Information stewarding

In their 2009 book Digital Habitats, Etienne Wenger, Nancy White and John Smith discussed the idea of stewarding. They suggested that where communities of practice use information and communication technologies as a way of sharing learning needs and outcomes — and these days, almost every one will, to some extent — the responsibility of looking after this technological environment, and making sure it remains a productive space for learning, tends to fall on a subset of that community, whom they termed the stewards. Stewards make decisions about what technologies should form part of this configuration of resources, and what should not; moderate web sites and discussions; help others with technical problems, and so on.

Making hay

The quality of any landscape is, at least in part, a consequence of how well and how sustainably it is managed.

Stewarding is therefore a form of authority over practice, and one that, like other forms of authority, can be centralised or more distributed (here see also the discussion of radical information literacy). Wenger et al suggest that an effective steward should be an educator as well, working to build the capacity to steward in others. This is partly as a safety valve (succession planning, if one likes) but also becomes a way of scrutinising practice, bringing to bear multiple perspectives and, as a result, learning about how to manage the information landscape more effectively.

The idea of stewarding is relatively underdeveloped in Wenger’s work (or that of his colleagues), either in, or since, Digital Habitats. Our research has taken a more refined view of it, seeing it as referring not just to the operational management of technological spaces for shared learning, but to all potential resources within the information landscape. Mapping the landscape is a valuable learning process that can help with the stewarding of informational resources, whether by individuals or the group as a whole. The facilitated concept mapping technique helps show the connections between resources, for example: where tasks to be undertaken give rise to particular information needs, that can be met from particular sources; where blockages and difficulties exist; what actions should be prioritised; and so on. The sample maps illustrate this.