Small Beginnings of a Community of Practice with a Global Focus



This paper explores the early stages in the establishment of a Global Dimension Network (GDN) of academic staff in the field of health and social care. The rationale for selecting a community of practice (Wenger, 1998) as the model for the GDN is discussed, together with the advantages and inherent tensions.

The GDN has raised the profile of the global dimension to learning across the School of Health and Social Care, Oxford Brookes University, through a range of programme-based and more strategic initiatives, including staff development sessions, networking and a focus group with international students.

The GDN has explored examples where the use of materials and the literature from less developed countries has resulted in transformational learning which has impacted on learners’ practice as well as enhanced their understanding of different contexts. Discussing these instances in relation to the concepts of single- and double-loop learning (Argyris and Schon, 1974, 1996) and Illeris’ Tension Triangle (2003, 2005) has begun the process of identifying interventions which will increase the likelihood of deeper learning. This is work in progress that will be taken forward through discussion, programme-based initiatives and pedagogic research.

Dr Katy Newell Jones



The challenges that globalisation brings to health and social care education are widely recognised (Higgs and Edwards, 2002) and are mirrored with subtle differences across Higher Education globally (Currie et al., 2003). This paper explores the establishment and early stages of a community of practice, the Global Dimensions Network (GDN), in the School of Health and Social Care, Oxford Brookes University, UK. It begins by explaining the rationale behind developing a community of practice. This is followed by a discussion of one area the GDN has been exploring, namely, one in which using materials that include examples from less developed countries has resulted in transformational learning, changing the individual’s perception of their own context. Finally, some of the outcomes and challenges from the first year are discussed.

Developing a community of practice

In October 2004, the Global Dimension Network (GDN) was initiated in the School of Health and Social Care, Oxford Brookes University, with the aim of sharing expertise, influencing policy and promoting the global dimension to learning across the School. At the time there were a number of lecturers with interests in multicultural education, global dimensions, the support of international students and the delivery of courses overseas. A range of curriculum-based initiatives was taking place, frequently in isolation and dependent on the commitment and specialist knowledge of individuals. Wheels were being reinvented; opportunities for sharing expertise and resources outside programme teams were limited.

The decision to form a community of practice was an active choice, in preference to establishing a task group to co-ordinate a programme of staff development or to forming a committee. Communities of practice developed from Lave and Wenger’s (1991) concept of situated learning, which Wenger developed into his ‘social theory of learning’ (Wenger, 1998, pp. 4-5) in which he describes four interrelated components of learning: practice, community, identity and meaning. Communities of Practice place the existing knowledge and experience of participants at the centre of a process of dialogue and collaborative enquiry that can lead to transformative learning out of which new identities and practices emerge. In the first year the GDN has operated in line with the characteristics of communities of practice described by Lesser and Storck (2001, p. 832). Membership has been open and flexible, relationships have formed around practice, the community has been primarily responsible to its members and it has developed its own processes.

Currently, in HE the financial and societal drivers to internationalizing the curriculum are manifested in a range of ways, including

  • offering HE programmes in other countries, often in partnership with indigenous institutions
  • attracting and supporting international students
  • establishing transnational professional standards
  • teaching for cultural diversity and inclusion
  • academic faculty engaging in international networking and collaboration
  • teaching for enhanced global understanding
  • ‘greening’ the curriculum.

The full spectrum of these manifestations was reflected in the GDN at the outset. However, the common theme has been exploring approaches to learning and teaching that encourage learners to

. . .be actively asking questions about global issues and looking at traditional information and materials from a new perspective, which takes into account. . .social justice, sustainable development and interconnectedness (Newell Jones, 2003: 5)

and which support ‘a process that prepares. . .for successful participation in an increasingly interdependent world. . .fostering global understanding and developing skills for effective living and working in a diverse world’ ( Francis, 1993, p. 4).

The global dimension to learning is relevant in all contexts; it is a transferable, values-based approach to learning. However, there are tensions between current pressures within HE towards internationalising the curriculum and the concept of the global dimension to learning as defined above. Internationalisation is defined by Currie et al., (2003) as

a positive exchange of ideas and people contributing to a more tolerant world. Ideally, internationalisation should lead to a world where neither one culture nor economic system dominates, but rather where a plurality of cultures and ethnic diversity are recognised and valued (Currie et al., 2003, p.10).

