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Online Communities of Practice

  1. Elizabeth Hanson-Smith

Published Online: 5 NOV 2012

DOI: 10.1002/9781405198431.wbeal0883

The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics

How to Cite

Hanson-Smith, E. 2012. Online Communities of Practice. The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics. .

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 5 NOV 2012

Communities of practice (CoP), a term coined by Lave and Wenger 1990, describes the kinds of informal knowledge building and sharing that occur in workplaces characterized by apprenticeships. CoPs are characterized by a common domain, a relatively narrow area of expertise or purpose; a community where newcomers and experts alike can build and share expertise in social interactions, both those that further the work at hand and those that develop as humans socialize with each other on a relatively frequent basis; and finally, a practice (praxis as opposed to theory), that is, the more or less conscious effort to build a repertoire of knowledge over time by developing skills in the field hands-on (Wenger, 2004). Lave and Wenger found significant evidence that interactions not directly related to this matter furthered the cooperativeness and efficacy of group endeavor. Thus situated learning in a CoP can be both unconscious and deliberate, but usually it is directed by the individual within a social context. This type of learning contrasts with the classrooms and curricula of educational systems, which involve knowledge that is abstract, out of context, and other-directed. Lave and Wenger's 1990 concept of situated learning is usually seen as harking back to Vygotsky's theory of social cognition (1978), social and cognitive development within a zone of proximal development; that is, children achieve their highest cognitive development by engaging in social behaviors, with adult guidance and in peer collaboration, or both.

Over the late 1990s and first decade of the 2000s, Wenger's further thinking about CoPs (1998, 2004) extended the meaning of the term to include online communities and interactions at a distance, rather than just in a physically confined workplace. The concept of online CoPs included the types of interactive environments fostered by then new technologies, such as electronic lists, online bulletin boards, or forums; and has since expanded to the social networking applications, such as blogs, wikis, Facebook, Twitter, and so forth. Wenger (2004, p. 2) was quick to point out that the type of casual socialization most usually found in these Web 2.0 applications does not really pertain to CoPs, which require a search for knowledge in a particular field and the application of what is learned over a period of time. However, the capabilities of such applications for social networking are of importance in developing online CoPs, for they enable groups to socialize casually in ways similar to those of local, land-bound communities and when used to share knowledge, to develop a personal learning network (see, e.g., Of particular interest to the field of applied linguistics, CoPs for distance education allow the extension of learning around the globe.

By analogy to the CoPs of workplaces of business and industry (see Brown & Duguid, 1991), schools are seen to provide a potential locus for CoPs in which Wenger's criteria of domain, interaction, and practice are met. The concept of educational CoPs has converged with the ideas of Dewey 1916 and is en linked to Seymor Papert's version of constructionism (Papert & Harel, 1991), a pedagogical theory that suggests that students learn best through hands-on activities, particularly when students can mix their abilities in collaborative projects; and to cognitive constructivism, Piaget's theory that knowledge is developed by accommodating new experiences to one's internal representation of the world (see Piaget, 1951). Teachers adhering to these pedagogical principles are encouraged to form student working groups and to allow their learners to interact more freely than in a traditional classroom while engaging in, for example, extended content-based projects. In common parlance, then, classrooms and student groups are often referred to as “learning communities” (see Smith, MacGregor, Matthews, & Gabelnick, 2004). Recently, interfaces such as Facebook and Twitter (and other micro-blogging tools accessible from both mobile phones and computers) have been used as a means to facilitate informal communications among students (see articles cited in Newgarden'2009 annotated bibliography).

Hanson-Smith 2006 has pointed out that classrooms and student groupings have little time or opportunity to grow into the kind of long-term social arrangements that CoPs in the workplace offer. Students in the United States, for example, may be from differing cultural groups and may perceive their grouping as an artificial contrivance for the purposes of the teacher and not for their own productive efforts. Elsewhere, in countries where English is taught as a foreign language, grouping students may be counter to cultural expectations of classroom authority and “normal” teaching procedures. In any case, classroom “communities” rarely endure beyond the immediate project or academic semester. Human social bonds develop slowly, and the school environment is not generally conducive to the “peripheral participation” (where newcomers can lurk or observe experts until they feel ready to contribute) that is expected in an apprenticing situation (see Lave & Wenger, 1990). However, in the online environment, students may be more willing to explore social relations with peers from exotic locations and learn to work in a virtual community, as in, for example, the GLOBE science projects ( and iEARN creative collaborations ( For educators, the Internet proffers extended contact in a professional interest group that may be more congenial to their needs than teachers in their own school or district. This fact is of particular importance for teachers who are interested in using technology in their classrooms (blended learning) or for distance learning, a growing field of education in the early 21st century, but one where only a few teachers in a given school may seek to expand their knowledge (see Hanson-Smith, 2006; Stevens, 2009). Faced with anxiety in their colleagues about using technology, Internetand computer-savvy teachers often find themselves shut out of any meaningful informal expansion or exploration of their technology skills and potential. An online CoP can provide instant help, expertise, long-term apprenticeship in a safe social setting, and perhaps most importantly, emotional support for teachers isolated from their technological peers.

Long-standing professional electronic lists might be considered a rudimentary type of online CoP; however, they often lack the social networking that ensures longevity and collaboration. A certain level of trust must be attained before newcomers will ask seemingly “dumb” questions. More recently, many CoPs seem to thrive by using online venues, such as Yahoo Groups or Google Groups; in Yahoo's category “Schools & Education,” there are over 4,700 groups for homeschoolers alone. Other groups include English teachers living in Japan, science teachers in Sri Lanka, Waldorf and Montessori educators, and even a group specifically for discussing communities of practice ( The capabilities of such groups for archiving documents and photos, bookmarking, e-mail search and threading, instant messaging, and so forth, make them ideal venues for building and supporting online CoPs. Mobile and social networking technologies are important for group dynamics, but a CoP must also allow time for thought and reflection on praxis, hence the importance of Internet archiving.

