Communities of Practice: Creating Learning Environments for Educators

Editors, Chris Kimble, Paul Hildreth and Isabelle Bourdon
Publisher, Information Age Publishing

As a two volume set:
Hard cover ISBN: 1593118678 , Soft cover ISBN: 159311866X

As separate volumes:
Hard Cover - Vol 1 ISBN: 1593118635 , Vol 2 ISBN: 1593118651
Soft Cover - Vol 1 ISBN: 1593118627 , Vol 2 ISBN: 1593118643


There are many definitions of Communities of Practice, the current notion originated in the late 1980s and early 1990s from the Institute for Research on Learning (IRL) at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC). The research in IRL at PARC brought together ideas from several different academic disciplines and occupational backgrounds that included Lucy Suchman, Jean Lave, Etienne Wenger, John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid. Together they worked on projects that spanned disciplines from Computer Science to Anthropology employing a number of, what were then, novel techniques and theoretical frameworks such as ethnographic studies and social constructivism.

For many years, what were termed Behaviourist Models of learning had been dominant. Essentially these models held that learning was concerned with the transmission of knowledge from the teacher to the learner. Knowledge was viewed as an object that could be clearly defined, abstracted, codified and 'transferred' from one person to another. However, during the 1970's and 1980's there began to be an increasing interest in 'social constructivist' models of learning. These saw learning not as a process of transmission of abstract and decontextualized knowledge to an individual but as a process that is situated in a particular context where knowledge is mutually 'constructed' by the participants in that process.

Much of the conceptual basis for these theories, can be found in the work of Vygotsky (1978). Vygotsky was concerned with the ways in which individuals learn within communities. He believed that knowledge was constructed through collaboration and interaction in activities and used the notion of a zone of proximal development (ZPD) to describe the way in which a learner interacts with others in a particular activity. Lave and Wenger (1991) in particular built upon Vygotsky's notion of social constructivism and ZPD in order to develop a different understanding of learning that moved away from seeing learning as the product of an individual mind mastering abstract tools and techniques, to one that saw learning as a process of social transformation as part of a collective.

The aim of Lave and Wenger's book was to explore an alternative theory of learning to that of the dominant behaviourist models; their work was concerned with co-located communities and drew on previously conducted studies of tailors in Goa, Mayan midwives, non-drinking alcoholics, butchers in supermarkets and navy quartermasters. At this point, they were content to leave the definition of a Community of Practice as a largely intuitive notion (Lave and Wenger, 1991, p 26) considering the value of their description of a Community of Practice to be primarily as a heuristic device that could highlight issues that had previously been overlooked. Thus, their goal was not to provide us directly with a new theory of learning, but to change our way of thinking about how learning might take place.

By the end of the 1990s things had changed somewhat. There was a pre-millennium sense of optimism that the economy and perhaps society in general, was undergoing a fundamental shift. The stock market was in the grip of 'dot-com fever' so that speculation and hype had inflated the value of hi-tech start-up companies (known colloquially as dot-com companies), to astronomical levels. It seemed that the relentless growth of computer and telecommunications technology had finally reached a point where the 'revolution' that authors such as, McLuhan (1964, 1989), Ellul (1964), Toffler (1972, 1980), Bell (1974) and Hiltz and Turoff, (1978) had been predicting for the last 30 years was about to happen.

In his work from this period, Wenger (1998a, 1998b) is keen to put the concept of a Community of Practice on a firm footing for the new millennium. In the opening pages of Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Wenger makes it clear that he wishes to establish a new intellectual foundation of his work (Wenger, 1998a, p 11). In this book and the associated papers, Wenger introduces several new concepts, elaborates some of the terms used in his earlier work (Lave and Wenger, 1991) with Lave (e.g. identity and participation) and also abandons some (e.g. LPP). It is in this book (Wenger, 1998a) and the articles that preceded it (Wenger, 1998b), that we begin to see the first links being made between Communities of Practice and virtual or distributed working (e.g. Wenger, 1998a, p 131) which form the basis for this second volume of papers.

