by Michael Shaw, MSc
December, 2003
Issue 9
I N S I G H T S    I N T O    U S I N G    E D U C A T I O N A L   T E C H N O L O G Y



Anyone who has attended a workshop, conference, seminar or comparable gathering will tell you that networking with other individuals engaged in similar vocational activities is a very rewarding part of the total experience. I recently attended a 3-day workshop in Northern Ontario. The participants of the workshop realized the value in continuing their dialogue, and formed their own online community with a Yahoo group account. More recently, participants at another workshop I attended in Toronto did more than just engage in a casual exchange of business cards. They were eager to collect email addresses in order to further discuss and hopefully resolve a variety of issues that the limited resources and time structure of the workshop could not address in any significant way. 

Bound by shared meaning and interest of its members, online communities of practice (CoP) seem to evolve organically, bringing together a variety of expertise and experience in order to provide solutions that are highly relevant and timely for the group. Everyone today should be familiar with at least one variety or definition of Web-based conversation spaces, such as bulletin boards, threaded discussion lists, online forums, BLOG’s or asynchronous conferences. These all have the potential to foster the type of interaction and collaborative problem solving that has been long recognized as a key to working in a modern, globally-situated, knowledge-based society. Without proper structure and facilitation though, these online conversation spaces may become nothing more than piles of disparate information that no one uses. By examining some of the proven concepts associated with online collaboration, we can improve the chances of success for building and nurturing both formal and informal online communities of practice, even as parts of larger learning and knowledge-sharing schemes.


Collaboration usually means that people are working together in a certain context to solve a problem or learn something. It can also refer to the lifelong acquisition of knowledge within a certain community, or a developmental process that occurs over years. Dillenbourg (1999) asks if collaborative learning is a pedagogical method or a psychological process. He notes that activities, which trigger learning mechanisms, are evident in both individuals and groups, but that the interaction in groups triggers extra cognitive mechanisms. Collaborative learning relates to these activities and mechanisms. There is no guarantee that that the mechanisms will occur, but designing situations with appropriate activities will increase the likelihood of success. This is not always an easy task, as there are many variables to contend with in any group. 

The gap between a collaborative participant’s actual developmental level and potential developmental level is narrowed through interaction with peers of greater capability. This is referred to as the 'zone of proximal development' (Vygotsky, 1978). Real world communities of practice reflect this theory, as in apprenticeship training, where those that are less skilled work alongside a peer or mentor, learning through authentic practice.

Collaboration basically has 3 components, which we can apply to asynchronous online environments: 

  1. Conversation – verbalizing through written responses and/or audio/video 
  2. Multiple perspective – reading, reflecting, cognitive restructuring 
  3. Argument – conceptual conflict resolution, establishing internalized concepts 
Cooperative learning is also associated with collaborative learning, but differs in that it provides guidelines on how to organize group learning and related, specific activities. Cooperative learning is not always situated though. Problem based learning environments are also related, but they are not always collaborative. Online CoP can incorporate many of the principles of both collaborative and cooperative learning, depending once again, on how they are designed and facilitated.

The asynchronous nature of CoP solves many problems associated with time and distance. Individuals do not have to be online at the same time to participate, and time away is not considered a detriment. In fact, one of the biggest advantages of virtual CoP is that time away actually affords opportunities for much deeper reflection and processing than normal conversation would. Individuals not only become engaged in thinking about what they are learning, but also in making sense of the whole experience related to their situation. Learning and cognition may be fundamentally situated, and involves making sense of experience, thought, or phenomenon in context (Brown, et al., 1989). Our understanding of a concept is not abstract and self-sufficient, but rather constructed from the social and physical contexts in which the concept is found and used. Contemplating these ideas can help us create better opportunities for learning or knowledge sharing experiences in online communities.

The CoP model suggests that an individual is an integral component of a larger social and cultural structure, which is under continual revision and transformation. Through conflict, argument, interaction, negotiation and compromise, the knowledge and subsequent behaviours of the community's members will develop. Through social and negotiated processes, abstractions and implicit and tacit knowledge congeal and become explicit.  This not only creates meaning for the community and its individuals, but an opportunity for organizations or professional practice to capture this meaning into contextual, cultural practices on an ongoing basis. This is an important factor in continuing education and professional development, where there may be skepticism in the practitioner community concerning the value and relevance of academic knowledge and ignorance in the academic community concerning modern best practices (Goodyear and Steeples, 1998).

The knowing derived from belonging to a CoP becomes part of something that individuals and organizations do, rather than something that they have. In other words, organizations should focus more on the types of systems that promote knowing and doing instead of on the ones that simply focus on the types of knowledge required to do something. This improves the actual working practices rather than the performance of individuals alone. In a purely academic CoP however, such as those integrated with college and university courses, creating authentic, situated activities may be a real challenge when professional practice is absent from the environment. The instruction should fit within a context that at least closely resembles professional or authentic practice, being the ordinary practices of the culture.

I think it is important to note here that whether in education or industry, cognitive apprenticeships alone do not always address all of the different types of knowledge and related skills that may be required to understand and perform a task or job, or to learn about or work in a particular domain. Truly authentic perception and consequential activities may be difficult to carry out in any wholly online environment. 

