The role of communities of practice in a digital age

October 1, 2014 Tony Bates
Bank of America's Vital Voices progam links women executives of small and medium sized enterprises  Image: © Belfast Telegraph, 2014

Bank of America’s Vital Voices progam links women executives of small and medium sized enterprises from around the world
Image: © Belfast Telegraph, 2014

The story so far

I have published the first five chapters of my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘.  I am now working on Chapter 6, ‘Models for Designing Teaching and Learning.’

In my last three posts I discussed respectively the appropriateness for a digital age of the classroom model, the ADDIE model, and the competency-based learning model. In this post, I explore the learning model based on communities of practice.

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.

What are communities of practice?

Definition: 

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.

Wenger, 2014

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.

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 (2010) in the diagram below:

Image: © Etienne Wenger, 2010

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:

  1. Design for evolution: ensuring 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
  2. 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
  3. Encourage and accept different levels of participation, The strength of participation varies from participant to participant. The ‘core’ (most active members) are those who participate regularly. There are others who follow the discussions or activities but do not take a leading role in making active contributions. Then there are those (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. All these levels of participation need to be accepted and encouraged within the community.
  4. 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 in a larger online community of practice a small group that live or work close together may also decide to meet informally on a face-to-face basis
  5. Focus on value. Attempts should be made explicitly to identify, through feedback and discussion, the contributions that the community most values, then focus the discussion and activities around these issues.
  6. Combine familiarity and excitement, by focusing both on shared, common concerns and perspectives, but also by introducing radical or challenging perspectives for discussion or action
  7. 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.

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.

EDUCAUSE has developed a step-by-step guide for designing and cultivating communities of practice in higher education (Cambridge, Kaplan and Suter, 2005).

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.

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. To date the focus of the majority of MOOCs from providers such as Coursera, Udacity and edX, has been on academic ‘courses’, on topics such as artificial intelligence or dinosaurs, which do have a widespread interest. However, these more instructionist MOOCs are not really developed as communities of practice, because  they use mainly a transmissive pedagogy, from experts to those considered less expert. Even though there may be massive numbers participating in online forums, they are not constructed to maximise the contributions from the participants (despite the fact that most MOOC participants already have high levels of education.). Indeed there is evidence that in really large instructionist MOOCs, participants feel overwhelmed by the magnitude and lack of structuring of the participant contributions (see for instance Knox, 2014).

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.

In the long run, MOOCs need to evolve to the point where it is possible for those with a common interest to easily create their own open, online communities of practice. As open source MOOC platforms evolve, it should become easier for people without computer science degrees to create and more importantly manage their own MOOCs, without having to go through a MOOC provider such as Coursera or edX. Also, there are other simpler tools, such as wikis, or more complex ones, such as virtual worlds, that may in the long run have more potential for virtual communities of practice created and organised by the participants themselves.

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.

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