For example, in an echo of Brown and Duguid's (1991) notion of the organisation as a 'collective of communities', Wenger (1998a, p 127) develops his view of an organisation as a 'constellation of communities', carrying this idea further than Brown and Duguid's (1991) passing reference to cultivating 'connections throughout the corporation' (Brown and Duguid, 1991, p 47) and making an explicit link between this and the capacity of an organisation to be 'effective'. Similarly Wenger now begins to highlight the importance of the boundaries between communities (e.g. Wenger, 1998a, p 106) and uses the notion of 'boundary objects' (Star and Griesemer, 1989) to describe how artefacts, having been produced by one Community of Practice, can then act as a link to other geographically distinct groups (cf. Kimble and Hildreth, 2005).

Overview of the Book

The aim in this book has been to combine current academic research in Communities of Practice in education with 'hands on' practitioner experience in order to provide teachers and academics with guidance and an incentive to develop and work in their own Communities of Practice.

The result is a wide mix of authors from around the world who relate their experiences in their own words. The chapters and styles range from reports into research to very personal accounts and thus provide a fascinating view of Communities of Practice in Education.

This book is divided into 2 volumes with volume one addressing issues associated with 'co-located' CoPs. This volume deals with Communities of Practice in a distributed (virtual) environment and like volume 1, is divided into 3 sections. A brief description of each section and each chapter follows.

Section 1

The aim of this section is to introduce some of the motivations for encouraging the development of virtual Communities of Practice in educational settings and to reflect on some of the practical problems of doing so.

In Chapter 1, Designing for Growth: Enabling Communities of Practice to Develop and Extend their Work Online, Melissa Koch and Judith Fusco describe how a Community of Practice for teaching professionals can affect professional growth through informal collegial interactions. In line with the theme of this volume, they provide a series of examples to show how Communities of Practice can become virtual Communities of Practice using specialist software such as Tapped In® and CLTNet. This chapter introduces some of the themes in the book and the use of 'professional' software provides an interesting contrast to Bos-Ciussi et al's approach in Chapter 14.

Then, in Chapter 2, Holding the Virtual Space: The Roles and Responsibilities of Community Stewardship, Brenda Kaulback and Debbie Bergtholdt examine the ways in which a specialist team in the Department of Education for the State of Virginia, USA provided support for a virtual Community of Practice of educational leaders, administrators and instructors. The focus of the chapter is on adult education and it is concerned with issues of leadership; in particular, it examines the need to maintain a delicate balance between various competing factors in order to 'hold a space' where the members to do their work.

Diana D. Woolis, Susan Restler and Yvonne Thayer continue the theme of leadership in Chapter 3, Education Leadership for a Networked World, and describe a 'distributed' leadership model based on virtual Communities of Practice. Their argument is that since the late 1980's, educational leaders have faced a burgeoning array of new initiatives and that only leaders with the skill to harness networks of virtual Communities of Practice will be capable of responding to this reform agenda. The use of the model is illustrated by case studies drawn from the author's work in developing and facilitating virtual Communities of Practice for educational leaders.

Section 2

Section 2 focuses on the use of virtual Communities of Practice for Continuing Professional Development and as a medium for teaching. Although most chapters deal with both issues, chapters 4 to 7 are primarily concerned with the problems of Continuing Professional Development while chapters 8 to 12 focus more on issues relating to teaching.

Roisin Donnelly introduces some of the broad issues of professional development for educators from an Irish Perspective in Chapter 4, Virtual Problem-based Learning Communities of Practice for Teachers and Academic Developers: An Irish Higher Education Perspective. She looks at the experiences of a group of staff in Irish Higher Education who shared an interest in designing e-learning courses and shows how a group of people taking a Postgraduate Diploma in 'Designing E-Learning' became a virtual Community of Practice. The chapter concludes with an examination of practical implications for teacher-practitioners and the developers of academic courses.

