GSL community of practice is worth delineating and synthesizing in order to best contribute as a scholar, practitioner, educator, and engaged citizen.

Lewis, David and Mosse, D. (2006) Development brokers and translators: the ethnography of aid agencies. Kumarian Books, Bloomfield, CT.

Wenger, Etienne. “Communities of practice and social learning systems.” Organization 7.2 (2000): 225-246.

Lough, Benjamin & Toms, Cynthia. Global service-learning in institutions of higher education: concerns from a community of practiceGlobalisation, Societies and Education Vol. 0, Iss. 0,0

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