The 4 Types of Online Learning Communities Part 1- Community of Practice

June 28, 2018


What comes to mind when you hear or read the word community?

Historically, we have viewed the concept of community as physical, location-based, and highly localized. With the recent influx of digital devices and online connectivity, the term community is no longer bound by geography. Today, people can come together virtually, from all over the globe based on shared interests, common purpose, and social and/or professional reasons.

With the shift in online education, the emphasis on community as a crucial factor in online and blended learning has been greatly studied (Haythornthwaite&Kazmer, 2004; Rovai, 2002). According to Thompson & MacDonald (2005):

Effective online learning requires the development of a community. Building online learning communities is now an emerging practice for schools, organizations, teachers, trainers, coaches, and other transformational agents who are providing their services online.

What are online learning communities?

According to Wikipedia, an online learning community is a public or private destination on the internet that addresses the learning needs of its members by facilitating peer-to-peer learning.

At Dream See Do, we define online learning communities as a group of people who convene around a shared purpose or domain of study. These are people that practice and take part in some form of transformation through collaboration, connection, and a conscious integration of content in their given field.

We have identified 4 types of online learning communities that we support with intention on DSD, and will be exploring each one in this learning series.

Community of Practice

Community of Practice (CoP) - are groups of people who share a passion for something that they do, and who interact regularly to improve their abilities through collaboration, group exercises, knowledge sharing and empathetic listening. They are meant to develop learners capabilities, build and exchange knowledge, and most specifically, lay the groundwork for identifying the community’s domain (area of expertise and interest).

Community of Practice was developed by Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave in the early 1990's. Wenger argues that there are three crucial characteristics of a community of practice:

  • domain: a common interest that connects and binds the community together
  • community: a community is bound by shared activities 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. They develop a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems—in short a shared practice.

What is important to note is that communities of practice are voluntary. Most communities of practice have no formal design and tend to be self-organizing bodies. They have a natural life cycle, and come to an end when they no longer serve the needs of the community. To make them successful, the community needs to generate enough relevance, excitement, and value to attract and engage members.

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.

In designing communities of practice, here are 7 key principles to consider:

CoPs need to be designed for evolution – the community must be able to evolve and shift in focus to meet the needs of the participants without steering too far from the domain of interest.

CoPs need to be open to both the inside and outside perspectives - an open dialogue is necessary to introduce and discuss new perspectives even if they are coming from outside the community of practice.

CoPs are strengthened when they are inclusive and equitable - inviting in unique perspectives includes the explicit intention and practice of holding space for a range of backgrounds, ethnicities, gender identifications and languages. Creating an inclusive and diverse community is a powerful way to open critical dialogue, and to learn and growth with others.

CoPs need to accept and encourage varying levels of participation - it is common to have different levels of participation in the community and acceptance of this can help in figuring out how best to engage the community members.

CoPs are strongest when participants operate within public and private community spaces - encouraging individual or group activities that are shared publicly or privately (i.e. creating a blog to share activities or having small group meet-ups or video calls) can strengthen the community of practice.

CoPs focus on value - the thematic domain is the glue that binds the participants together and they are heightened by their shared practices.

CoPs combine familiarity and excitement - this is done through shared concerns and introducing challenging perspectives for discussion or action.

CoPs create the rhythm for the community - this is based on the regular activities and shared practices in the community which create the ‘cadence for the community.

***You can read more about these 7 design principles in this Harvard Business article “Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge - Seven Principles for Cultivating Communities of Practice

The Importance of Community of Practice

A growing number of people and organizations in various sectors are now focusing on communities of practice as a key to improving their performance. Aside from performance, communities of practice can also:

  • Identify, create, store, share and use knowledge
  • Decrease learning curve
  • Reduce rework and prevent reinvention of the wheel and thus improve productivity
  • Permit faster problem solving time
  • Encourage and illuminate good practice
  • Be a fertile ground for new and innovative ideas
  • Enable accelerated learning
  • Connect learning to action
  • Support both personal and professional transformation

As a summary, Communities of Practice share the following characteristics:

  • They are peer-to-peer collaborative networks
  • They are driven by the willingness of the members
  • They are focused on sharing knowledge, developing expertise and/or solving problems and lastly,
  • They are focused on learning and building capacity.

Stay tuned for the next part of this learning series on The 4 Types of Online Learning Communities!

Our team can help you create and cultivate the most dynamic online learning community on the planet! Sign up today for a free 1 hour consultation ($250 value), to review your community goals and needs.

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