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Unlocking the potential of learning communities in academic and business contexts: Australian and Chinese case studies


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Yang, Y 2012 , 'Unlocking the potential of learning communities in academic and business contexts: Australian and Chinese case studies', PhD thesis, University of Tasmania.

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The term 'learning community' is one that has been broadly or narrowly defined
depending on its context. It is now widely used in a range of settings, from
schools and universities, to business work places, by many researchers (see, for
example, Brown & Duguid, 1991; DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Many, 2010;
Wenger, Trayner, & de Laat, 2011). While the term has slipped into common -
often idiosyncratic - usage a review of the literature highlights how the meaning
of learning community has evolved over time, reinforcing the need to investigate
more rigorously how practitioners in different contexts understand their situation
as a learning community. As understood commonly now a 'learning community'
is more than just a group of people who simply work together in the same space,
but what are its essential features and how are these perceived by those involved?
This study addressed the broad question: how do practitioners in Australia and
China perceive their work places as 'learning communities'? It sought to do so by
examining six criteria of a successful learning community synthesised and
operationalised from the literature. These criteria were
(i) the perceptions of shared mission, vision, values and goals;
(ii) the demonstration of commitment to continuous improvement;
(iii) initiatives that develop and sustain a collaborative culture and collective
(iv) feelings of supportive and shared leadership;
(v) perceived freedom of group membership and;
(vi) the descriptions of proximity and mutual engagement.
Data collection methods included a mix of qualitative and quantitative techniques
consisting of document analysis, a questionnaire and a face-to-face interview with
volunteers. A total sample number of 70 participants was recruited
opportunistically and purposefully (Burns, 2000) from two known university
academic departments in Australia (AU) and China (CU), and two business
organisations in Australia (AB) and China (CB). The sample frame was not
intended to represent the whole population of academic or business stakeholders
in the two countries. However, for the scope of this study this sample gave
valuable insights into the degree of 'learning community' perceptions of
stakeholders in two universities and two business organisations that are not
examined by other learning community studies.
The unique data in this study attempted to fill a significant gap in the literature,
where learning community studies have focused primarily on single cases, by
exploring learning communities that operate in two universities and two
businesses in Australia and China respectively. This allowed a two-by-two
comparison of ways in which learning communities operate in cross-cultural and
interdisciplinary institutions by addressing how practitioners construct meaning
about team work, common tasks, sharing and flexibility of role relationships. A
greater understanding of different stakeholders' perceptions could impact where,
why, and how the learning community concept will be utilised within their
Among the important findings from the study was that the role of national culture,
reflecting historic-socio-political influences, was central in understanding
respondents' perceptions of the six constituent elements listed previously. On the
other hand, there were cross-cultural and interdisciplinary similarities in the way
stakeholders reported their perceptions of their working environment as a learning
community, which reflected many interconnected issues inherent in the data.
These data suggested that a more nuanced picture of 'learning community' needs
to be taken into account when looking at particular instances or assertions about
the operation of a learning community.
This study will be of interest to researchers, practitioners working at the interface
of Education, Management, and Organisational Development, and especially
those interested in the work lives of academics or employees, policy development
and implementation. More generally, the study will allow those who have utilised
the term 'learning community' to describe and talk about their own workplaces to
consider more critically the essence of what they are seeing.

Item Type: Thesis - PhD
Authors/Creators:Yang, Y
Keywords: Learning community, Learning organisation, higher education, business organisation, cross-cultural, interdisciplinary
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