February 25, 2017

The role of communities of practice in a digital age

Bank of America's Vital Voices progam links women executives of small and medium sized enterprises  Image: © Belfast Telegraph, 2014

Bank of America’s Vital Voices progam links women executives of small and medium sized enterprises from around the world
Image: © Belfast Telegraph, 2014

The story so far

I have published the first five chapters of my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘.  I am now working on Chapter 6, ‘Models for Designing Teaching and Learning.’

In my last three posts I discussed respectively the appropriateness for a digital age of the classroom model, the ADDIE model, and the competency-based learning model. In this post, I explore the learning model based on communities of practice.

The theories behind communities of practice

The design of teaching often integrates different theories of learning. Communities of practice are one of the ways in which experiential learning, social constructivism, and connectivism can be combined, illustrating the limitations of trying to rigidly classify learning theories. Practice tends to be more complex.

What are communities of practice?


Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.

Wenger, 2014

The basic premise behind communities of practice is simple: we all learn in everyday life from the communities in which we find ourselves. Communities of practice are everywhere. Nearly everyone belongs to some community of practice, whether it is through our working colleagues or associates, our profession or trade, or our leisure interests, such as a book club. Wenger (2000) argues that a community of practice is different from a community of interest or a geographical community in that it involves a shared practice: ways of doing things that are shared to some significant extent among members.

Wenger argues that there are three crucial characteristics of a community of practice:

  • domain: a common interest that connects and holds together the community
  • community: a community is bound by the shared activities they pursue (for example, meetings, discussions) around their common domain
  • practice: members of a community of practice are practitioners; what they do informs their participation in the community; and what they learn from the community affects what they do.

Wenger (2000) has argued that although individuals learn through participation in a community of practice, more important is the generation of newer or deeper levels of knowledge through the sum of the group activity. If the community of practice is centered around business processes, for instance, this can be of considerable benefit to an organization. Smith (2003) notes that:

…communities of practice affect performance..[This] is important in part because of their potential to overcome the inherent problems of a slow-moving traditional hierarchy in a fast-moving virtual economy. Communities also appear to be an effective way for organizations to handle unstructured problems and to share knowledge outside of the traditional structural boundaries. In addition, the community concept is acknowledged to be a means of developing and maintaining long-term organizational memory.

Brown and Duguid (2000) describe a community of practice developed around the Xerox customer service representatives who repaired the machines in the field. The Xerox reps began exchanging tips and tricks over informal meetings at breakfast or lunch and eventually Xerox saw the value of these interactions and created the Eureka project to allow these interactions to be shared across the global network of representatives. The Eureka database has been estimated to have saved the corporation $100 million. Companies such as Google and Apple are encouraging communities of practice through the sharing of knowledge across their many specialist staff.

Technology provides a wide range of tools that can support communities of practice, as indicated by Wenger (2010) in the diagram below:

Image: © Etienne Wenger, 2010

Designing effective communities of practice

Most communities of practice have no formal design and tend to be self-organising systems. They have a natural life cycle, and come to an end when they no longer serve the needs of the community. However, there is now a body of theory and research that has identified actions that can help sustain and improve the effectiveness of communities of practice.

 Wenger, McDermott and Snyder (2002) have identified seven key design principles for creating effective and self-sustaining communities of practice, related specifically to the management of the community, although the ultimate success of a community of practice will be determined by the activities of the members of the community themselves. Designers of a community of practice need to:

  1. Design for evolution: ensuring that the community can evolve and shift in focus to meet the interests of the participants without moving too far from the common domain of interest
  2. Open a dialogue between inside and outside perspectives: encourage the introduction and discussion of new perspectives that come or are brought in from outside the community of practice
  3. Encourage and accept different levels of participation, The strength of participation varies from participant to participant. The ‘core’ (most active members) are those who participate regularly. There are others who follow the discussions or activities but do not take a leading role in making active contributions. Then there are those (likely the majority) who are on the periphery of the community but may become more active participants if the activities or discussions start to engage them more fully. All these levels of participation need to be accepted and encouraged within the community.
  4. Develop both public and private community spaces: communities of practice are strengthened if they encourage individual or group activities that are more personal or private as well as the more public general discussions; for instance, individuals may decide to blog about their activities, or in a larger online community of practice a small group that live or work close together may also decide to meet informally on a face-to-face basis
  5. Focus on value. Attempts should be made explicitly to identify, through feedback and discussion, the contributions that the community most values, then focus the discussion and activities around these issues.
  6. Combine familiarity and excitement, by focusing both on shared, common concerns and perspectives, but also by introducing radical or challenging perspectives for discussion or action
  7. Create a rhythm for the community: there needs to be a regular schedule of activities or focal points that bring participants together on a regular basis, within the constraints of participants’ time and interests.