The Webheads in Action offer a concrete model of a successful online CoP. Their domain is educational technology for language teaching and learning. An e-mail list ( is their fundamental form of communication, but individuals exploring the praxis of educational tools have also set up many other venues for communication: individual blogs and wikis to reflect on their own practice, a social bookmarking group, numerous webpages recording collaborations with each other's classes, a Twitter homepage, a Google Wave, group tagging, and so on. An index page ([2002–10] and [2010 onwards]) collects links to the varied Webhead experiments, personal homepages, presentations, and papers. An exemplary feature of this CoP is the building of community through synchronous communications during a regular weekly drop-in meeting at Tapped In (, a text chat venue specifically for teachers and home to a number of other professional educator communities. Live chatting allows members to socialize in a more personal way than through the e-mail list. The group will sometimes proceed to other meeting spaces with Internet telephony or voice and video conferencing capabilities.

As far as praxis, Webheads share rich online lives. When a member of the group discovers a new online tool, others are quick to experiment with it. When someone asks a pedagogical or technological question, others respond with answers and citations. Generally, group members collect all answers or experimental results online, for example, in a blog or wiki, and report back to the group so that the information can be archived. Frequently, Webheads will call upon each other to participate in a class-to-class collaboration, or to serve as an audience when students or peers present projects online. Over the last several years, Webheads have been offering their own free biennial online conference (see so that members have a chance to show their recent work to each other and a global audience. Webheads also regularly offer a session in the Electronic Village Online, a project of TESOL's computer-assisted language learning interest section (, to allow newcomers to technology an apprenticeship with the educational tools most frequently used by Webheads. Thus the furthering of specific knowledge about their domain takes place in a socially situated learning space created through Internet and mobile technologies.

The formation of online CoPs has some degree of application to the distance learning of languages, where short-term collaborative groups can be successfully instituted. However, community building holds a more significant place in the training and further professional development of educators. Teacher communities have been suggested for the school workplace (Martin-Kniep, 2004; Lieberman & Miller, 2004), and as online support for novice language educators as they leave their teacher training institution and scatter to new job sites (Dahlman & Tahtinen, 2006). Of even greater benefit, perhaps, is to provide experienced teachers with the rewards of contact with their peers in other parts of the world, particularly those in the rapidly changing domain of online distance education. Internet and mobile technologies offer multiple opportunities to continue to learn from other professionals worldwide in collaborative communities. Increasingly, institutions of teacher training and professional associations around the globe are taking advantage of these useful resources to foster online CoPs.


  1. Top of page
  2. References
  3. Suggested Readings
  • Brown, J. S., & Duguid, P. (1991). Organizational learning and communities-of-practice: Toward a unified view of working, learning, and innovation. NFORMS. Retrieved July 20, 2010 from
  • Dahlman, A., & Tahtinen, S. (2006). Virtual basegroup: E-mentoring in a reflective electronic support network. In E. Hanson-Smith & S. Rilling (Eds.), Learning languages through technology (pp. 22132). Alexandria, VA: TESOL.
  • Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. New York, NY: Macmillan. Retrieved July 20, 2010 from
  • Hanson-Smith, E. (2006). Communities of practice for pre- and in-service teacher education. In P. Hubbard & M. Levy (Eds.), Teacher education in CALL (pp. 30115). Amsterdam, Netherlands: John Benjamins.
  • Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1990). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lieberman, A., & Miller, L. (2008). Teachers in professional communities: Improving teaching and learning. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
  • Martin-Kniep, G. O. (2004). Developing learning communities through teacher expertise. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
  • Newgarden, K. (2009). Annotated bibliography: Twitter, social networking, and communities of practice. TESL-EJ, 13(2). Retrieved July 20, 2010 from
  • Papert, S., & Harel, I. (1991). Constructionism. New York, NY: Ablex.
  • Piaget, J. (1951). The psychology of intelligence. London, England: Routledge.
  • Smith, B. L., MacGregor, J., Matthews, R., & Gabelnick, F. (2004). Learning communities: Reforming undergraduate education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Stevens, V. (2009). Webheads and distributed communities of practice. Retrieved July 20, 2010 from
  • Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: Development of higher psychological processes. (M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman, Eds.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
  • Wenger, E. (2004). Communities of practice: A brief introduction. Retrieved July 20, 2010 from

Suggested Readings

  1. Top of page
  2. References
  3. Suggested Readings
  • DuFour, R., Eaker, R., & DuFour, R. (Eds.). (2005). On common ground: The power of professional learning communities. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
  • Grossman, P., Wineburg, S., & Woolworth, S. (2001). Toward a theory of teacher community. Teachers College Record, 103(6), 9421012. Retrieved July 20, 2010 from http://www.tcrecord. org/content.asp?contentid=10833
    Direct Link:
  • Hanson-Smith, E. (2010). Community of practice resources. Retrieved July 20, 2010 from˜hansonsm/CoP_Resources.html
  • Kimble, C., Hildreth, P., & Bourdon, I. (2008). Communities of practice: Creating learning environments for educators. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
  • Shapiro, N. S., & Shapiro, N. (1999). Creating learning communities: A practical guide to winning support, organizing for change, and implementing programs. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Unwin, L., Hughes, J., & Jewson, N. (Eds.). (2006). Communities of practice: Critical perspectives. Oxford, England: Taylor & Francis.
  • Wenger, E. (2004). Cultivating communities of practice: A quick start-up guide. Retrieved July 20, 2010 from