Community of interest or community of practice?

I’ve been seeing a lot of talk around the edu-blogs and at conference sessions about online learning communities, or building a personal learning network as part of a educator’s professional development. Often, these are referred to as “Communities of Practice” – a term coming into common use only a few years ago. Many educators were introduced to the term in grad school through the work of Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, who wrote Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation.Learning in Doing: Social, Cognitive and Computational Perspectives (Amazon link) in 1985.

Their book explored how natural learning that takes place in apprenticeship situations, and profiled several different Communities of Practice (CoPs) from around the world. The “practice” part of CoP is the work they do, and the learning takes place in context, or situated, in the common work. These groups of people learn to do their work not by lectures, but by everyone working together, from experts to newcomers, and most importantly, by talking about their work together.

The concept of “Legitimate Peripheral Participation” is key to the idea of communities of practice. This is when newcomers learn needed skills by doing work that is on the periphery of the community, and as they prove their competence, being invited into more important roles. The other part of legitimate peripheral participation is how newcomers move into the community through talk. The shared stories of the community, particularly war stories told by experts, are part of the experience. Newcomers learn to participate by learning the traditions and vocabulary of the group, first by listening, then by trying out their new verbal skills within the group, and if their words ring true, by moving from the periphery and becoming more central to the shared expertise of the group.

It’s obvious that this sounds similar to what happens to educators as they break down the walls of their classroom and use new technologies to find and participate in new communities.

I think, however, that we confuse different kinds of communities. Specifically, I think that educators who come together in online communities, or even temporary real life groups, are more often than not, communities of interest, not communities of practice.

I’m not just being picky about semantics here – the problem is that calling any community a “Community of Practice” presumes that it will have similar benefits and impact.

In Second Life, for example, a teacher may meet educators from around the world who are doing similar things in their classroom, have similar hopes about the future of ed tech, and share similar frustrations. They may find the interaction refreshing, educational, and maybe even inspiring. These professional collegial interactions are too often missing from teacher’s lives. And Second Life is just an example. This could be Twitter, or a social network, an online group created for a graduate school class, or even people you meet face to face at a conference.

However, just having similar work doesn’t mean that this is a community of practice. They really aren’t doing the same work. Once this interaction is over, they have to go back to their real place of practice, their classroom and school. The benefits of shared vocabulary, shared experiences, shared stories are all gone. Now these teachers have to sit in meetings where no one is on the same page, frustrated that everyone isn’t seeing the light.

In fact, these outside communities of interest may serve to pull teachers away from their local communities of practice, distancing them from the colleagues whose mindshare would be vital to real local change. It’s an all too convenient place to vent about everyone who “doesn’t get it.”

It’s hard for me to imagine any kind of educational change that doesn’t draw on the participants at the ground level, meaning the people in the school. That’s why I advocate for student participation in education technology initiatives. Changing a community means involving the stakeholders, all the stakeholders, in the process. Building a healthy community of practice in the place of the actual practice is a first step to change.


14 Replies to “Community of interest or community of practice?”

  1. It’s refreshing to see someone in these circles finally get back to the basics by referencing Lave and Wenger, definite pioneers in the field and surely ahead of their time.

    I’m curious, Sylvia. What’s your take on Cormier’s rhizome metaphor wherein the community is the curriculum? According to Cormier:

    “In the rhizomatic model of learning, curriculum is not driven by predefined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process. This community acts as the curriculum, spontaneously shaping, constructing, and reconstructing itself and the subject of its learning in the same way that the rhizome responds to changing environmental conditions”

    This takes the idea of CoPs to a whole new level and describes very well the kind of learning I consistently experience through Twitter.

  2. I’m going to have to think more about that metaphor and read it a couple of times.

    At first take (always dangerous) it seems to me that creating simple metaphors where we don’t define either side of the equation is a tough place to build understanding. It’s like asking, does x=y? with no definition. What is “curriculum”? Do you just mean as we currently use the term in K-12 schools?

    In schools, curriculum is the result of decisions made about what children should learn, and in what order. But a self-organized community has made no such decisions, so what they learn from each other is simply what appears in the moment. Are they learning? Probably… is it planned? not really… so does it have a chance of real transformation?

