Chapter 4: Methods of teaching with an online focus
4.6.1 The theories behind communities of practice
The design of teaching often integrates different theories of learning. Communities of practice are one of the ways in which experiential learning, social constructivism, and connectivism can be combined, illustrating the limitations of trying to rigidly classify learning theories. Practice tends to be more complex.
4.6.2 What are communities of practice?
Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.
22.214.171.124 What are communities of practice?
The basic premise behind communities of practice is simple: we all learn in everyday life from the communities in which we find ourselves. Communities of practice are everywhere. Nearly everyone belongs to some community of practice, whether it is through our working colleagues or associates, our profession or trade, or our leisure interests, such as a book club. Wenger (2000) argues that a community of practice is different from a community of interest or a geographical community in that it involves a shared practice: ways of doing things that are shared to some significant extent among members.
Wenger argues that there are three crucial characteristics of a community of practice:
- domain: a common interest that connects and holds together the community;
- community: a community is bound by the shared activities they pursue (for example, meetings, discussions) around their common domain;
- practice: members of a community of practice are practitioners; what they do informs their participation in the community; and what they learn from the community affects what they do.
126.96.36.199 Innovation and change
Wenger (2000) has argued that although individuals learn through participation in a community of practice, more important is the generation of newer or deeper levels of knowledge through the sum of the group activity. If the community of practice is centered around business processes, for instance, this can be of considerable benefit to an organization. Smith (2003) notes that:
…communities of practice affect performance..[This] is important in part because of their potential to overcome the inherent problems of a slow-moving traditional hierarchy in a fast-moving virtual economy. Communities also appear to be an effective way for organizations to handle unstructured problems and to share knowledge outside of the traditional structural boundaries. In addition, the community concept is acknowledged to be a means of developing and maintaining long-term organizational memory.
Brown and Duguid (2000) describe a community of practice developed around the Xerox customer service representatives who repaired the machines in the field. The Xerox reps began exchanging tips and tricks over informal meetings at breakfast or lunch and eventually Xerox saw the value of these interactions and created the Eureka project to allow these interactions to be shared across the global network of representatives. The Eureka database has been estimated to have saved the corporation $100 million. Companies such as Google and Apple are encouraging communities of practice through the sharing of knowledge across their many specialist staff.
Technology provides a wide range of tools that can support communities of practice, as indicated by Wenger (2014) in the diagram below:
4.6.3 Designing effective communities of practice
Most communities of practice have no formal design and tend to be self-organising systems. They have a natural life cycle, and come to an end when they no longer serve the needs of the community. However, there is now a body of theory and research that has identified actions that can help sustain and improve the effectiveness of communities of practice.
Wenger, McDermott and Snyder (2002) have identified seven key design principles for creating effective and self-sustaining communities of practice, related specifically to the management of the community, although the ultimate success of a community of practice will be determined by the activities of the members of the community themselves. Designers of a community of practice need to:
188.8.131.52 Design for evolution
Ensure that the community can evolve and shift in focus to meet the interests of the participants without moving too far from the common domain of interest.
184.108.40.206 Open a dialogue between inside and outside perspectives
Encourage the introduction and discussion of new perspectives that come or are brought in from outside the community of practice.
220.127.116.11 Encourage and accept different levels of participation
Different levels of participation include:
- the ‘core’ (most active members),
- those who participate regularly but do not take a leading role in active contributions,
- hose (likely the majority) who are on the periphery of the community but may become more active participants if the activities or discussions start to engage them more fully.
18.104.22.168 Develop both public and private community spaces
Communities of practice are strengthened if they encourage individual or group activities that are more personal or private as well as the more public general discussions; for instance, individuals may decide to blog about their activities, or a small group in an online community that live or work close together may also decide to meet informally on a face-to-face basis.
22.214.171.124 Focus on value
Attempts should be made explicitly to identify, through feedback and discussion, the contributions that the community most values.
126.96.36.199 Combine familiarity and excitement
Focus both on shared, common concerns and perspectives, but also on the introduction of radical or challenging perspectives for discussion or action.
188.8.131.52 Create a rhythm for the community
There needs to be a regular schedule of activities or focal points that bring participants together on a regular basis, within the constraints of participants’ time and interests.
4.6.4 Critical factors for success
Subsequent research has identified a number of critical factors that influence the effectiveness of participants in communities of practice, These include being:
- aware of social presence: individuals need to feel comfortable in engaging socially with other professionals or ‘experts’ in the domain, and those with greater knowledge must be willing to share in a collegial manner that respects the views and knowledge of other participants (social presence is defined as the awareness of others in an interaction combined with an appreciation of the interpersonal aspects of that interaction.)
- motivated to share information for the common good of the community
- able and willing to collaborate.