Subsequent research has identified a number of critical factors that influence the effectiveness of participants in communities of practice, These include being:

  • aware of social presence: individuals need to feel comfortable in engaging socially with other professionals or ‘experts’ in the domain, and those with greater knowledge must be willing to share in a collegial manner that respects the views and knowledge of other participants (social presence is defined as the awareness of others in an interaction combined with an appreciation of the interpersonal aspects of that interaction.)
  • motivated to share information for the common good of the community
  • able and willing to collaborate.

EDUCAUSE has developed a step-by-step guide for designing and cultivating communities of practice in higher education (Cambridge, Kaplan and Suter, 2005).

Lastly, research on other related sectors, such as collaborative learning or MOOCs, can inform the design and development of communities of practice. For instance, communities of practice need to balance between structure and chaos: too much structure and many participants are likely to feel constrained in what they need to discuss; too little structure and participants can quickly lose interest or become overwhelmed.

Many of the other findings about group and online behaviour, such as the need to respect others, observing online etiquette, and preventing certain individuals from dominating the discussion, are all likely to apply. However, because many communities of practice are by definition self-regulating, establishing rules of conduct and even more so enforcing them is really a responsibility of the participants themselves.

Learning through communities of practice in a digital age

Communities of practice are a powerful manifestation of informal learning. They generally evolve naturally to address commonly shared interests and problems. By their nature, they tend to exist outside formal educational organisations. Participants are not usually looking for formal qualifications, but to address issues in their life and to be better at what they do. Furthermore, communities of practice are not dependent on any particular medium; participants may meet face-to-face socially or at work, or they can participate in online or virtual communities of practice.

It should be noted that communities of practice can be very effective in a digital world, where the working context is volatile, complex, uncertain and ambiguous.  A large part of the lifelong learning market will become occupied by communities of practice and self-learning, through collaborative learning, sharing of knowledge and experience, and crowd-sourcing new ideas and development. Such informal learning provision will be particularly valuable for non-governmental or charitable organizations, such as the Red Cross, Greenpeace or UNICEF, or local government, looking for ways to engage communities in their areas of operation.

These communities of learners will be open and free, and hence will provide a competitive alternative to the high priced lifelong learning programs being offered by research universities. This will put pressure on universities and colleges to provide more flexible arrangements for recognition of informal learning, in order to hold on to their current monopoly of post-secondary accreditation.

One of the significant developments in recent years has been the use of massive open online courses (MOOCs) for developing online communities of practice. To date the focus of the majority of MOOCs from providers such as Coursera, Udacity and edX, has been on academic ‘courses’, on topics such as artificial intelligence or dinosaurs, which do have a widespread interest. However, these more instructionist MOOCs are not really developed as communities of practice, because  they use mainly a transmissive pedagogy, from experts to those considered less expert. Even though there may be massive numbers participating in online forums, they are not constructed to maximise the contributions from the participants (despite the fact that most MOOC participants already have high levels of education.). Indeed there is evidence that in really large instructionist MOOCs, participants feel overwhelmed by the magnitude and lack of structuring of the participant contributions (see for instance Knox, 2014).

In comparison, connectivist MOOCs are an ideal way to bring together specialists scattered around the world to focus on a common interest or domain. Connectivist MOOCs are much closer to being virtual communities of practice, in that they put much more emphasis on sharing knowledge between more or less equal participants. However, current connectivist MOOCs do not always incorporate what research indicates are best practices for developing communities of practice, and those wanting to establish a virtual community of practice at the moment need some kind of MOOC provider to get them started and give them access to the necessary MOOC software.

In the long run, MOOCs need to evolve to the point where it is possible for those with a common interest to easily create their own open, online communities of practice. As open source MOOC platforms evolve, it should become easier for people without computer science degrees to create and more importantly manage their own MOOCs, without having to go through a MOOC provider such as Coursera or edX. Also, there are other simpler tools, such as wikis, or more complex ones, such as virtual worlds, that may in the long run have more potential for virtual communities of practice created and organised by the participants themselves.

Although communities of practice are likely to become more rather than less important in a digital age, it is probably a mistake to think of them as a replacement for traditional forms of education. There is no single, ‘right’ approach to the design of teaching. Different groups have different needs. Communities of practice are more of an alternative for certain kinds of learners, such as lifelong learners, and are likely to work best when participants already have some domain knowledge and can contribute personally and in a constructive manner – which suggests the need for at least some form of prior general education or training for those participating in effective communities of practice.

In conclusion, it is clear is that in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world, and given the openness of the Internet, the social media tools now available, and the need for sharing of knowledge on a global scale, virtual communities of practice will become even more common and important. Smart educators and trainers will look to see how they can harness the strength of this design model, particularly for lifelong learning. However, merely lumping together large numbers of people with a common interest is unlikely to lead to effective learning.  Attention needs to be paid to those design principles that lead to effective communities of practice.

