Monday, 13 August 2012

Online Community

Wenger discussed the concept of Communities of Practice (COP), he acknowledges that the term represents behaviour that has been part of how humanity organises itself for a long time, the concept is not new but he does provide some very useful illustrations of how communities work and the contexts they work in. He also provides a concise and well articulated statement that summarises the concept well:

"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 (2006)

This short video provides an excellent example of how rhythm and movement bond an African group, it conveys a sense of community participation, shows the passion for what they do, how rhythm is integral to who they are, how interaction with rhythm fills their lives and that there are many skills to be learned and challenges to be overcome to achieve their shared passion.  

There are many other practices that this community share but the making of rhythm is the key element that fille their being, it is embedded deep in their culture, awareness of rhythm is evident in every footstep they take, in almost every move they make. 

The Ultraversity project considered Wenger's perceptions at the design stage and it became a core element of the learning design. The notion of 'Community of Inquiry' (COI) has similar concepts to COP and was also incorporated:

An educational community of inquiry is a group of individuals who collaboratively engage in purposeful critical discourse and reflection to construct personal meaning and confirm mutual understanding.
Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000)

The COI concept map provides an excellent insight into the potential structure of a COI.

In this model there are three core 'presences':

  • Teaching presence is linked to design and facilitation of the community.
  • Social presence; the ability of learners to project their personality into the community.
  • Cognitive presence; the ability of members to construct meaning through communication.

The two concepts are combined in our approach and the aim of course tutors is to Facilitate the development of vibrant Communities of Practitioner Inquirers. The common passions of community members (students and staff) include:

  • Improving personal practice in the workplace.
  • Becoming adept at Professional Development Planning (PDP) and achieving PDP targets.
  • Identifying problems, applying systematic processes to arrive at viable and effective solutions.
  • Using technologies creatively to achieve high standards in communication of information to others.
  • Becoming agents of change, inspiring others in the workplace to aspire to high standards of operation.
  • Developing into critically reflective practitioners unafraid to challenge orthodoxy or authority.
  • Aspiring to a brighter future.

The processes used to achieve these aims include, but are not limited to:

  • Personalisation of learning - learners take a significant level of responsibility for designing their own interpretation of how they will meet learning outcomes.
  • Negotiation of learning - Individual Learning Plans are reviewed by course facilitators and appropriate tasks are negotiated.
  • Identifying gaps in knowledge and how these can be bridged or filled.
  • Examine theory - apply theory to personal practice - re-examine theory in the light of experience. This can be summarised as; Reflection - Inquiry - Reflection.
  • Carry out small-scale action based research projects in the workplace.
  • Analysing the quality of experience of stakeholders impacted by the individual's actions.
  • Sharing, caring and offering support through critical feedback in the spirit of friendship.

Making learning delightful is not always an easy task but it is one that is worth aspiring too. Designing tasks that are easy may lead to learners achieving, but there can be an empty or anticlimactic feeling as there was little sense of overcoming challenge, of personal development or of developing expertise. It is through overcoming challenge that we tend to feel higher levels of satisfaction or even elation. If a challenge is perceived as being 'beyond attainment' this can lead to despair or frustration. If the challenge is not beyond attainment it is important for tutors to identify the governing values that are holding a student back and offer the encouragement and support needed to alter perspectives and improve motivation. 

If a learning task is well designed it will inspire a learner to aspire to excellence, it will imbue the learner with a perception that there are achievable steps towards expertise and that the journey will be worthwhile. The concept of 'Optimal Learning' suggests that learners engaged in well designed tasks will become willingly immersed in the experience and feel a sense of 'flow'; a state in which it is often reported that time has no meaning. Studies carried out by Csikszentmihalyi into Optimal Learning found that:

"...the phenomenology of enjoyment 
has eight major components. When people reflect on how it feels 

when their experience is most positive, they mention at least one, 

and often all, of the following:
1. We confront tasks we have a chance of completing;
2. We must be able to concentrate on what we are doing;
3. The task has clear goals;
4. The task provides immediate feedback;
5. One acts with deep, but effortless involvement, that
removes from awareness the worries and frustrations
of everyday life;
6. One exercises a sense of control over their actions;
7. Concern for the self disappears, yet, paradoxically
the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow
experience is over; and
8. The sense of duration of time is altered.
The combination of all these elements causes a sense of deep
enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great
deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it."

Csikszentmihalyi (1990)

Below is an extract from a discussion post by a student who in 2005 had been lacking in confidence with her relationship with technology. It seems clear to me that, at the outset of the module she was doing, the challenge was evident, that tasks she was set were appropriate, motivating and perceived as achievable:

Let battle commence!
Although I am becoming less afraid, I still regard technology as a bit of a “Me vs. It” scenario. Battle plans are drawn up, in the shape of:

  • What do I hope to achieve?
  • Is it achievable?
  •  Can I do it?
Tentatively I approach my enemy. Cautiously I set to work. With every step forward I take, there are now fewer I take back, although not yet my friend technology is becoming less frightening and more intriguing to me."

Having worked her way through a Reflective Practice module, in which she was required to use technology to generate creative approaches to sharing information, she emerged more confident and articulating a sense of achievement:

"Now here I stand in March 2006 on the summit of my own personal “Reflective Mountain” and look at me now!
My confidence has grown and I now have belief in my ability as both a teaching assistant and a student.
This lady who once stated “ I feel like I am climbing Mount Everest in flip-flops” (previous module) can now categorically state that the flip-flops are off and the hiking boots and backpack are on. 

