Communities of Practice

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In this topic we will cover:

  • What are communities of practice?
  • What are the characteristics of an online learning community?
  • How can we make effective use of learning communities in our courses and in our own professional development?

What are communities of practice?

Etienne Wenger, one of the most influential figures in the field, defines communities of practice as:

...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, no date)

Let's look at some examples to illustrate Wenger's definition:


Case Study: Emilia

The nursing profession has a strong commitment to ongoing professional development, and the community of practice approach seems very appropriate. So Emilia's department encourages all students in the Bachelor of Nursing to get involved in, an online community for nurses and nursing students.

Nursing students use this community to network and share information with practising nurses, which helps to connect their learning to real-world situations.

Wenger identifies three crucial components of a community of practice (CoP):

  • The domain: the shared area of interest. The domain of (see above) is the field of nursing.
  • The community: the members of the community and their connections and interactions with each other. The website is just a tool - the community comprises all its members and their ongoing interaction and discussion.
  • The practice: the shared 'know-how' of the domain. Members of are not just 'like minds' with a common interest to chat about - they actively collaborate to develop and share their resources and expertise.


Case Study: Emilia

Since Emilia's new Public Health course covers a range of material not fully aligned with the nursing field, she has decided her students could benefit from involvement in Public health, an online community established by the American Public Health Association.

As well as encouraging her students to join and engage with this community, she plans to use the community as an online resource and a source of information on public health issues.

Since her students submit a portfolio as part of the assessment, they can incorporate evidence of their engagement in community discussions. Her expectation is that students will benefit significantly from discussion with real-world public health professionals, consumers and other community members.


Case Study: Brett

Unlike Emilia, Brett does not belong to a community of practice related to the subject he teaches.

But he does belong to Education revolution, a community of practice related to how 'teaching and learning are redefined in the age of the Internet'. Taking an active role in this community is a key part of his own professional development because it enables him to keep up to date with developments in the field of learning technology.

OP icon activity.gif


Consider your own work in education:

  • What subject-related communities of practice do you take part in?
  • What education-related communities of practice do you take part in?


Extra resources

  • For more information on different types of online communities, check out Learning communities.
  • For more details of the theory behind communities of practice, check out Wenger's brief introduction to communities of practice.