Over to you

Once again, I’m not an expert on communities of practice, so feedback on what I have written on this model of learning will be much appreciated. In particular:

  • Have a got it wrong? Are their important elements missing?
  • Is there good research on the design of communities of practice that I have missed?
  • Do you agree that they are NOT a replacement for other forms of education?
  • Can you really design a community of practice or do they just evolve naturally? If so, what conditions are needed for success other than those already discussed in this post?
  • How would you evaluate the success of a community of practice? What would you look for? How could this be identified or described?

I would love to hear from anyone who has attempted to create communities of practice and what design elements they would recommend.


Brown, J. and Duguid, Paul (2000). “Balancing act: How to capture knowledge without killing it”Harvard Business Review.

Cambridge, D., Kaplan, S. and Suter, V. (2005) Community of Practice Design Guide Louisville  CO: EDUCAUSE

Knox, J. (2004) Digital culture clash: “massive” education in the E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC Distance Education, Vol. 35, No. 2

Wenger, E. (2000) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press

Wenger, E. (2014) Communities of practice: a brief introduction, accessed 26 September, 2014

Wenger, E, McDermott, R., and Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice (Hardcover). Harvard Business Press; 1 edition.



  1. Mohsen Saadatmand says:

    Hi Tony,

    Good to read your thoughts on CoP in regards to MOOCs. I am PhD student at the University of Helsinki Finland, working on learning ecology of connectivist MOOCs in my dissertation research. I have been engaged in MOOC since 2010 (as a participant in many MOOCs and as a researcher). At the moment I working on a paper about “communities of interest” in cMOOCs. How different communities of interest are formed and developed by participants in connectivist MOOCs and what educational activities and experiences result from participation and membership in such communities? Although CoP and CoI are sometimes invoked interchangeably but the focus and structure are distinctive that CoI seems to be loosely organized and gather a group of people around some common interest and to share information and experiences. Such CoI could be seen in cMOOCs in various forms such as Facebook groups, social bookmarks and especially Twitter #hashtags where information about a specific topic is shared extensively. I would really like to develop the concept of CoI in cMOOCs and I appreciate any suggestions or comments in this regard.

    • Many thanks, Mohsen. George Siemens or Stephen Downes can probably comment better on this, but your research focus is very interesting. I suspect that in most MOOCs there is a lot of sub-group activity going on (even in instructionist or xMOOCs,but particularly in cMOOCs) which may well be a most important form of learner support. What are needed are tools that can track the connections between participants, and then identify the nature of the activities/communications within these sub-groups. There are ethical problems in doing this, unless participants have signed a general waver regarding the right of researchers to collect this kind of data, but an alternative might be to choose several small groups you have identified and ask participants if you can join as an action researcher within the groups. I think you have both an interesting research challenge and an interesting topic here!

    • arefe bahrami says:

      hi Mohsen . how can I call with you or have your e.mail ?
      I m university student of tehran .my Thesis is about community of practice .
      I like to aske you some qestion .
      this is my e.mail abahramif23@gmail.com

  2. Hello Tony:
    I read your post with interest as Wenger’s work on Communities of Practice was a theoretical approach that I explored extensively during my graduate year in 1998. I’ve just recently been introduced to the Community of Inquiry framework of Garrison et al 2000, which details the three presences required to build a cohesive community online. I think that the Community of Practice is suited to some academic endeavours, especially with students further along in their studies. I think the Community of Inquiry brings a cohesiveness to the community and is an excellent framework for newer students who need the structure and guidelines that the Community of Inquiry offers.
    I believe there is a lot of flexibility between the use of these two perspectives but I also think that when certain academic outcomes MUST be met, that the Community of Inquiry will provide the parameters within which ALL students in a particular course can be successful. Because typically when students are expected to do group work in an online course, all students are expected to be fully engaged in the community.
    The Community of Practice does allow for more flexibility with the ways in which the members of the community interact and you’ve brought many of those examples into your write-up.
    I’m enjoying looking at these two related perspectives and seeing how they work in various environments. Thanks for this excellent post! I’ll be interested to see other feedback on this.

    Adrienne Sehatzadeh
    Instructional Designer
    Centre for Learning & Teaching
    Dalhousie University

    • Many thanks for this, Adrienne – very helpful. You are correct, I really need to include Garrison’s work on Community of Inquiry within the book. I will work out where best to include this and how to relate it to Communities of Practice. Thanks for reminding me of this.

  3. A few comments on MOOCs, Tony. I have enjoyed reading your book draft thus far and we’ve had some good offline discussions.

    I am currently rewriting my 2012 book: Learning Theory and Online Technologies so there is a nice parallel in our focus. The major change in the 2nd edition of my book will be adding a new chapter: Connectivism as a Theory of Learning.

