TEL Communities

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

Online Communities of Practice

Many researchers have recognised that technology can facilitate situated learning by providing an environment in which learners can interact and share ideas using collaborative technologies. Since Wenger’s original work on CoPs in 1991 there has been a widespread increase in online learning and in the adoption of social learning as an instructional method.  This has resulted in the adoption of the term CoPs to describe socio-technological learning environments that are purposefully designed to facilitate knowledge construction (Ozturk and Ozcinar, 2013).

Such ‘virtual CoPs’ have the potential to link people across time zones and to remove geographical boundaries. They have the added advantage of allowing for synchronous and asynchronous communication, giving learners control over the pace and place of engagement (Wenger et al. 2002; Gannon-Leary and Fontainha, 2007). Two key differences between physical and virtual communities are the absence of ‘traditional group norms’ and the asynchronous communication that takes place through posting and commenting; both of which are seen as positive developments (Palloff and Pratt, 1999). However, many studies note that some face to face contact can be a strength and make a case for multimodal learning that mixes physical interaction with asynchronous learning (Hammond, 1998). Contemporary CoPs may thus combine physical and virtual spaces and make use of a range of social media and networking technologies. Learners may belong to several CoPs as their learning trajectory moves in and out of a number of ‘digital habitats’ (Wenger, White and Smith, 2009).

The learning that takes place through these online networks and virtual CoPs is often labelled Connectivism (Siemens, 2005).  According to Downes (2010), a connectivist learning environment is characterised by openness, autonomy, diversity and interactivity. Connectivist learning describes a process of making connections with people and resources, of co-creating ideas and making personal choices within an environment mediated by technology (Saadatmand, M., & Kumpulainen, K., 2014). "Connectivist models explicitly rely on the ubiquity of networked connections between people, digital artifacts, and content" (Anderson and Dron, 2011, p. 87).

Mayfield (2005) notes a distinction between the degree to which social networks, online communities and CoPs are user-generated and how much they focus on connections or content. Virtual CoPs make use of social media but, like their physical counterparts, they are characterised by shared common purpose and by application to practice.

Read more about situated learning here: The social/situational orientation to learning and about connectivism here:


Anderson, T., & Dron, J. (2011). Three generations of distance education pedagogy. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(3), 81-97. Retrieved from

Downes, S. (2010, October 26). What is democracy in education? [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Gannon-Leary, P., & Fontainha, E. (2007). Communities of Practice and virtual learning communities: benefits, barriers and success factors. Barriers and Success Factors. eLearning Papers, (5).

Hammond, M. (1998). Learning through online discussion. Journal of Information Technology for Teacher Education,7(3), 331–346.

Mayfield, R. (2005). Social network dynamics and participatory politics. In J. Lebkowsky & M. Ratcliffe (Eds.), Extreme democracy (pp. 116–132).

Ozturk, H. T., & Ozcinar, H. (2013). Learning in multiple communities from the perspective of knowledge capital. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 14(1), 204-221.

Palloff, R., & Pratt, K. (1999). Building learning communities in cyberspace: effective strategies for the online classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Saadatmand, M., & Kumpulainen, K. (2014). Participants' perceptions of learning and networking in connectivist MOOCs. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 10(1), 16-30.

Siemens, G. (2005a). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(1), 3-10. Retrieved from

Wenger, E., McDermott, R. & Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Wenger, E., White, N., & Smith, J. D. (2009). Digital habitats: Stewarding technology for communities. CPsquare.