Community of practice vs. a learning community

Posted: May 4, 2011 in CSCL course at P2PU
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Question: Can we consider ourselves (the #introcscl core group + followers) a community of practice?

My answer: No, but I’ll be very happy to engage in dialogue on this. A rather lengthy explanation follows, sorry that it is so long. Here we go…

A summary of what Lave and Wenger (1991) described originally can be found at Wenger’s website:

Anthropologist Jean Lave and I coined the term while studying apprenticeship as a learning model. People usually think of apprenticeship as a relationship between a student and a master, but studies of apprenticeship reveal a more complex set of social relationships through which learning takes place mostly with journeymen and more advanced apprentices. The term community of practice was coined to refer to the community that acts as a living curriculum for the apprentice.

This theory has changed over time but according to Wenger (2006), these characteristics remain (I have used bold text for highlighting):

1. The domain: …It has an identity defined by a shared domain of interest. Membership therefore implies a commitment to the domain, and therefore a shared competence that distinguishes members from other people….

2. The community: …In pursuing their interest in their domain, members engage in joint activities and discussions, help each other, and share information. The claims processors in a large insurance company or students in American high schools may have much in common, yet unless they interact and learn together, they do not form a community of practice….

3. The practice: A community of practice is not merely a community of interest–people who like certain kinds of movies, for instance. [We are a group of people who like CSCL, who find it useful. Perhaps we are a community of interest rather than practice?] Members of a community of practice are practitioners. They develop a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems—in short a shared practice. This takes time and sustained interaction. … [N]urses who meet regularly for lunch in a hospital cafeteria may not realize that their lunch discussions are one of their main sources of knowledge about how to care for patients. Still, in the course of all these conversations, they have developed a set of stories and cases that have become a shared repertoire for their practice.

So as I understand a CoP, it is a group of people who share a common practice, an activity, usually a work-related activity as described by most CoP examples, but also other groups that share experiences, stories, ways of dealing with problems they are face with (e.g. gangs, high school students). They share a culture: Lave was an anthropologist and Situated Learning: LPP was a sociological work. In the section titled LPP and Situated Learning (p. 4 if you printed it out), a quote by Lave and Wenger (1991, p. 29, cited on p. 4 of our Communities of Practice article for Week 1) sums it up for me.

“The meaning of learning is configured through the process of becoming a full participant in a socio-cultural practice.”

This plus Wenger’s (2006) description of “practitioners… a shared practice… This takes time and sustained interaction” (p. 3 of the same article) to me indicates a particular meaning for CoP as being a group of people who are involved in the same trade, a trade where there is some kind of common activity. Through informal discussions, members of the community learn from each other and become joint members of a shared practice.

Wenger (2006, found in our Communities of Practice article for Week 1) goes on to explain much later the implications of CoP/LPP for education.

The perspective of communities of practice affects educational practices along three dimensions:

• Internally: How to organize educational experiences that ground school learning in practice through participation in communities around subject matters?

• Externally: How to connect the experience of students to actual practice through peripheral forms of participation in broader communities beyond the walls of the school?

• Over the lifetime of students: How to serve the lifelong learning needs of students by organizing communities of practice focused on topics of continuing interest to students beyond the initial schooling period?

All of these seem to relate to linking school activities to outside communities; in other words, the CoP exist not within school but are external to it.

On p. 6 at the end of the Learning organizations and learning communities section, the work of Barbara Rogoff and her colleagues (2001) is briefly mentioned.

They examine the work of an innovative school in Salt Lake City and how teachers, students and parents were able to work together to develop an approach to schooling based around the principle that learning ‘occurs through interested participation with other learners’.

I am not familiar with their work, but “interested participation with other learners” is representative of a socio-constructivist perspective of learning and is certainly not limited to CoP or LPP.

So, this is what I think about CoP/LPP in a nutshell:

It is a very useful theory for looking at how people learn from each other in a shared practice. Groups mentioned by Lave and Wenger (1991) and Wenger (2006) include butchers, tailors, a youth gang, claims processors in a large insurance company, Impressionist painters, and nurses all share a culture, a shared identity, and they all spend time together physically. High school students are mentioned but I think this is looking at their joining the culture of high school students rather than what happens in classes.

I haven’t yet read much about CoP in online communities; I believe that some of them are CoP and some aren’t, but I don’t think that people have to meet physically to be a CoP. For example, the PerlMonks are an example of an online CoP, but here there is a very distinct shared practice (that of PERL programming) and culture (belonging to the website and its members).

Wenger writes a lot these days about how CoP are useful within organizations, and “he is now an independent consultant specializing in developing communities of practice within organizations.” So to me, CoP occur within people who work together, either in the same company or in the same exact field.

Point 1: As a group learning together at P2PU, we do not work together, and I do not think that we work in the same exact field. As has been noted already, whether or not CSCL is a field in itself has yet to be ascertained. Is CSCL a skill that can be refined, a practice that can be improved? We come from a wide variety of disciplines and have very differing interests and goals. This makes for a very interesting group and a variety of learning experiences – great! We share a common interest, and we are learning from each other. But I do not think that we are a CoP, and I think that is just fine. I have no current need of being a member of a CoP. Being a member of a learning community like the one I belong to at P2PU is exactly what I do need now.

