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Definitions: Theoretical background relevant to technology facilitated social learning
Research evidence: Systematic literature reviews on the theme of technology facilitated social learning

A Critical Review of the Use of Wenger's Community of Practice (CoP) Theoretical Framework

This paper applies content analysis to a sample of 60 articles representing empirical work grounded in Etienne Wenger's communities of practice (CoP) theoretical framework to investigate ways in which this theoretical perspective has influenced the development of online and blended learning in higher education and in professional development (Wenger et al.,

Among those studies identified, which ones established strong linkages between the CoP framework and their findings?

Within this last group of identified studies, what do the patterns in their use of the CoP framework suggest as opportunities for future research in online teaching and learning?

Findings and discussion

The majority of the studies (41) stated that Wenger's CoP framework provided direction for their research, however the authors call into question the use of the theory in 24 of these. A common thread running through the remaining studies was that they looked for evidence of the three essential characteristics of a CoP in their data mutual engagement, joint enterprise and shared repertoire (p.218).

The authors argue for a new phase of analysis of online and blended learning environments employing the CoP theory, with the aim of providing more complex understandings of the learning process: 'We ... believe that more attention is needed to highlight the specialised ways of knowing, thinking, and doing that people need to internalise in order to participate in a particular social practice' (p.221). They recognise that learners do not necessarily form a CoP when they are part of a learning environment and that time remains an unexplored variable in learning research grounded in this theory.

Several studies shed light on online learning in teacher education. These included Adams' (2007) investigation of the use of forums for personal exploration of identity and agency for art teacher trainees, and Clark's (2008) study of ways in which a teacher education course can use online learning to foster aspects of a CoP.

The paper also considers the use of technology tools to support learning activities in CoP focused courses: 'When introducing technology into a CoP, Wenger, White, Smith and Rowe (2005) warned of the danger of "confusing the community with the technology". In these environments, web-based technologies such as asynchronous and/or synchronous discussions typically serve as a means of ensuring learner engagement with each other for the purposes of generating communal knowledge and resources that form their social practice. Nevertheless, just adding these interactive spaces to an online/blended learning environment does not guarantee that the resulting interactions support the kinds of meaning making necessary for the development of a CoP.' (p.222).

Discussion forums are the most common source of data for CoP oriented research and there is a need to look at ways in which other collaboration tools can support social learning. For example, (Goggins et al., 2011) used a learning management system-based wiki as a space to support both participation and reification of shared and negotiated meaning in an online learning environment. The authors outline a process of participation and reification: making something real.