Service-Learning · Teaching

Communities of Practice and Introduction to Networked Systems

In Chapter 5 of his book Technology and Social Inclusion, Mark Warschauer reviews the importance of communities of practice in the learning process. In particular, he makes a strong distinction between learning about, learning how, and learning to be. Warschauer uses an example of learning to write to illustrate the differences. One learns about writing by memorizing facts through reading a book. One learns how to write by critically analyzing the works of others and then reproducing examples in one’s own works, and by also gathering input from experts in one’s field. To illustrate the difference between learning how and learning to be, Warschauer points out that “learning how to conduct scientific research inevitably involves learning how to think, act, and interact as a research scientist.” He also highlights the research of L. Stanley (2001), reported in the paper Beyond Access, Occasional Paper 2, UCSD Civic Collaboration. In this research, Stanley points out that computer users at a community technology center were able to begin to effectively use computers, precisely because joining in that community of practice enabled them to change their self-perception of themselves as computer nonusers.

In its earliest iterations, Introduction to Networked Systems primarily was a class that taught about technology and its application to information systems. There was no real opportunity for students to engage with others in a community of practice, and as such, little opportunity for students to really enter into a process of learning how to work with networked information systems. With the inclusion of hands-on, active learning exercises, students began to learn how to build and support networked systems. The exercises, in combination with early lecture material, also helped students begin to change their self-perceptions as individuals who didn’t have what it takes to build and support computer networks. With the addition of service-learning final projects, students gained even more confidence that they were capable of implementing technology in real-world settings.

Specific methods implemented to help students change their self-perceptions

  • The introductory lecture emphasizes “computers as man-made machines” that can be studied and understood; my belief that ANYONE can learn about computers and networks with sufficient, time, energy, and patience; and that effective implementation of of technology is 1/3rd technical and 2/3rds social, and that as LIS students they bring unique skills that help them to excel at building effective information systems.
  • The first hands-on exercise is to disassemble a computer while I, as the instructor, guide them through the process. Students are then told they need to reassemble the computer on their own. Successfully completing this exercise helps break down walls that they cannot do this.
  • Students work regularly in pairs or small groups. This provides a support network for students to help each other through problems.
  • I regularly bring in real-world problems and step the students through the ways in which I address those problems, helping them to understand the process of working with technology.
  • When students run into problems, they are mentored through the process of answering the questions themselves as opposed to being given the answers to the problem. This occurs throughout each of the hands-on, in-class exercises, and also throughout their work on the final projects being performed for their community sites.


The course Introduction to Networked Systems, has gone through three major iterations. During the first iteration, the course was primarily lecture-oriented. As a result, it primarily taught about technology and its application to information systems. During its second iteration, regular hands-on exercises were used in class to better help students to learn how to build and manage networked information systems. Students also learned somethings about being someone who worked with such systems. But adding a rich service-learning component as a final project truly allowed students to change self-perceptions regarding their ability to work with networked information systems, and their overall value in applying such systems within community. Their community of practice was expanded to not only include student-peers and instructor-facilitators, but also community-users.  Warschauer emphasizes that “by using the computer and the Internet to help learners enter new communities and cultures, tackle meaningful problems, and address situations of social inequity, educators can help students master the broad range of literacies required for the information age” (Warschauer 2003 pg. 125).

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