Point 2: I do not think that CoP relate directly to classes, in school or outside of it. CoP are related to work, a common set of shared experiences that help one to become better at one’s job or profession. In school there are so many subjects, and students are not trying to learn from each other in order to improve their job performance (or even their school performance in most cases). Neither are we – are we? We certainly do want to improve our understanding of CSCL, but is this a skill that we can refine over time by sharing experiences? I’m not sure. I do not think that CoP are related to classes, and we are a class. Not within a school, but still a class, with a curriculum and facilitators etc. I don’t think that classes are representative of CoP, so this is another reason why I do not think that we are a CoP or ever will be in our P2PU setting.

Becoming a CoP takes time – months, and later years. A shared practice is what brings members together, and may keep them together over the years of work (together physically, as in organizations, or separately, as in the PerlMonks for example). This shared practice seems to be the refinement of a skill. I don’t think that classes in school or out are representative of CoP, and I don’t think that they should try to be. For me, the learning theory that applies more to us is social constructivism. I’m also looking forward to reading more about constructionism and connectivism as well, as these may apply to us and other learning communities.

  1. Joe Corneli says:

    Hi Jennifer: Thanks for the summary! It’s thorough but definitely not too long (saves time versus reading all of Wenger’s books, anyway).

    I think it would be *possible* for a site like P2PU to make it easier for people to identify their practices. I might use such a feature, since I’m trying to use the “theory of deliberate practice” to guide my own work and study time, and getting some peer support might help with that. But even if I were to find people who have similar practices, we might not readily form a “community”. And that could be OK!

    The criticism of the concept of “community” that I mentioned in the chat is largely based on what I’ve read from the book “Against the Romance of Community” by Miranda Joseph. A summary/response is here:

    If “community” is itself “conservative, disciplining and exclusionary” (Miranda Joseph), CoP will have the same attributes. I think the appropriate response is to think about what kind of norms we personally want to uphold, and scrutinize the ones we currently enact. Of course, this would seem to bring us rather far afield from the topic of CSCL.

    • Hi Joe,

      Thanks for your comment. I think that we can identify our practices at P2PU but that we have different practices, not shared. Of course, some will overlap, but for me the concept of a CoP means that we must be commonly practising the same skill. This is not what I see us doing at P2PU – we are learning together and hoping to apply that learning to our separate practices.

      Thanks for your ref, I will check it out. To me, a community, especially one like ours, does not seem “conservative, disciplining and exclusionary” so maybe we are not talking about the same kind of community. For me, the perfect community is a self-organizing system (SOS) with no centralized control, but it’s something I have only been looking into for a few months, and maybe there is no perfect format of a community; just do what works best for your community. For example, I don’t think that our community is an SOS or a CoP but I am learning a lot already, so I don’t care that we are neither. I think a flexible term like “learning community” fits us just fine and I don’t need a more definitive term than that (altho one may exist).

  2. Thanks for your post, Jennifer. I tend to agree that the Intro to CSCL course is not a community of practice for the two reasons you underline: we do not share a common practice and our interaction will not be sustained.

    What we hope to gain from the CSCL course may be applied to the communities of practice in which we are practitioners. CoPs do seem to be related to work. I would like to understand how they can be thought of as a framework for classrooms. Any thoughts on this?

    • Hi Rebecca,

      Thank you for your comment. I think that your point, “What we hope to gain from the CSCL course may be applied to the communities of practice in which we are practitioners” is a good one. Our CSCL Intro course is not itself a CoP, but we take what we learn from it into our own CoP.

      I don’t know if the concept of a CoP can be transferred to a classroom. For me, classes are not CoP (cannot be? I’m open to ideas on this), but they can be learning communities if students are actively learning from each other and building knowledge, collaborating in ways that focus on the learning and building itself rather than a product that may or may not have involved any actual learning.

      For this, I’d look to Scardamalia and Bereiter’s work on Knowledge Building. This for me is the most powerful concept of learning within a class structure, as in schools and other online courses, like our P2PU course. I’d suggest that we could be a KB community if we create anything new/emergent from our work here. And even if we don’t, we’ll still share a lot of knowledge and learn from each other and the articles we read.

      • Martin Aa says:

        Good post! Agree that this course is not a CoP as I understand it. I like Rebecca’s point a lot too: “What we hope to gain from the CSCL course may be applied to the communities of practice in which we are practitioners”

        CoP and classrooms: I think CoPs that are visible on the internet is a great thing to connect to the classroom if you can.

        Example (from my field again, unfortunately)

        When we send our students to long clinical rotations, one of the main points is to let them swim around in the CoPs they will stay in during their working lives?

        But you might do this from the classroom as well: When I teach my students about epidemiology, it’s great to show them recent discussion from doctor’s mailing lists about the same points. To let them lurk around where the apprentices and masters discuss shows them that what they learn is relevant, and a few very interested students might connect to the epidemiology CoP some years later.

  3. […] for several years. My experience there reminds me of the nurses who Jennifer describes in her post, who met regularly for lunch in their hospital cafeteria. Their shared stories and cases became a […]

  4. Hi Martin,

    Yes, I agree completely that it’s great to get students into a CoP as soon as possible after beginning training. It’s such a valuable experience for them. Checking out various medical discussion groups/mail lists and showing them what doctors are discussing, as you do, is very valuable.

    In medicine, you really have so many possibilities for CoP. And since beginning students really are apprentices, a CoP is very appropriate for them. I wish there was a CSCL CoP! Or at least a website where we could discuss things, like we are doing in this course at P2PU. But what we really need is a permanent place, a learning community website. I’m thinking now about some different ideas for when the course finishes.

    You are lucky to have a CoP (several!) already set up for you! 🙂


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