    I’ll present my arguments and look forward to responses from you or other readers.

    One of the things that baffles me about the whole MOOC phenomenon is the “magical thinking” that surrounds this concept and its various articulations.

    Big Guy MOOC (the holy grail) and the xMOOC Silicon Valley chorus line have generated huge media press and even greater investor appetite. Venture capital keeps the feeding frenzy as frantic as ever. Even professors and teachers who will lose their jobs as a result of xMOOC robotization, or the public who will lose our major democratizing institution, public education, seem unfazed or unaware of the implications. This is one powerful example of magical thinking that you and I have both discussed.

    But, why have cMOOCs generated a similar form of magical thinking, that suggests that xMOOCs are the bad guys who will replace teachers with technology, whereas cMOOCs are some kind of community-spirited good guys?

    Tony, you posit the possibility of cMOOCs as somehow relevant and even positive for communities of practice, but you provide no example. Nor do you consider the implications.

    This thinking is misleading and wrong. cMOOCs are in fact made of the same stuff as xMOOCs: both are based on a view of technology, particularly artificial intelligence, machine learning, and neural networks, as key participants (along with human beings) in a learning “network”.

    Siemens and Downes argue that connectivism represents a new view of learning in one unique way: learning occurs not only by humans but also by technologies. In his 2004 post, Siemens notes one of the principles of connectivism is that: “Learning may reside in non-human appliances.” (p. 4)

    Siemens and Downes propound a disturbing quality to technology, one in which technology becomes an active participant in the learning process. And not merely an active participant but inevitably superior agent. The kind of network technology that Siemens and Downes refer to is advanced Artificial Intelligence, in which technology has become sentient-like and is enabled to make decisions that impact on the human “participants”. Human-like AI already exists and is being introduced into all social, cultural, economic and political sectors in society. Education is an immense target, because education shapes how and what humans think and how we engage in understanding and changing our world. Humans have hitherto shaped technology; now we are at a place where technology can profoundly shape us. And Siemens and Downes are promoting the latter scenario.

    Connectivism, Siemens argues, is unique because it acknowledges technology as a player in network learning:
    “A central tenet of most learning theories is that learning occurs inside a person. Even social constructivist views, which hold that learning is a socially enacted process, promotes the principality of the individual (and her/his physical presence – i.e. brain-based) in learning. These theories do not address learning that occurs outside of people (i.e. learning that is stored and manipulated by technology).” (2004)

    Dave Cormier describes how the CCK08 course (that many refer to as the first MOOC) would function.
    “We had two discussion on edtechtalk about the course before things actually kicked off…(sic) We had George, Stephen, Alec Couros and Leigh Blackall come out and share their opinions on the topic…. The upshot of it was that it really was going to be an open course, and the instructors were going to allow the students to form whatever groups they might be interested in and they would provide the communication stream but not the organizational scaffolding.”

    Students could “form whatever groups they might be interested in” and instructors “would provide the communication stream but not the organizational scaffolding”. Siemens and Downes expected that somehow 2,000 participants should self-manage their learning by forming interest groups: how would or could 2000 strangers meet and self-organize into functioning learning groups? How would each individual know how to identify their interests? what topics or tags to post? How to interact? This was not “Scaffolded” by the ‘instructors’. What Siemens and Downes relied upon was the magic of linking “communication streams”, using RSS feeds. Student learning for CCK08 was to be managed by RSS feeds. And no other organizational support or facilitation.

    Bad pedagogy we might argue, but increasingly pedagogy loses relevance to technology, if one follows the courseware/AI path of MOOCs (xMOOCs and cMOOcs).

    Learning that is outside of humans is now possible through AI. Moreover, network technology based on AI is not just a player, but possibly the major or deciding participant in network learning. The emphasis on the kind of learning that occurs outside of humans, i.e. learning that is stored and manipulated by technology, is key to understanding where Siemens is headed. Siemens gives technology a much more active role than storing learning: MANIPULATING not merely mediating the learning.

    This is key.

    It is key to what defines an xMOOC and it is key to what defines a cMOOC: the ultimate organizer and decision-maker in the learning network (whether formal or non-formal) is that artificial intelligence (neural networks) replace the teacher or the moderator or the organizer. Technology replaces the human who is making the decisions and organizing the interactions. Human participants in the ‘learning network’ are now controlled by algorithms that are totally outside our knowledge or control.

    And cMOOCs are not cuter or more cuddly or more communal than xMOOCs because at the end of the day they will all be controlled by non-human algorithms (which are written by the digerati); if we go along with these approaches, we will have abandoned our civilizational conversations, controls and roles over to the digital zillionaires…those who own and control the technology.