    Communities of practice revolve around the practice… what people DO together. Like apprenticeship communities, they revolve around some kind of job, like making shoes. So people in that community learn to make shoes, and learn from each other without anyone drafting shoe standards, writing shoe curriculum, shoemaking tests, or NSLB acts.

    Now maybe you could say that the self-organized community that you and I belong to, organized around blogs and Twitter, has a common job of “education”, and that we learn from each other about this subject every day. There is no curriculum (maybe people have an agenda, but that’s different), and yet, we learn stuff.

    So the question is, is this “good enough” to call it curriculum? I”m not sure I’d go that far. I think even if you have the least coercive definition of curriculum, there has to be some big ideas that are transmitted, some intent to move the knowledge ball from point A to point B. I’m not sure I see that there is a path to higher and higher levels of understanding this way.

    A thought-provoking question… I’ll keep thinking about it.

  3. I love this stuff.

    I think the “do” is the essential difference. What I take from what you are saying, Sylvia, is that CoI’s are really vague. What I see is CoI’s often lacking a clearly defined goal (i.e. – make shoes). True CoP’s form around that clearly defined goal (i.e. – talk and doing is around making shoes).

    I think a big problem is that most of curriculum is not “do” curriculum. When curriculum is “covered” so fast, can students realize that a CoI or a CoP might exists around a particular topic?

  4. I like this point you make:

    In fact, these outside communities of interest may serve to pull teachers away from their local communities of practice, distancing them from the colleagues whose mindshare would be vital to real local change. It’s an all too convenient place to vent about everyone who “doesn’t get it.”

    In fact, I joined the community of learning and learned, and vented, etc. What it gave me was more understanding but a lack of patience with my immediate community at school. By stepping back and thinking where my community really needed to be, I invested more time there than on the blogosphere. The difference is astounding. I have been able to work closely with colleagues and that circle is expanding and spreading out. In fact, it was the reason I wrote the Entropy 101 k12 online presentation. It is very basic, not disruptive, but the truth of how those who practice can build a community of practice (though I don’t use those words). Maybe I am off topic here.

  5. Brian,
    I think that a community of practice exists in most classrooms, and it includes the teacher and the students. But we rarely take advantage of this, and sabotage it in various ways. It’s not “natural” that learners of different abilities are separated by age or ability. It’s not “natural” that only one expert exists in a CoP. It’s not “natural” that the expert is actually only doing what they are told by an outside authority who never actually appears or takes part in the community (the curriculum, district and state standards), and it’s not “natural” that progress is measured by a different outside authority who then doesn’t even share the results back to the ones being measured in a timely way.

    Your example is far from off topic, it’s exactly the point I was trying to make. I look forward to taking a look at your K12online presentation.

  6. Like Brian, I love this stuff, too.

    One thing to keep in mind about Cormier. He’s talking about a theory for learning (how learning occurs) and an idea that is very intertwined with Siemen’s Connectivism learning theory.

    I think it’s interesting to think about the learning that is taking place by simply participating in CoPs and CoIs.

  7. This is a breath of fresh air to read as I start getting involved with the general blogosphere as it’s been dubbed again.

    I agree with your point of CoI’s often being disruptive, and unproductive for teachers, students, and other stakeholders in education. (perhaps not the other two listed participants, but I feel now that they are fair to include with previous exposure to their presence on blogs and other social networks.)

    While I don’t feel it has been said that a CoI can’t be productive… I feel that a CoI as it’s been dubbed can be used as evidence or a case study for change at the local community level in educational institutions today.

    What the next step I feel to your post would, Sylvia, would be a model of a productive CoI. My only working point for this would be the the term Cultural Diffusion as I learned it from Social Studies.

    While CoI’s can prove distracting and disruptive, they can easily fill this purpose when used properly. Or perhaps the uncontrolled variables in such a feet interfere too much for such an occurrence. I’m not sure.

  8. Thank you, Sylvia.

    Our students “need” to work together, so why can’t we in our own schools?