Lastly, research on other related sectors, such as collaborative learning or MOOCs, can inform the design and development of communities of practice. For instance, communities of practice need to balance between structure and chaos: too much structure and many participants are likely to feel constrained in what they need to discuss; too little structure and participants can quickly lose interest or become overwhelmed.
Many of the other findings about group and online behaviour, such as the need to respect others, observing online etiquette, and preventing certain individuals from dominating the discussion, are all likely to apply. However, because many communities of practice are by definition self-regulating, establishing rules of conduct and even more so enforcing them is really a responsibility of the participants themselves.
4.6.5 Learning through communities of practice in a digital age
Communities of practice are a powerful manifestation of informal learning. They generally evolve naturally to address commonly shared interests and problems. By their nature, they tend to exist outside formal educational organisations. Participants are not usually looking for formal qualifications, but to address issues in their life and to be better at what they do. Furthermore, communities of practice are not dependent on any particular medium; participants may meet face-to-face socially or at work, or they can participate in online or virtual communities of practice.
It should be noted that communities of practice can be very effective in a digital world, where the working context is volatile, complex, uncertain and ambiguous. A large part of the lifelong learning market will become occupied by communities of practice and self-learning, through collaborative learning, sharing of knowledge and experience, and crowd-sourcing new ideas and development. Such informal learning provision will be particularly valuable for non-governmental or charitable organizations, such as the Red Cross, Greenpeace or UNICEF, or local government, looking for ways to engage communities in their areas of operation.
These communities of learners will be open and free, and hence will provide a competitive alternative to the high priced lifelong learning programs being offered by research universities. This will put pressure on universities and colleges to provide more flexible arrangements for recognition of informal learning, in order to hold on to their current monopoly of post-secondary accreditation.
One of the significant developments in recent years has been the use of massive open online courses (MOOCs) for developing online communities of practice. MOOCs are discussed in more detail in Chapter 5, but it is worth discussing here the connection between MOOCs and communities of practice. The more instructionist xMOOCs are not really developed as communities of practice, because they use mainly a transmissive pedagogy, from experts to those considered less expert.
In comparison, connectivist MOOCs are an ideal way to bring together specialists scattered around the world to focus on a common interest or domain. Connectivist MOOCs are much closer to being virtual communities of practice, in that they put much more emphasis on sharing knowledge between more or less equal participants. However, current connectivist MOOCs do not always incorporate what research indicates are best practices for developing communities of practice, and those wanting to establish a virtual community of practice at the moment need some kind of MOOC provider to get them started and give them access to the necessary MOOC software.
Although communities of practice are likely to become more rather than less important in a digital age, it is probably a mistake to think of them as a replacement for traditional forms of education. There is no single, ‘right’ approach to the design of teaching. Different groups have different needs. Communities of practice are more of an alternative for certain kinds of learners, such as lifelong learners, and are likely to work best when participants already have some domain knowledge and can contribute personally and in a constructive manner – which suggests the need for at least some form of prior general education or training for those participating in effective communities of practice.
In conclusion, it is clear is that in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world, and given the openness of the Internet, the social media tools now available, and the need for sharing of knowledge on a global scale, virtual communities of practice will become even more common and important. Smart educators and trainers will look to see how they can harness the strength of this design model, particularly for lifelong learning. However, merely lumping together large numbers of people with a common interest is unlikely to lead to effective learning. Attention needs to be paid to those design principles that lead to effective communities of practice.
Brown, J. and Duguid, P. (2000) Balancing act: How to capture knowledge without killing it Harvard Business Review.
Cambridge, D., Kaplan, S. and Suter, V. (2005) Community of Practice Design Guide Louisville CO: EDUCAUSE
Smith, M. K. (2003) ‘Communities of practice’, the encyclopedia of informal education, accessed 26 September, 2014, but no longer in press
Wenger, E. (2000) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press
Wenger, E. (2014) Communities of practice: a brief introduction, accessed 5 October, 2019
Wenger, E, McDermott, R., and Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice (Hardcover). Harvard Business Press; 1 edition.
Update and further reading
Wenger, E., Trayner, B. and de Laat, M. (2011) Promoting and assessing value creation in communities and networks: a conceptual framework Heerlen NL: The Open University of the Netherlands
This document presents a conceptual foundation for promoting and assessing value creation in communities and networks. By value creation we mean the value of the learning enabled by community involvement and networking.
For an interesting critique of this paper, see:
Dingyloudi, F. and Strijbos, J. (2015) Examining value creation in a community of learning practice: Methodological reflections on story-telling and story-reading Seminar.net, Vol. 11, No.3
Activity 4.6 Making communities of practice work
1. Can you identify a community of practice to which you belong? Is it successful and does it meet the key design principles outlined above?
2. Could you think of a way to develop a community of practice that would support your work as a teacher?
3. Is there anything special you would need to do to make an online community of practice succeed that would not be necessary in a face-to-face community?
For my (not very deep) thoughts on these questions, click on the podcast below.