    • Hi, Linda
      First, thanks for an extremely thoughtful and even more passionate comment, well worthy of a blog post on its own. I delayed replying deliberately, in particular to see how Stephen Downes or George Siemens might respond. I’ll respond to Stephen’s comment separately.
      First, as you know, I share completely your views on the magical thinking behind xMOOCs, as originally conceived (the qualifier is important, because MOOCs are still evolving). So the issue between us is the value of cMOOCs. While I think that these too tend to be overhyped by proponents, they do offer a more humanistic and potentially valuable contribution to lifelong learning, but not necessarily in the way claimed by proponents such as George Siemens.
      I don’t think it is accurate to state that cMOOCs are controlled or driven by algorithms. My experience of #Change11 was that the pedagogy was in fact very traditional, with different experts contributing each week in a medium of their choice (usually a webinar), with participants commenting through their own blog posts, Twitter comments or other social media. The technology used (apart from the registration software) was mainly fairly unsophisticated software to create links between different contributions from participants, so you could see who else was commenting on the same topics, through the use of a common ‘tab’, #Change 11.
      However, this did result in what I would call individualistic rather than collaborative learning – each participant either browsing other comments or making their own posts, but rarely was an in-depth argument developed by participants, or structured or organized by an ‘expert,’ certainly nothing like the threaded discussions often found in credit and LMS-based courses, and certainly not the kind of scaffolded discussions that you argue for in your work. So there are questions in my mind about how deep the learning is and how much it leads to real changes in understanding.
      However, one could also make the same criticism of communities of practice as a whole. They are entirely dependent on the participants themselves and what they bring to the discussions and activities. If they don’t want to really engage and change their thinking, then they won’t.
      However, I think there is a danger in comparing apples with oranges. cMOOCs and other communities of practice have a different purpose than formal education, and in most cases a very different target group. CoP’s purpose is to provide comfort and support for people with a common area of interest or concern. If that leads to changes they are comfortable with, then that’s fine, and group pressure may push them a little beyond their comfort zone, but not too far. The whole group may advance as a result of combined learning but there is no guarantee of that.
      Formal education is different. Knowledge and performance is less negotiable. Standards are set (we may argue about these) but if these standards are not met, then students fail.
      I think CoP’s (and with them, cMOOCs) are fine for those already with a high level of education, who already have standards of logic, evidence-based thinking, and inter-subjectivity (the ability to see and respect alternative viewpoints). But if participants as a group don’t have these ‘standards’ then CoPs easily degenerate into ranting love-ins between likeminded individuals.
      So once again, in education we come back to ‘it all depends.’ cMOOCs and CoP’s can be both good and bad – just as formal education can be. We need to focus on the conditions for success.
      However, I fully support and agree with your more general point about the dangers of AI and algorithmic thinking in education. I have been following the development of AI applications in education since the mid-1980s, and a longer track record of failure would be hard to find. The problem is that the human brain and human behaviour do not operate in the same ways as computers. Sure they both have networks, but that is an analogy, not an isomorphic replication. In particular, the leading brain researchers are very careful about linking their research directly to specific human behaviour – there are too many intervening variables to make such links. In the meantime, we have nearly 100 years of research into how humans actually learn – we should be drawing on that, not on what advanced computers might do – in developing our teaching methods.

  4. To Mohsen Saadatmand: there is indeed significant overlap between communities of interest and cMOOCs and the underlying mechanisms are the same. The difference between the communities and the MOOCs is that the former are persistent while the latter are occasional. Thus, the two play different roles: the communities embed knowledge and standardize practice, while the MOOCs disrupt existing patternss of thinking and indroduce people to new connections and new ideas.

    To Linda Harasim: interesting and engaging comment. I do not think that artificial intelligence will be in any particular way better than human intelligence. But I think that anything that is a network – and this includes networks of machines as well as networks of humans or networks of neurons – can develop intelligence. There is substantial evidence to suggest that this is true, and I think it is no longer sufficient to suggest that the theory is simply an instance of “magical thinking.”

    Take one particular point you make, for example. You write: “iemens and Downes expected that somehow 2,000 participants should self-manage their learning by forming interest groups: how would or could 2000 strangers meet and self-organize into functioning learning groups? How would each individual know how to identify their interests?” The suggestion that this is impossible, that strangers could not self-organize, is refuted by reams of evidence. From tag-based communities to clusters on interest groups on Google Groups to the threads in Metafilter and 4chan, people have shown a remarkable ability to self-organize. And the research on our MOOCs (and even some xMOOCs) shows that this happens in MOOCs as well, and that these self-organizations have a learning focus.

    But I also think you misunderstand the role of technology in cMOOCs. You write, “the ultimate organizer and decision-maker in the learning network (whether formal or non-formal) is that artificial intelligence (neural networks) replace the teacher or the moderator or the organizer. Technology replaces the human who is making the decisions and organizing the interactions.” This is simply not true, and nothing I have developed or advocated leans this way.