In Chapter 5, Exploring the Potential of Online Communities of Practice for Distance Tutors, Janet Macdonald and Anne Hewling look at a more specific example of the problems of continuing professional development: support and development of so called 'distance tutors' who rarely have the opportunity for ongoing support and informal development enjoyed by campus based staff. The chapter describes the work of such tutors at the UK's Open University and gives examples of the ways in which a variety of platforms - from online forums to wiki based environments - have been used to support Communities of Practice between them.

Chapter 6, Supporting a Dispersed Community: CoP Development in the Caribbean continues the theme of supporting personal and professional development, but in a very different setting. In this chapter, Sabine Little describes how technology has helped support a Community of Practice that brings together practising teachers and educationalists from several islands in the Caribbean that has enabled practitioners to build on local resources and expertise, rather than being reliant on first-world countries for literature and input. The chapter contains a number of observations on facilitating such a community and provides a valuable insight into the inner workings of the community.

In Chapter 7, Virtual Communities of Practice: A Vehicle for Meaningful Professional Development, Kathy Hibbert offers us a chapter that combines the two strands of this section of the book: teaching and professional development. The chapter describes how the use of a virtual learning environment designed for professional development combined with some strategies for discussion to lead to the evolution of a virtual Community of Practice. She describes how this in turn helped to shift the emphasis in training programmes from one where those undergoing professional development were seen as 'knowledge receivers' to one in which they became 'knowledge producers'.

Then, in Chapter 8, Distributing Teaching Presence: Engaging Teachers of English to Young Learners in an International Virtual Community of Inquiry, Joan Kang Shin and Beverly Bickel describe an on-line course to train teachers of English to Young Learners which leads to the creation of an international Community of Practice and several more localised spin-off communities (cf. Volume 1, Chapter 12). Shin and Bickel use a Community of Inquiry framework to analyse the modes of interaction in the course and show how teaching presence became more distributed as participants took on leadership roles in the distributed community, which later helped them to build their own local Communities of Practice.

Thérèse Laferrière and Fernand Gervais look at what happens when people move in the opposite direction in Chapter 9, Communities of Practice across Learning Institutions, and cross the boundary from a small-scale local Community of Practice to a constellation of communities as found in virtual Community of Practice. The chapter examines three different cases based on school-university partnerships for teacher education and professional development and presents a set of socio-technical design principles that stress the dynamics of change. The chapter concludes with some lessons that have been learnt from attempting to build that Communities of Practice cross institutions.

Chapter 10, Teacher-Librarian Communities: Changing Practices in Changing Schools, describes how such a Community of Practice developed when six isolated Teacher-Librarians joined university researchers in a project studying high schools undergoing reform. In this chapter Eric M. Meyers, Lisa P. Nathan and Matthew L. Saxton also look at crossing the boundaries between different communities. They argue that Communities of Practice are a powerful means of supporting new roles and professional identities among education specialists such as Teacher-Librarians. The chapter also contains some interesting observations on the potential pitfalls of using virtual Communities of Practice in this way.

Chapter 11, Communities of Practice at the Math Forum: Supporting Teachers as Professionals, by Wesley Shumar and Johann Sarmiento, describes how the Math Forum, an interactive digital library that aims to provide opportunities for individuals to talk and work with others on mathematics, has become the focus for multiple overlapping CoPs among mathematics teachers and others. The chapter argues that opportunities to build knowledge collaboratively are often not as open to teachers as they are to other professions where the daily practice is more visible to peers that initiatives such as the math Forum could provide a model for on-line professional development for teachers.

Finally, Chapter 12, Heads Together: A Professional Online Community of Practice for Scottish Headteachers, Kevin Thompson and Michael Heartly describe the 'Heads Together' project - an online community of head teachers within primary, secondary, nursery and special educational needs sectors in Scotland - that originated from ULTRALAB at Anglia Polytechnic University. The chapter describes a number of the tools and techniques used in the project and like many of the other chapters in this section, it is concerned with professional development and crossing boundaries, although this example is concerned specifically with head teachers and operates on a national scale.

