Communities of practice

"Learning communities and communities of practice play an interesting role in organizations...they are the bridging points between elearning and knowledge management. Expect to hear much more about this in learning environments (as well as social network analysis as a KM strategy). Traditional classroom learning has carried over to the online course model - learning has a starting point...and an ending point. In reality, our knowledge needs in our jobs are very unlike what we experience in classrooms. Our needs aren't clear...they arise as concerns and frustrations present themselves in our work. Course models of learning can't address this...we need a dynamic, reactionary learning community to meet our unpredictable needs. A course is static and it ends. A community is vibrant and it grows in reaction to the contributions and needs of its members. It's that simple." Fred Nickols (2000) (

"I have never claimed that online learning means being tied to a computer... the value of the medium is that it allows us to escape the classroom and live in the real world." Stephen Downes (2004). (

Collaborative learning rather obviously implies learning with others - which may be better than learning on one's own, but is not in itself a particularly exciting idea. Collaborative learning becomes powerful and exciting when it occurs in the context of a community of practice. A community of practice could be formed by a well-defined small group (such as a research group at a university) or a large amorphous collective (such as people involved in the discipline and profession of psychology) or anything in between. Such communities have, over time, developed a certain level of trust and evolved sets of assumptions, practices, hierarchies, and projects which enable their members to work together. In the real world we learn most in the process of becoming part of such a community and of contributing to what it is doing.

Communities of practice differ in how effective they are as learning communities. Some provide few opportunities for "legitimate peripheral practice" and thereby make it difficult for novices to gain entry and start making a worthwhile contribution to the community's work; others have many different ways for people to become involved at different levels of competence. Some blindly follow long-established traditions; others are more reflective about their own status and practices as a learning community.

In this context collaborative learning is not just another technique for "putting knowledge in people's heads", but about creating opportunities for gaining entry to (or re-defining one's role in) a community of practice; and about becoming more adept at the ways of the community in the process of making a real contribution to the community's work.

In A Guide to managing knowledge: Cultivating communities of Practice, Wenger, McDermont and Synder (2002) define communities of practice (COP) as having the following characteristics:

  • Groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interaction on an ongoing basis
  • Typically share information, insight and advise; help each other solve problems; discuss situations; their aspirations and their needs; ponder common issues; explore ideas; and act as sounding boards; may create documents
  • They are informally bound by the value they find in learning together
  • The value they derive is not merely instrumental but also adds to the personal satisfaction of knowing others who share/understand your perspective
  • Their sense of identity is created through interactions and exchanges over time, which continually combine the personal/social and instrumental/business concerns of members
  • They may create a "body of knowledge, practices and approaches" (5).
  • Their tangible outcomes,which include reports, documents and improved skills, usually links them directly to their legitimacy. However, their intanglibles such as sense of trust; increased ability to innovate; relationships and intimacy they build amongst people; sense of belonging they create; spirit of enquiry; professional confidence;identity they confer to members;pockets of support created; ability to transcend multiple boundries both within and outside one's organisation, become especially important towards building a sense of community among participants.

Important to note is that COP are:

  • important sites of knowledge development and accumulation
  • house and support the living nature of knowledge
  • provide a different approach to providing knowledge 
  • value is derived from learning both formally and informally from each other
  • have both tangible and intangible outcomes
  • over time, can develop a sense of identity

Quick overview

Christopher Johnson has created a collection of quick visual overviews of community of practice terms and concepts.

Further reading

Examples of communities of practice / learning communties

  • Indigenation is a nice example of a collaborative learning project where students play an actively role in creating (rather than just consuming) learning materials. It focusses on First Nation Studies. Have a look at the "student-generated learning objects".
  • The Learning Communities Catalyst site has a list of geographically-based learning communities in Australia. (Plus another list).


The Australian Learning Communities Catalyst site has a page of definitions of what is meant by learning community.

Communities of purpose

In Lessons from the anthill, Jason Lefkowitz (2001) makes an interesting distinction between communities of purpose (people who come together to achieve a common goal) and communities of practice.

While Wenger, McDermont and Synder (2002) make a similar seperation between communities of intention and communities of practice.


Collaborative learning environments sourcebook

Links and portals
    Classic texts
    Journals and magazines