This definition is one to which most HEIs in the UK would subscribe. However, Currie et al., (2003) go on to cite Van der Wende (2001) who states that ‘Anglo-Saxon countries have chosen an explicit (and sometimes even aggressive) competitive approach to internationalization of Higher Education. . .’ (Currie et al., 2003 p. 10).

Where internationalisation is underpinned by diversity, social justice, sustainable development and interconnectedness, internationalisation and the global dimension to learning will complement each other. However, where it is dominated by gaining market advantage and meeting shortfalls in funding in the home market, i.e., the competitive and aggressive approach to internationalising the curriculum, the global dimension to learning and internationalising the curriculum are likely to be in tension. Members of the GDN are acutely aware of working across this tension as health and social care professionals in the global marketplace (Higgs and Edwards, 2002).

The focus of activities

The focus of the GDN activities has emerged from members’ questions that fall into three broad categories:

Shared values

  • What do we mean by a global dimension?
  • To what extent are these values relevant in HE?
  • How do the different facets of the global dimension e.g., multiculturalism, sustainable development, fit into the bigger picture?
  • To what extent are we aware of the western-centric perspective of our programmes? What actions might be needed to address this?

Promoting learning

  • How can we enhance our approaches to teaching and learning to support students in developing a global dimension to their learning?
  • What is the role of international students? How can we support them and draw on their experiences and the experiences of all students?
  • What can examples from overseas bring to the learning environment that examples from another part of the UK could not?
  • What are some of the pitfalls when delivering programmes of study in other contexts and cultures, for example, western-centric curriculum, different expectations of teaching styles, cultural differences in relation to academic practices?


  • What are the benefits, if any, of acquiring a ‘global outlook’ to students (a) as health and social care professionals and (b) as ‘global citizens’?
  • What might be the benefits, if any, to society?
  • How can we begin to ‘measure’ any impact?

Transformational learning: linking local and global

One way of enhancing the global dimension is through increasing the use of selected materials from overseas, including less developed countries. When using materials from less developed countries, the assumption is often that people will learn more about a particular overseas situation. This might have direct implications for those who intend to practice overseas and indirect implications in terms of promoting intercultural relations and demonstrating ‘north learning from south’. However, the question a UK-based professional body might ask is ‘How do these examples impact a person’s practice as a health and social care professional in the UK?’

In health and social care, as elsewhere in HE, there is intense competition for curriculum space. In order to be accepted widely, enhancing the global dimension needs to explicitly contribute toward producing ‘high-quality practitioners’. If materials from less developed countries cannot provide valuable and relevant learning opportunities, there is the danger that they are likely to be seen as second best, with ‘politically correct’ purposes. At worst existing prejudices could be reinforced, or discussions about the hopelessness of global inequality mask any useful learning. What evidence, therefore, is there of ‘other’ benefits?

Student feedback indicates that such examples can result in powerful, transformational learning:

the ability to make connections between work in developing countries and practice education in the UK [was] a valuable learning experience. Drawing out key similarities and differences in diverse settings has challenged assumptions I’ve held and widened my own and others perspectives about education (a masters student, course evaluation 2003).

By exploring examples of transformative learning brought about by engaging in dialogue around issues in less developed countries (Table 1) we can better understand the processes learners go through and therefore influence the selection of materials and, perhaps more importantly, the interventions of lecturers.

Example 1. Transformative learning through materials from less developed countries

1. A GP trainer transformed his perception of his role in promoting autonomous learning, prompted by discussing issues in training of trainers programmes in Africa.

‘I started by feeling sorry for the women in Sudan, wanting to understand and wanting to give money or something. Then something happened while we were talking and I started thinking about how they were ‘autonomous learners’. . .they carried on learning independently. I thought, ‘If I got on a plane and left my registrar behind he would wait till I got back to do anything.’ And what’s worse – did I make him like that?’ (PGCMDE student, module evaluation 2004)

2. A student discussing her MSc dissertation on Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone with her external examiner, when asked what difference her study had made to her personally said she came from Belfast and had always felt animosity and hatred toward children who carried out atrocities. Now she realised some of the challenges faced by the ‘child soldiers’ in her own community of Belfast and felt this would enable her to work more effectively with community groups in Ireland, which was her career aspiration (personal communication).

3. During a staff development session, summaries were presented from two papers, one on gendered patterns of illness in an Appalachian community (Horton, 1984), the other a comparative analysis of contraceptive methods among Argentine women (Molina, 1997). Initially, the group became immersed in the process of learning about, attempting to understand the intimate details, oscillating between seeking factual information and expressing reactions. After a number of interventions from the facilitator they directed their attentions toward making connections between the case study and their own practices. This led to an in-depth discussion and new understandings in relation to their own perceptions and practice.

