TEL Communities

Helen Caldwell and Anna Cox | View as single page | Feedback/Impact
TEL Communities
Definitions: Theoretical background relevant to technology facilitated social learning
Research evidence: Systematic literature reviews on the theme of technology facilitated social learning

Roles within online communities

Wenger’s definition of CoPs (1998) acknowledges that there can be layers within the communities and that members might adopt a central or peripheral position. Self-directed involvement by the participants is therefore crucial to the success of the community. Unlike traditional learning events where a cohort of learners learn the same content at the same pace, a CoP may have different types of participation and differing degrees of expertise. Knowledge transfer can occur at any time as experts pass expertise on to novices.

Online community roles image

As Johnson (2001) points out, individuals in an online CoP may move from the periphery to the centre in a flexible way as their expertise increases. Indeed, individuals may belong to a network of communities at any one time (Ozturk and Ozcinar, 2013) bringing a new fluidity to learning. Similarly, Wick (2000) notes that collaborative teams might form and dissolve resulting in cross-pollination of ideas. Types of interaction include peer-to-peer or expert-to-apprentice (Bielaczyc and Collins, 1999; Wenger, 1998). The idea of knowledge capital can be useful as a way of analysing the output of a CoP. This may take different forms, such as human, social, tangible, reputational and learning (Wenger et al., 2002), as the community generates  ‘a common history’ and its own ‘artefacts’ (Wenger, 1998).

In contrast, others note that CoPs can have many layers and that sub-communities can exist within them. For example, working with a face-to-face CoP, Triggs et al. analysed the interactions between teams of teachers, teacher educators and researchers and suggested a model in which ‘micro’, ‘meso’ and ‘macro’ communities interconnect and fuse in clusters to provide a broad context for knowledge transformation within educational professional development (Triggs et al., 2004). They sought to understand the relationship between the communities of research and practice, how CoPs can inter-relate and overlap, and how the connections between communities may be nested within each other. This model might be applied to virtual CoPs.

Read more about self-directed learning here: Self-directed learning


Bielaczyc, K., & Collins, A. (1999). Learning communities in classrooms: a reconceptualization of educational practice. In: C. Reigeluth (Ed.),Instructional-design theories and models. A new paradigm of instructional theory, (vol. 2, pp. 269–292). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Johnson, C. M. (2001). A survey of current research on online Communities of Practice. The Internet and Higher Education, 4(1), 45-60.

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.

Triggs, P., & John, P. (2004). From Transaction to Transformation: ICT, Professional development and the formation of Communities of Practice. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning. 20(6), 426-439.

Wenger, E., 1998. Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge university press.

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

Wenger, E. (2011). Communities of Practice: A brief introduction.

Wick, C. (2000). Knowledge management and leadership opportunities for technical communicators. Technical Communication, 47(4), 515–529.