As I complete the descent I know that this will not be the last time I climb this mountain. I will undoubtedly return many times, and each time the view will be different, no less challenging, but just as beautiful."

Vygotski's notion of the Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotski, 1978) is often discussed in relation to learning in schools, however; it can also be useful to consider in relation to adult learning. The approaches used in mentored learning and facilitated learning are examples of where the learner can be provided with scaffolding to help them bridge the gap between existing and new knowledge. A weakness with the theory, in my opinion, is the concept that there is an upper limit to what is ultimately achievable, this is a difficult limit to define. When Piaget's developmental stages are taken as absolute in defining what a child of a certain age might be able to achieve this can limit perceptions of what else might be achieved. Thankfully in more recent years these stages are less influential in teaching practice, although it seems to be a fundamental aspect of humans that they are very much capable of designing their own limiting perceptions of what they might, or might not, be capable of achieving. Raising awareness of limits students place on themselves can help them develop the perceptions and motivation to face challenges in a positive way. When reflecting on part of her message: 
  • What do I hope to achieve?
  • Is it achievable?
  • Can I do it?
this student described how she had not quite had the confidence to say "I can do it" and that she felt that, in an academic world, she should not say 'I can' until she had evidence that she could. The message sits in the nexus between doubt and confidence and shows some understanding of the need to be credibile by constructing statements that are appropriately tentative.

The Ultraversity project developed an approach where students are provided with contextualised assessment criteria and where there is constructive alignment between these and negotiated learning tasks. Fundamental to the community learning process is collaborative learning. In our online communities this involves students supporting each other through constructive and critical discussions, offering existing knowledge to scaffold others, sharing and reflecting on personal experiences, discussing and debating ideas for the good of the whole community and highlighting where improvement to work in progress could be made and where better alignment between task and assessment criteria is needed. In line with the COP and COI concepts, course facilitators (tutors) share the same passions about learning and improvement aspirations as students, they are open about identifying and addressing their own strengths and weaknesses and about aspiring for excellence. They are part of the collaborative learning process, learning with and from students, facilitated learning places no value on the old style concept of teachers as gatekeepers of knowledge; the aim is to become catalysts of learning. Social interaction provides students with insight into who the person inside the teacher is and this in turn helps students project their own personality into the community.

The place of community for students was traditionally on campus - being on site they had the cues of physical spaces to reinforce this feeling of belonging to academia. For online students the learning places are sometimes referred to as being "virtual". I have always felt this to be a misnomer as the experience of belonging to and working in an online environment is very real, although the actual physical existence of the community spaces and interactions is via electron flow, much of which is hosted in machines that may be thousands of miles from the users, it is still a physical phenomenon that is as real as bricks and mortar. When I first started teaching online it was often done in closed communities made with bespoke or proprietary software as shown in this 2007 diagram:

There has been considerable evolution in the range of software used and in the scope of communities that students belong to since that diagram was constructed but it is clear that the role of 'in house purpose built' software was rapidly abandoned. This was a decision made in part due to cost of software development but also related to the rapid expansion of proprietary and open source provision that was becoming increasingly useable and reliable. In 2012 the core community activity is located in the closed University supplied VLE but students now supplement this with interactions in a wider range of open community places such as Facebook, Youtube and Twitter. The location and kinds of community interaction currently available to students will be covered in a future blog post.


Csikszentmihalyi, M., 1990. FLOW: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper and Row [Online]

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., and Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105. [Online] Accessed 13 08 2012 via:

Piaget, J., 1977. Intellectual evolution from adolescence to adulthood (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1977)

Vygotsky, L. S., 1978. Mind in society: The development of higher psychological proceses. Chapter 6 Interaction between learning and development (79-91). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wenger, E., McDermott, R. and Snyder, W., 2006. Cultivating communities of practice: a guide to managing knowledge. Harvard Business School Press, 2002. More information available online at


  1. A well constructed post Ian and one which resonates with and echoes my experiences of Ultraversity (UV). I am a true believer and advocate of the COP/COI paradigm as I have developed a keen awareness of its presence and use in my work and life.

    As a 'teacher' I have also become increasingly aware (thanks to UV) of individual's and groups' Zone of Proximal Development that I instruct. I explored Vygotsky's notion in some detail for my Major Project however never considered the 'upper limit' constraint mentioned. My experiences can be likened perhaps to a football match where you can only play what is in front of you. This is a massive variable in the class setting driven not only by an individual's knowledge base but also their ability to tap into that knowledge at the time.

    Watching the light bulbs light up in their eyes is why I am here I guess.

    1. The light-bulb aspect is the one disadvantage of fully online learning from my perspective - I don't often look students in the eyes so miss seeing the light up moments but I do sense them in post such as the reflective journey one included above.

      Re the upper limit aspect of ZPD, maybe its my pedantic nature but I do not like limits. There is clearly some limitations to what can be achieved with a specific person in a specific context, with a specific time-constraint and the restrictions of a specific learning activity. As a PGCE student I remember hearing fairly experienced teachers make remarks along the lines of "Oh little Jimmy is only capable of xxx" then I went in and gave lots of encouragement and motivation and an explanation of task that could be understood and little Jimmy exceeded all expectations. Even experienced teachers sometimes perceive limits when they are not there. Rather than holding the concept of "Oh little Jimmy is only capable of xxx" it is more helpful for little Jimmy if the teacher is thinking: "How can I help him exceed his, and our, expectations?"


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