    Technology makes learning networks possible; technology creates the channels through which people can interact, but it is people – each one of them making their own decisions – who choose what to read, what to link to, what to create, what to say. The ultimate organizers and decision makers in the learning network are students.

    Can machines learn? Sure they can, of course they can, anything that is networked can learn. Simple stupid neurons, when joined together, can learn. So can simple stupid computers. But the most interesting results happen when you take networks of humans and, instead of telling them what to do, enable them to make decisions for themselves. Now you have networks of learning networks. You get remarkable results, like memes, cat photos, and maybe, global democracy. And it’s not magic. It’s the simple, observable, science of networks.

    • Stephen: thanks for your comments. Let me respond to some of the points you make.
      1. networks can develop intelligence and machines can learn. I don’t disagree with either of these statements. The question is though what is meant by intelligence and whether it is the same or different from human intelligence. Second, should we hand over human decisions to machine intelligence? The answer of course will depend on what kind of decisions. I’m already fighting with my new car as to when the doors should be locked and when the engine should be switched off. Heaven help us if machines start deciding what is important to learn.
      Also, while machines can learn, they cannot learn, at least yet, the kinds of learning we want from students. Maybe this will happen sometime in the future (if we decide this is a good thing) but at present the reality is that machines are still learning mainly simple automated processes and not the higher level learning that humans can do so well.

      2. Sure, strangers can self-organise, but not very well under the chaotic conditions of many MOOCs. For every group that manages to find a way to connect meaningfully to learn from each other, there are many more individuals in MOOCs who are extremely frustrated by the randomness and chaos of connections. It doesn’t have to be this way. A lot is known about group behaviour and group learning, what works and what doesn’t. This knowledge about group learning, and particularly online collaborative learning, needs to be applied to MOOCs. Ensuring groups have a proper balance between novices and experts would be a start, and creating groups that are not so large that each participant is overwhelmed is something else that should be tried.

      3. ” MOOCs disrupt existing patterns of thinking and introduce people to new connections and new ideas.” That could be said about any community of practice (as distinct from community of interest.) The issue though is whether this disruption of thinking actually occurs. This will depend very much on the nature of the participants and what they are looking for. The problem is that learning is often a difficult process that needs not only hard work on the part of the learner but also often challenges strongly held beliefs or prior knowledge or assumptions. This comes back to my arguments that academic knowledge is fundamentally different from everyday knowledge. It has to meet certain requirements or standards. Without some basis of authority, or some guidance – the role of a teacher – then discussions aimed at increasing learning easily degenerate into swapping of opinions, and the ‘disruption’ that both you and I are seeking fails to materialise. This is why Linda’s guidance on the roles of a teacher in developing the kind of conversations that do challenge students to rethink fundamental positions is so important. Just putting large numbers of participants into a common space and hoping that they will sort this out for themselves is naive or magical thinking at its most extreme.

      My argument is not against cMOOCs, but politely suggesting that applying 20 years of research in online learning and 100 years of research on how humans learn could make them a lot more effective.

  5. I agree with “Network technology based on AI is not just a player, but possibly the major or deciding participant in network learning” , Linda Harasim.
    The mediation of personal connections through algorithms allows for any kind of algorithmic bias, or worse intentional manipulation, for profit.
    I asked Matt Crosslin about this over at his blog, since he is implementing a tool to help learners switch between xMOOCs and cMOOCs:
    It won’t take long to hear some idealist cMOOC proponents say “but that’s not what we wanted, we wanted the web to be an enabler, we even had a vision statement that went against this”, but that view is too narrow, and doesn’t account for commercial interests: inevitably this technology will be perverted, for profit.

  6. Some of the issues that are of concern to me:

    a) There is an increasing spread between the level of knowledge, competencies and interest of individuals (let’s drop the term “students”) who join, sample, and complete a MOOC (x, c or alt) Thus, as we know, from xMOOC’s persons will selectively take what they find useful and some even complete the course. I am not sanguine that, as in on-line discussions, persons in a cMOOC don’t have similar propensities when they lurk or are selective participants, active or passive.

    There seems to be some evidence that attaching a cost to these, now MOC’s, changes behavior. How, I think the results are still out. I am not familiar as to what the idea of “credit”, badges or certificates do as motivators in x, c or alt virtual space.

    b) While much of the discussion, here, has been on the “evolution” of AI, for a segment of individuals who are seeking a degree, or certificate, as with conventional FtF classes, the argument here seems to be that conforming to a faculty member in a FtF class to receive a grade trumps the same behavior in response to an AI “agent”. That seems to have a strong “luddite” ring to it. Is a hand-crafted and delivered course of greater merit than the alternative. Then we need to ask the question as to whether education 101 offered by a faculty member at Harvard or Oxford of a greater or lesser value to one offered by faculty member at “x-university” in Vancouver, BC or Kampala Uganda. Who is to judge? We know that students graduating from various institutions have a spread of capabilities and competencies. Who certifies? Watson and his team from IBM or a team of humans?