The common theme in the examples above is that the discussion began exploring issues substantially outside the experience of the learners, but they were able to draw valuable lessons that had direct implications for themselves as professionals.

The framework offered by Illeris’ Tension Triangle (Fig 1) (Illeris, 2003, 2005) provides a useful model within which to discuss the processes taking place. Building from a constructivist standpoint, Illeris bases his model on two assumptions. First, learning includes a dynamic combination of two processes; an internal process of acquisition at the level of the individual, of making sense of new knowledge and skills in the context of existing knowledge, and an external process of the learner interacting with his/her environment which may be social, cultural and/or material (Illeris, 2002, p. 19). Second, all learning events have elements of three dimensions: cognitive, associated with the acquisition of knowledge and skills; emotive, associated with motivation and emotion and societal, associated with communication and interaction with the outside world (Illeris, 2002, p. 19). The balance of these dimensions differs radically between different approaches to learning and different contexts require a unique mix of the three elements.


When faced with materials from substantially different contexts, initially learners are involved in learning about the new information, attempting to make sense of it, often oscillating between the cognitive and the emotive. This is demonstrated by asking questions to gather more knowledge and demonstrating emotional reactions to the scenario. This relates to Illeris’ process of acquisition, but already it is being merged with the interactive process as they discuss with others (Illeris, 2003, p. 16). Where they are able to acquire information and engage in dialogue with others, the process involves less clarification and more analysis and suggested actions. These might be personal in nature, demonstrated by the desire to give money in the first example, or can be more societal, demonstrated perhaps by attempts to analyse government policies, or the role of the World Bank, or in making suggestions as to how international aid could be used more effectively.

On many occasions this might be the end of the process. The learner has increased their knowledge and has a greater understanding of the complexity and the ways in which different issues interrelate. These are valuable, transferable skills that extend the learner’s knowledge base and will help them adopt a more questioning stance in the future.

However, the examples above illustrate a further step, where the learner relates their new knowledge back to their own context and asks themselves challenging questions triggered by issues uncovered by learning about the situation outside their experience. It is through this process, which moves down the triangle toward the societal corner, that the learner is more likely to challenge and change their own values and practice.

This process has some resonance with Argyris and Schon’s widely recognised concepts of single- and double-loop learning (1974, 1996). Single-loop learning is described as learning that results in actions that do not challenge existing values and beliefs, whereas double-loop learning results in actions that require changes in fundamental beliefs and assumptions.

In this debate, single-loop learning could be said to be learning about practices and challenges in different contexts. This kind of learning is valuable in terms of increasing awareness and changing the way in which other cultures are perceived. Knowledge is gained, understanding is enhanced and empathy is generated. However, personal beliefs and values are rarely challenged and global interrelatedness may not be fully recognised.

The process of double-loop learning would describe the enhanced process when the learner makes a personal connection between the context they are learning about and personal assumptions, challenges or issues in their own life, and goes on to challenge their own beliefs and values, resulting in a change in their perception of the world.

This process also links to the practice of reflection, developed from the work of Dewey (1933) and Schon (1983, 1987). Boud et al., defines reflection as ‘a generic term for those intellectual and affective activities in which individuals engage to explore their experiences in order to lead to new understandings and appreciations’ (Boud et al., 1985, p. 19). However, the starting point for reflection is usually the individual’s own concrete experience. Reflective models (for example Gibbs, 1988 and Johns, 2000) begin from the experience of the learner, as does the experiential learning cycle of Kolb (1984). When using materials from substantially different contexts, learners need to make sense of the information and identify the links so they can go through the process of critically analysing their own beliefs and assumptions relating to their own practice.

Implications for lecturers

From the examples the following key points arise:

  • Exploring contexts substantially different from the experiences of learners can result in powerful, transformative learning. By understanding the process, facilitators may be able to be more effective in using these materials.
  • Initially, when faced with materials from substantially different contexts there is a process of acquisition, which oscillates between the cognitive and emotive.
  • The process of active dialogue appears to be an essential part of the process of interactive learning, which engages more from a societal perspective and enables people to make the connections with their own context.
  • The facilitator needs to be both sensitive and assertive in moving the group from one phase to the next.
  • The discussion enables people to view some of their own assumptions and beliefs as culturally based, as opposed to empirical.
  • Sometimes the ‘key learning points’ can be identified by the facilitator, though often they can arise from the discussion.
  • The images taken away about the communities in less developed countries are rational, respectful and positive.
  • At this stage a number of questions are raised for further exploration.

