Literature review and synthesis: Online Communities of Practice

Publication Details

This literature review and synthesis aims at developing a knowledge base to inform the Ministry of Education on how to develop, implement, and maintain online communities of practice (CoPs), and how communication technologies can be used to support them. Author: Kwok Wing Lai, Keryn Pratt, Megan Anderson & Julie Stigter Published: 2006

Author(s): Kwok Wing Lai, Keryn Pratt, Megan Anderson & Julie Stigter, University of Otago. Report prepared for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: 2006

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Executive Summary


Research on online CoPs is a relatively new field of research, so a broad, rather than a narrow, approach was adopted in the selection of sources. As such, both published and online publications, from New Zealand and overseas, primarily published after 2001, were reviewed as well as seminal articles published prior to 2001. Both secondary and primary sources, including conceptual, empirical, and application articles were reviewed. Due to the very short time frame available, the research team reviewed academic and professional journal articles, conference papers, and commissioned reports. In addition, books and book chapters that were considered to be seminal were reviewed. A wide variety of databases and conference proceedings were searched, as well as the Internet. The abstracts of citations were scanned and articles were selected using criteria for inclusion and exclusion as guided by the research questions. Full texts of the articles selected were read and those considered to be relevant were categorised into conceptual and empirical studies. A template was developed and adopted to annotate a number of key articles. A reliability check of a sample of annotated articles was conducted to compare the accuracy of the abstracts to the content of the articles.

In the process of undertaking this review, between February and May 2005, a number of review articles relating to online CoPs or virtual communities have been identified. We have also identified a large number of articles discussing the concept of CoPs, and their relationship to situated cognition, activity theory, professional development, and knowledge management. However, we found that the majority of the literature did not target online CoPs (Couros, 2003), and there were few empirical studies of CoPs in designed or intentional learning environments (Squire & Johnson, 2000). Also, we have found very few empirical studies on online CoPs directly relating to teaching and learning (Koh & Kim, 2003). Many of the studies adopt an organisational perspective with specific references to business and commercial sectors. While many studies were available in the literature about design issues of bilingual websites, we found no articles related to bilingual communities of practice.

Summary of Findings

1.  Characteristics of communities of practice
What is a community of practice?

Defining a community of practice.

  • Communities of practice are about negotiating a joint enterprise.
  • Communities of practice function through mutual engagement.
  • Members of communities of practice develop a shared repertoire of communal resources.
  • The process of learning and the process of membership in a community of practice are inseparable.

Characteristics of a community of practice include:

  • 'Practice' as the unifying feature of the community;
  • Relationships that are grounded in information exchange and knowledge creation;
  • Membership ranging from novices to old timers; and
  • Shared learning, which may also occur effectively at the boundaries/peripheries of the community.
Distinguishing communities of practice from other groupings

Communities of practice can be distinguished from other groupings in a number of ways. Communities of practice:

  • Are about a shared practice;
  • Have diverse and heterogeneous membership;
  • Are not (necessarily) task-oriented; and
  • Are learning communities.
2.  Characteristics of online communities of practice
What is an online community of practice?

The evolution of Internet and Web technologies has:

  • Impacted on the way individuals communicate;
  • Greatly enhanced the development of communities online; and
  • Provided the opportunity for online communities of practice to facilitate the creation, refinement, sharing and use of knowledge effectively between individuals.

An online community of practice requires more than simply transferring a community of practice to an online environment.

  • Technology infrastructures have to be created to support the functioning of online communities of practice to overcome barriers that do not occur in co-located communities of practice. These barriers include:
    • Time: to meet and communicate;
    • Size: membership may be large and involve many locations;
    • Affiliation: members spread across organisations; and
    • - Culture: members experience different organisational cultures.
Distinguishing online communities of practice from co-located communities of practice

While online communities of practice share some similar characteristics with communities of practice in general, they also differ in several aspects:

  • Design. Online communities of practice are usually designed top-down, while co-located communities of practice usually emerge from existing groups.
  • Membership. Online communities of practice are usually open, while co-located communities of practice are usually closed.
  • Leadership. Leaders of online communities of practice are recruited, while leaders in co-located communities of practice may emerge from the community.
  • Form of communication. In online communities of practice communication is primarily computer-mediated, while in co-located communities of practice communication is primarily face-to-face.
  • Time to develop the community. It takes longer to develop an online community of practice than a co-located community of practice. Technological support. This is essential for online communities of practice but not for co-located communities of practice.
Distinguishing online communities of practice from other online groupings

A number of online groups and communities exist, in addition to online communities of practice:

  • Communities based on commerce, such as online auction sites ( e-commerce communities);
  • Communities based on common interests, such as online alumni association sites ( e-communities of interest); and
  • Communities based on learning, such as online courses ( e-learning communities).

Online communities of practice differ from other online communities in terms of the level of collaboration and engagement.

  • Portals (targeted gateways);
  • Networks or information communities;
  • Interest groups; and
  • Blogs.
Can communities of practice be totally supported and operated online?