    This is more than an issue between humans and AI as faculty. It calls the question of humans vs humans and whether AI may, in instances, offer a better and lower cost alternative to “adjuncts” with or without Ph.D.’s and a host of other issues. Focusing on AI is a misdirection, at best, or an avoidance, which has existed for too long, of the larger issues at hand.

    c) X,c, or alt versions of MOOC’s are still vestiges of credit-hour, course-based, degree programs. In the wild west of education, today, with no pre-requisites, collecting credits still reigns, regardless of the format or how individuals participate and as long as the seat-time requirements are met. Competency-based programs where individuals demonstrate mastery (however defined, including interactive activities) are a major step. Unfortunately, this could lead to a differentiation between individuals with a higher level of preparation and competency entering these experiences. This starts to maintain and even increase the differentiation between the currently educationally disenfranchised and those, due to a variety of factors are educationally advantaged. The form of the learning experience can only compensate for the spread whether in small, hand-crafted, classes or larger formats be they live lecture halls or AI driven on-line experiences.

    Epigenetics tells us that the issue starts prior to conception and is impacted by many factors, including nutrition. To argue the issues around methods of delivery seems to be a default, like a person seeing all as nails and then having only a tool box with a choice of hammers.

    • Many thanks, Tom – great comments.
      For me, one of the very good things about MOOCs is that it is forcing some deep questions about assessment and the award of qualifications. The problem is that the status of institutions is by and large judged by their research activities, and not so much by the quality of their teaching, as can be seen by most of the world university rankings, which include almost no parameters on teaching.
      The assumption though that good research = good teaching is now being challenged by MOOCs. We have seen some really good researchers publicly offering appalling teaching (as well as some who do lecturing really well – which still begs the question.)
      Perhaps in the long run institutions should be judged by the quality of their assessment – do their assessment methods measure critical thinking, problem-solving, originality – rather than by the brand name of the institution. This then raises the bar for AI.
      I have no problem with AI in principle assisting or even replacing human assessment so long as it can meet the criteria I have suggested. As they say, if a teacher can be replaced by a computer, he/she should be replaced by a computer. So far though AI has shown no signs yet of competing at measuring that higher level of level – but then, neither have institutions themselves been able to demonstrate those criteria for assessment effectively, other than through their brand status (‘Just trust us – we know what we are doing.’).

  7. Tony writes: “if a teacher can be replaced by a computer, he/she should be replaced by a computer.” Hello? Really? wtf?

    Add teachers to the endangered professions list that is being racked up by a handful of companies investing in robotization of the workforce, especially Google.

    Doctors, surgeons, dentists, reporters, nurses, healthcare staff, writers, cooks, engineers, software developers, chefs, drivers, teachers…

    Why should these professions and forms of employment be replaced by robots? Because they can be? Then why do we need a human race, if a handfull of zillionaires are creating machines to replace humans?

    And why would we go along? Tony, I think there are times when humans and societies have to say NO! This is clearly such a time.

    • Yes, really. I think you missed the point I am making. Basically, computers manage quite well some very low-level, time-consuming teaching activities, such as delivering content and assessing student’s comprehension or memory of facts, principles, or procedures. But this is not where teachers should be focusing. They should be focusing on developing critical thinking skills, good communication skills, creative thinking, social behaviour, ethics, evaluating qualitative student activities, etc., etc., all the things that computers are useless in doing. Thus if a teacher can be replaced by a computer, it will be because they are not doing the things that human teachers should be focusing on.
      Will computers (or more likely, networks of computers) in the future be able to do these high level activities better than a human teacher? I very much doubt it – they are no way close at the moment.
      I agree with you that we need to have a more general conversation about the role of people in work – all kinds – and the need fo redistribution of financial reward through the use of automation of work activities by the major high tech companies, but despite all the hype around MOOCs and AI in education, they are currently useless for developing the knowledge and skills and values needed in a modern society. We need teachers even more than ever. But let’s focus on what really matters and leave computers to do the rest.

  8. “Let’s focus on what really matters and let computers do the rest”. I completely agree and recently presented a paper called: Teachers! Do What Robots Can’t!

    What I meant to point out in my previous comment was that computers ARE currently being developed to replace teachers regardless of what we do. Not immediately but soon. ANd I think that we should not joke about it. Perhaps I am just think-skinned at the moment, but I find it tiring and scary to hear teachers put down our field (I am not accusing you of that…). Talk to the public (and even educators) about MOOCs and the rise of AI, and far too many will make remarks like, well ‘we’ll finally get some intelligence in education’.

    It is too easy to take pot shots at education and educators; somehow the message being sent to the public by the for-profits and by politicians is that “education is broken” and technology and private enterprise will fix it.