    The thoughts of others in our local area and more importantly their questioning has done as much for my learning as hanging on the words of the community of learners (no disrespect to any). I may have brought forward initial ideas and enthusiasm, but have been pushed as equally by many great ideas from rising local “experts” (I use this term loosely as we are learners, right?)

  9. Thanks for this post, Sylvia.

    I had just returned home from a long-range tech plan committee meeting that was actually more productive that past attempts. However, while reading this, the obvious stakeholder group too often left out (students) was thrust back into my brain.

    I immediately sent an e-mail back to our committee chair asking if it was possible to perhaps bring some students on board. I really do think their input is crucial.

    @Darren – I too love these ideas and conversations. I particularly like the rhizome metaphor. I suppose I can’t hide my biology background, but it really is an interesting concept. It is certainly food for future thought.

    The closest thing I have seen in my world is the very de-centralized tech cohort network I set up just this past summer. ( I am encouraged by what I see in a district where far too little attention has been paid to teacher development.

  10. Venturing off the porch, momentarily, in a feeble attempt to run with the big dogs…

    Hey Sylvia,

    As someone who recently (mis)used the Communities of Practice label on an Educon proposal, I want to thank you for schooling me on the definition of the phrase. I have since edited my post [linked above] and will request a change of title for the Educon session Kristen and I proposed. I appreciate your precision of thought (and speech).

    I have not read Lave and Wegner, and even if I had, I doubt I’d be able to bring the depth of understanding about their work that you and the others here have. So I won’t even try…

    I will say, or ask this. Regarding my original post, to which you may be referring (however tangentially), do you see any value in our core principle, which is bringing together local people – educators – for the purpose of sharing the wealth of knowledge we have gained from our online networks? I am especially puzzled by this quote:

    In fact, these outside communities of interest may serve to pull teachers away from their local communities of practice, distancing them from the colleagues whose mindshare would be vital to real local change. It’s an all too convenient place to vent about everyone who “doesn’t get it.”

    Assuming that what Kristen and I hope to talk about at Educon (and what I hope to actually initiate prior to then) is a ‘community of interest,’ I don’t understand how a productive, engaging, possibilities-opening, future-focused discussion of tools, pedagogies and personal learning networks would be a bad thing. The point of the meetings: extending the online personal learning space into a face-to-face, local learning space. How can equipping these people with knowledge and friends that will help them reflect on their professional practice, and try new things, be bad?

    And if any of the meetings we propose to have with local colleagues turn into a “convenient place to vent about everyone who doesn’t get it,” I can tell you that I personally wouldn’t attend another one. Why bother? That is so far from the point of the gatherings we are envisioning that it’s not even funny. 🙂

    Returning to my place on the porch,


  11. Kevin,
    First, I’m not pretending that this is the gospel. In fact, if you explore Wenger’s website, I dare say he might not agree that there is a difference between communities as I’ve discussed.

    Second, I think what you are doing is exactly the remedy to the “problem” (if it is indeed a problem) I’ve described. Bringing information and knowledge from your online, virtual network and making things happen locally. Perhaps my sentence structure wasn’t as clear as it could be, I was making the point that virtual communities can become convenient and safe places for the venting about your local conditions, while doing nothing to change them.

    The porch is the perfect place to have a conversation, let’s break out the virtual rocking chairs! 😉

  12. Hi Sylvia!

    Never meant to imply you were pretending anything! I love learning from you and appreciate the heads up about my misuse of the phrase.

    I see what you’re saying about the tendency for informal groups of teachers to gripe at times (as in the stereotypical teacher’s lounge) but honestly I don’t envision what we’re planning will come anywhere close to that! It’s up to us to keep the focus positive. The people I have on my short list absolutely won’t let that happen – I’m sure of it!

    Thanks for your help!


  13. Darren,

    The “rhizome theory” seems to be awfully school-centric. That is the only place where curriculum is part of the discussion. Curriculum is always something done by a person in power to less powerful others.

    You and your friends, teammates, collaborators have no curriculum. Curriculum is not only not required for learning, it is often antithetical to it.

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