If HE students are exposed to materials substantially outside their experience will this help them to develop valuable transferable skills – for example, learning from diverse experiences or exploring their own assumptions?

Is the term ‘global double-loop learning’ a useful concept? If so, how could it be developed further?

Is engaging in dialogue (whether internal or external) an essential part of the interactive process (Illeris, 2003, 2005) that leads to enhanced global perspectives?

How can the value of the global dimension to learning be measured?

When international students are presented with materials from a UK context do they have the same initial difficulties in making sense of the context? Would they benefit from greater opportunities to question and react (the process of oscillation between the cognitive and emotive) before focusing on the questions posed in group work? This is borne out in a focus group with international students; postgraduate students from India said they were unfamiliar with ‘this NHS organisation’ and had difficulties in engaging in group work where an intimate knowledge of the NHS was assumed.

Outcomes from the GDN

In its first year, the GDN has provided a reference point and raised the profile of global perspectives across the School. Thirty-eight members of staff and students have accessed the resources with twenty-seven engaging in activities and debate. As a community of practice, it has provided a forum for challenging debate and sharing perspectives, enabling people to articulate their focus of the global dimension, see how it fits into a broader picture and make connections with other facets of the same debate. There has been a shift from individual, personal interest to a greater degree of collective understanding, whilst maintaining a range of perspectives and interests.

The dual process of the individual needing the interactive process with the group to make sense of her new knowledge, is illustrated by a comment from one of the GDN members:

I needed somewhere to explore ideas with other lecturers first before I felt sufficiently confident to introduce [such ideas] into my sessions. This is an area where we really do need some joined up thinking. I’ve been amazed at the amount of experience around which I didn’t realise was there to be tapped into.’ (Newell Jones, in McKenzie, 2005)

Operating as a community of practice has resulted in a wealth of initiatives, some triggered directly, others where existing initiatives have been strengthened or enhanced. Examples include

  • Enhanced sessions for students as a result of debate and collaboration.
  • GDN members taking on a ‘global dimension’ remit in other School capacities e.g., production of the prospectus.
  • Pilot focus group with international students exploring their experiences of learning and also how their experiences could be used more effectively to enhance the learning of all.
  • Enhanced global dimension in ‘teacher preparation’ programmes.
  • Enhanced awareness of individual expertise e.g., cultural awareness.
  • Global dimensions session included in the whole School staff development week.
  • School supporting staff development initiatives e.g., six members of staff and one student attended Graduates as Global Citizens, a national conference. This included facilitating a workshop that placed the work at Brookes in the broader debate.
  • Two MSc students focusing their dissertations on global dimensions to learning.
  • Extended networks in UK and wider.
  • Enhanced understanding of the effective use of materials from less developed countries.


The initial work of the Global Dimension Network, operating primarily as a community of practice, has provided a forum for a wide range of curriculum initiatives as well as personal and professional development. Lack of time is a considerable challenge. However, lack of time often means a question of lack of the status of high priority. This perhaps reflects the tension the GDN faces in remaining a freestanding community of practice, with the creativity that generates or linking more formally into systems and structures, which might bring higher institutional priority, along with the greater need for formal accountability. There is a case for more strategic positioning of the group in its next phase.

Adopting a community of practice approach has inevitably attracted those who favour a style of working where the issues emerge through collaborative exploration of practice, as opposed to being identified institutionally through quality enhancement systems with groups being ‘tasked’ to address them. Engaging in debate across the full spectrum of academic staff, as opposed to providing ‘solutions’ that demonstrate that all courses incorporate a global dimension, remains a challenge.

There is a need for pedagogic research to establish an evidence base around the global dimension to learning and the impact on learners, not only in terms of increased global awareness and understanding but also in terms of the extent to which it does prepare learners ‘for successful participation in an increasingly interdependent world. . .fostering global understanding and developing skills for effective living and working in a diverse world’ (Francis, 1993, p. 4).


I would like to thank colleagues from the Global Development Network at Oxford Brookes University; Education for Development projects, especially trainee facilitators in South Sudan and Sierra Leone; UNDEP in Warsaw and the Development Education Association, UK. I am also grateful to the Higher Education Academy, as funding for this work is through a National Teaching Fellowship.

Contact details

Dr Katy Newell Jones
National Teaching Fellow
School of Health and Social Care
Oxford Brookes University


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