    So, just saying to your readers, TOny, that we need to protect the good stuff that education and educators do. Our field is no more broken than engineering or management or banking.

    ANd frankly, I have never met a teacher who was as bad at teaching, as the computer.

    Thanks for the opportunitties to have these discussions which are so important to our field. More on MOOCs in a few days. Am enjoying your posts for the moment!

  9. Hi Tony…

    I am currently in the midst of analyzing my own thesis research and I was so excited to see how you pulled through communities of practice in the digital age. I agree communities of inquiry is a necessary addition.

    I found the graphic a much needed visual to help process my thinking… I am wondering if the exclusion of blogs, the process of blogging was a mere oversight?

    For myself, as a professionals they have been a critical piece to my thinking as learning as an educator. Blogs have become a huge component of how we connect & learn from each other. To me, blogging embodies all the elements that Wenger speaks to in better understanding the model and the three characteristics of community.

    Would love to hear your thoughts.

    • Hi, Jana
      Thanks for your comment. The diagram of course is not mine but Etienne Wenger’s, as indicated. I hadn’t noticed until you pointed it out that he had included wikis and Twitter but not blogs. I don’t know if that was intentional or accidental. (Perhaps you should ask him!)

      Of course, I also believe that blogs are an important contributor to communities of practice. I find my blog provides an invaluable connection to many working in the field whom I would have not got to know otherwise, and who have provided me with alternative views or criticisms that have informed my practice. (I’m always surprised when I meet people in often the most unexpected circumstances who have read my blog). Similarly I am equally helped in my own practice by my admittedly selective choice of blogs to follow.

      Good luck with your thesis – I’d love to have the chance to review it when completed,

      best regards

  10. Hi Tony,

    A very thought-provoking post. One I’ll definitely use when I discuss the challenges of learning design, especially in the context of MOOCs.

    There’s another dimension to the link between learning design and community of inquiry. This goes back to Shon’s ideas about professional practice, and the duality of design as iterative problem solving and inquiry. In a way, it goes back to Dewey’s ideas of collaborative inquiry.

    If you think of teachers’ work as essentially designing learning experiences, in the sense of opportunities for growth, and put that in the context of a rapidly changing world – then ideally teachers should be engaged in continuous professional development through communities of inquiry. This inquiry should be driven by questions that go beyond understanding how the world is – to asking how to make it better, how to use the resources at hand to improve learners’ world. In other words, inquiry based on Simon’s model of design science.

    This is the rationale behind the SNaP! approach to Learning Design, and it’s projection into teachers’ professional development, in the form of the Design Inquiry of Learning methodology and the Learning Design Studio framework – http://www.yishaymor.org/lds.

    I believe this is also close to Diana Laurillard’s thinking in her latest book, and in the building community knowledge project https://buildingcommunityknowledge.wordpress.com/

    The link to MOOCs is that the ideal of designing communities of design inquiry of learning was the guiding principle of the OLDS (open learning design studio, http://www.olds.ac.uk/) and the handsonICT (http://handsonict.eu/) MOOCs.


    • Many thanks, Yishay, for a very helpful and informative comment.

      I am aware of and influenced by Donald Schon’s work, and should have included a reference to his work. Also of course as a former colleague of Diana’s, our thinking is very close, particularly on the nature of academic knowledge and how it is best acquired. I hope readers interested in the Community of Inquiry approach will follow up on your suggested links

  11. Good Day, Tony!

    In case you have not come across it already, take a look at the Peeragogy Handbook, by Howard Rheingold and Friends: http://peeragogy.org/

    This really has nothing to do with MOOC’s, but it does inform about Communities of Interest, and where the interest is Learning to Learn, Communities of Practice.

    “Netizen Peer Learning in the Age of the Smartphone” is how I have come to appreciate the modern version of informal learning communities.



  12. Saeed Umar Ahmad says:

    I would like to know if I could have any materials in relation to role and use of community of practice in facilitating knowledge sharing in hospital in Africa or west africa- Nigeria.

    Thank you,
    Ahmad Saeed Umar

  13. Gladson Ford says:

    Communities of practice are professional identities formed and shared (Wenger, 1999). Research supervisors belong to several communities of practice. They will be members of a wider community of academics where common practices and values are shared across disciplines as well as members in specific disciplinary communities. Some enter these communities at different levels, beginners or experts. To illustrate the community of practice process in which beginners become expert, Lave and Wenger (1991) used the term ‘legitimate peripheral participation’, which indicates that through growing participation, beginners are able to gain access to resources for understanding.

  14. Jaideep Solanki says:

    Dear Tony,

    I am pursuing my doctorate in organisation management and my topic is based on Communities of Practice. In one of my papers, i have extensively referred your this article. Your thought process is great and very lucid.

    Thank You

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