Section 3

The final section of the book looks at some of the emerging tools and techniques that are applicable to virtual Communities of Practice. The section contains a mix of practical chapters and chapters that attempt to address some of the more theoretical issues.

Linda Polin, in Chapter 13, Graduate Professional Education from a Community of Practice Perspective: The Role of Social and Technical Networking, describes the 're-visioning' of graduate professional education as an activity that occurs at the intersection of three related areas: Communities of Practice, Pedagogy and Digital Culture. Using illustrations from her own work, she shows how social computing applications enable the use of the Community of Practice model in graduate professional education. The chapter contains a number of examples of how so-called web 2.0 applications, such as blogs, podcasts and wikis, have been used in two graduate level programmes.

In Chapter 14, Learning Communities Are Not Mushrooms - or - How to Cultivate Learning Communities in Higher Education, Mélanie Bos-Ciussi, Gillian Rosner and Marc Augier continue the theme of innovative approaches to working in the digital world. In an interesting contrast to Melissa Koch and Judith Fusco in chapter 1, Bos-Ciussi, Rosner and Augier describe a 'self build' approach to VLE's using open source software. The focus of the chapter is on Information and Communication Technologies and their effect on learning processes. It contains three case studies, the building of a VLE, a participative EFL course and an intern follow up scheme, all of which are based in a French Business School.

Chris Blackmore takes a slightly more theoretical approach and considers teaching and learning as a duality in Chapter 15, Enabling Duality in Teaching and Learning Environmental Decision Making - A Role for Communities of Practice? Using a case study of an Open University course on environmental decision making, she examines what is meant by a Community of Practice in this context, the design of supportive learning systems to support this type of course and finally looks at how teaching and learning are conceptualised.

In Chapter 16, The Adult Literacy Education Wiki as a Virtual Community of Practice, Erik Jacobson asks whether a large wiki, the Adult Literacy Education (ALE) wiki, can be considered a virtual Community of Practice. The chapter examines the limited opportunities available for professional development opportunities for adult literacy practitioners, the role the ALE wiki plays in this and the multi-layered nature of participation in the wiki. The conclusion is that while the ALE Wiki as a whole cannot be considered a Community of Practice, the concept itself does provide a useful way of analysing different aspects of the functioning of the wiki.

Richard A. Schwier and Ben K. Daniel present a model of virtual learning communities in Chapter 17, Implications of a Virtual Learning Community Model for Designing Distributed Communities of Practice in Higher Education. The central premise of their argument is that Virtual Learning Communities are closely to Communities of Practice, particularly when they distributed. The chapter discuses both the theoretical background of the model and offers advice of a more practical nature about how such communities might be nurtured, how to deal with the changes that take place over time and how to take advantage of the individual elements that the model identifies.

Like Kevin Thompson and Michael Heartly (Chapter 12) Leonie Ramondt also describes work from ULTRALAB. In Chapter 18, Online CoPs - Towards The Next Generation she describes her experiences of the facilitation of virtual Communities of Practice at the National College of School Leaderships in England. She presents a highly practical, step-by-step methodology for establishing online Communities of Practice that is illustrated by case studies and observations. The chapter concludes also includes a discussion of how Communities of Practice can leverage the 'next generation' of technology and how the performance of these online Communities might be measured.

Finally, Valentina Dodge and Sheila Vine return to the theme of Teaching English as a Foreign Language in Chapter 19, Gender and Moderation: The Style's The Thing! Like the previous chapter, the focus here is on the facilitation of virtual Communities of Practice but in this case, the focus is on the differences between male and female styles of discourse. Dodge and Vine present the results of research based on the case-history analysis of four selected virtual Communities of Practice to illustrate the importance of recognizing the different effects that male and female styles of moderating can have on the long term success of a virtual Communities of Practice.