An ongoing debate is whether or not communities of practice can be virtual. Two key issues raised in this debate concern:

  • Whether relationship and trust can be built online; and
  • Whether tacit knowledge and practice can be shared online.
3.  Online communities of practice and the professional development of teachers
Communities of practice and effective professional development

Communities of practice are central to effective teacher professional development.

  • This requires a shift in emphasis from formal training to learning in practice.
  • Communities of practice go beyond traditional 'one-shot' and 'face-to-face' models of event-based, expert-novice forms of professional development.
  • Communities of practice allow teachers to act as co-producers of knowledge, which requires greater personal responsibility for professional growth.
  • Currently, communities of practice are only infrequently used for teacher professional development.
Cases of effective online communities of practice

Cases of effective online communities of practice include:

  • The Learning Inquiry Forum;
  • Tapped In;
  • Education with New Technology (ENT); and
  • Talking Heads & Virtual Heads.

Characteristics of these effective cases of online communities of practice include:

They have a clear purpose;

  • Membership is diverse;
  • Leadership is strong;
  • Technology is used appropriately;
  • There is an emphasis on participation and community building; and
  • They are long-term.
4. Life cycles of online communities of practice
Phase 1: Formation

A variety of activities occur in the formation phase of an online community of practice:

  • Identify potential community;
  • Determine purpose and scope of the community;
  • Community building;
  • Create a preliminary design for the community;
  • Incubate and deliver immediate value; and
  • Launch of the community.
Phase 2: Sustaining/Maturing

In the second phase, the focus is on sustaining and maturing the community of practice through a variety of means:

  • Leadership;
  • Mentor new members;
  • Seek relationships and benchmarks outside the organisation;
  • Establish the community;
  • Checkpoint;
  • Knowledge repository; and
  • Evaluate purpose and direction.
Phase 3: Transformation

The third phase is one of transformation or disengaging; communities of practice may experience:

  • Expansion;
  • Fading away; and/or
  • Death
5. Designing effective online communities of practice
Design Principle 1: Online communities of practice should be cultivated to grow naturally

Online communities of practice are grown rather than made.

  • Communities of practice are a combination of design and natural development; the design must allow for this development to occur.
  • A key to designing a vibrant and successful community of practice is to ensure that the design invites interaction.
  • Design should aim to bring out the community's own internal direction, character and energy.
  • Communities of practice must be designed in a way so as to allow and encourage development.
  • A bottom-up design encourages a sense of ownership for members.
  • Online communities of practice can be built in terms of the technology, but members themselves must grow a community.

Several design strategies have been identified to cultivate the growth of online communities of practice:

  • Conduct a needs assessment to form a clear purpose;
  • Foster a sense of ownership ;
  • Allow plenty of time for the community of practice to grow; and
  • Encourage diversity.
Design Principle 2: Online communities of practice should be designed to support sociability and participation

Sociability and usability are key to designing online communities.

  • Sociability is primarily concerned with how members of a community interact with each other.
  • Usability is primarily concerned with how members interact with the technology of a community.

A number of strategies have been identified to support sociability and participation:

  • Allow members time to participate;
  • Add value to the community of practice;
  • Build a sense of community;
  • Allow different levels of participation;
  • Build social relationships and trust;
  • Develop clear policies; and
  • Ensure ease of use of technologies.
Design Principle 3: Online communities of practice should be created to attract a diverse membership

It is important to ensure that a critical mass of people belong to the online community of practice. Issues to consider in this include:

  • Ongoing recruitment of members;
  • Encouraging lurkers to participate; and
  • Structuring to accommodate geographical and contextual diversity.
Design Principle 4: Online communities of practice should be managed by providing for different roles

There needs to be different roles within communities of practice, particularly in online communities of practice.

  • There are a number of benefits to having defined roles in online communities of practice:
    • Reassurance;
    • Continuity; and
    • Structure.
  • In general, roles can be divided into four types:
    • Leadership roles;
    • Core members;
    • Support persons; and
    • Community members.
Design Principle 5: Online communities of practice should include t echnology designed with functionality to support sociability and knowledge sharing

As the choice of technology impacts on the community of practice, designers need to consider the:

  • Needs of the community;
  • Level of access to technology; and
  • Level of funding available.

Technology can support communities of practice in a number of ways:

  • Connecting members of the community of practice;
  • Supporting team work;
  • Building knowledge repositories;
  • Building a sense of community;
  • Encouraging participation;
  • Fostering identity and presence;
  • Mentoring; and
  • Online instruction.

Technology can be designed to be either 'pull' or 'push' in nature.

Design Principle 6: Online communities of practice require a blended approach to development where online activities are supported by offline activities

Many researchers suggest that the online activities should be supported by offline activities.

  • Reasons for this include:
    • Higher levels of satisfaction;
    • Helps in building trustworthy relationships; and
    • Provides a sense of community.
6.   Bilingual considerations

The issue of using multiple languages is complex.

  • Very little information is available regarding bilingual online communities of practice.
  • Conducting online discussions in multiple languages is complicated.
  • Designing a bilingual website requires more than translating the words.
  • Providing bilingual websites makes an important statement regarding the value of that culture to society.
  • More research is required into the provision of bilingual online communities of practice.

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