Creating a CoP

Throwing up a forum or discussion list without any planning or structure will not have a very good chance of succeeding. Factors such as feasibility, analysis and design should be considered in ways that are appropriate for the medium and the content. Here are a few of the things to consider when creating a CoP:

What is the purpose of this CoP?
What are you trying to accomplish with this CoP, and what will it help change or improve? It could be part of a blended approach to learning, such as an adjunct to an existing e-learning program or a precursor or follow-up to a workshop. Whatever the case, your CoP should have a clearly defined goal or at least support one.
FAQ’s and customer service resources alone are not a CoP
One corporation I know of created a quasi client forum to identify and answer client FAQ’s a few years ago, and now has a rather sophisticated query database with over 4,000 searchable FAQ’s in it. Many companies direct customers needing support to lists of tips, tricks, FAQ’s and other information, or even respond publicly to online requests. Although these may be useful parts of a CoP, they alone do not have enough attributes to constitute a CoP. A true CoP includes more dynamic interaction, including negotiation and knowledge building between all of its members. 
Organization, flow and content
As simple as it might sound, organize main topics or member groups into logical areas, just like you would organize a filing system on your hard drive for various file types or projects. If you only have one active discussion area, it could grow into a tangled mess of threads and discussions that is very difficult to weed through, especially if there are many members. Most threaded discussions are chronological in nature, in that the most recent comments are posted first. This may not be amenable to all groups, or may be confusing if there are numerous postings. A more networked or flow chart approach may work better, with chronological discussions neatly attached to specific topic or member areas. You may also decide to assign a life expectancy to a topic or the whole CoP based around milestones or certain goals.
There are a variety of ways to communicate and construct and share artefacts within a networked community. Online communication incorporates the semantics of conversation and writing. Since most of this communication is written instead of spoken, nonverbal and articulatory cues are not present. The use of symbolism such as emoticons (using keyboard symbols to portray feelings) can help to express these missing gestures. In addition to asynchronous textual dialogue, participants can engage in learning conversations using asynchronous multimedia components. For example, linked or uploaded files can include people, objects or artefacts in audio and video clips, photos, graphics, etc. These modes are becoming more commonplace (consider the inclusion of small video cameras, microphones and audio, video and photo software on most new personal computer purchases). 
Validity and membership
Who said so? Many people from different backgrounds may respond online, and as expertise from different domains may collide in a particular discussion area, it may prove difficult to distinguish whether or not information is based in theory or even empirically true. There may not always be a facilitator or moderator on hand to guide the discussion, and considering the complexity of ill-structured domains (i.e. – medicine), there is the potential for many false concepts to take root. A moderator may have to help community members process and analyze the validity of some information. The more focussed you can keep your membership, the better. You may have to set prerequisites for joining, perhaps based on things like professional credentials or vocational status.
Use time to moderate and facilitate
Ever join into one of those telephone party lines when you were a kid? There’s nothing quite so unintelligible as a few hundred kids screaming on the phone trying to make conversation. An online forum that is totally open and free without guiding intervention could yield similar results. One of the most important aspects is ‘time on task’ and ‘task on time’, especially in an educational context. Give members something specific to do, give them time to do it, and give them a timeline or deadline to do it by. This gives individuals the time they need to reflect and contribute, and keeps online activities focussed on the important issues. Side issues can always be addressed in other discussion areas. Novel writing should not be allowed, so set guidelines for the length of contributions. 
For example:

XYZ Issues for January
Moderator – Jack Frost
Many individuals are concerned with XYZ. Please read this interesting article at: and comment in less than 100 words by January 15 on how XYZ affects your organization. Read the contributions from others. Has anyone actually found a solution to the XYZ problem? 

Encourage and allow the community building process to evolve
Individuals will typically ‘test the waters’ of an online CoP environment and then eventually progress to a stage where active knowledge building takes place. Gilly Salmon (1998, 2000), of the U.K. Open University notes that there is a 5-step process or flow, which suggests how learners chronologically move through online community participation, and refers to monitoring and intervention more as ‘moderating’: 
    1. Access – members become familiar and comfortable with the technology and online environment. 
    2. Socialization – members have had an opportunity to meet and develop relationships with others. 
    3. Information Sharing – members are open and confident with the sharing of information and viewpoints. 
    4. Knowledge Construction – members actually reflect deeply on submissions, link issues together, and formulate conclusions. 
    5. Development and Value of Others as Moderators – less principle moderation and more member moderation encourages more active learning and knowledge sharing among the group. 
The need for a moderator's attentiveness to ensure that participants pass through these stages with ease is very important. Harasim (1995 [97]) refers to this as ‘process facilitation’. Some members may require more direct intervention until they can integrate with the group. Depending on the number of members online, this can be a very significant amount of time for the moderator(s). Most of the online courses I have facilitated or taken, had an average enrollment of about 15 to 25 students, which is about the same as a traditional classroom. This appears to be manageable, but opportunities for successful monitoring and prompting in a CoP could also depend on the domain and goals as much as the moderator's workload and enrollment size. 


By articulating their ideas online, CoP members can converse, then consider and reflect upon their own knowledge. This knowledge can be validated, built-on or challenged through sharing with others. In other words, a collaborative environment encourages learners to state their opinions and differences while constructing beliefs, meaning and knowledge.

Technology tools alone are usually a poor excuse for any solution, and with online communities, they do not always encourage or ensure adequate collaboration. Appropriate planning and facilitation is the key to developing a successful online community of practice. A variety of human factors including fostering useful purpose, and good observational technique and thoughtful responses by moderators can keep CoP activities and related dialogue context-relevant, and greatly increase opportunities for success. Peer review systems can help keep moderators on track. 


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Michael Shaw has over 25 years experience in media production and instructional technology, holds an MSc in Advanced Learning Technology, and is presently the  Education Consultant for the Canadian Institute of Health Information.