Aim. This paper presents research considering whether healthcare students were able to develop characteristics of communities of practice when engaged in an online module.
Background. Little is known about whether the communities of practice framework can be applied to online learning, with no previous consideration of its potential use within healthcare education.
Methods. Using a case study approach the research, completed in 2004, had two phases. A questionnaire was administered to a group of 109 healthcare students to gain information on which to base sampling for the subsequent phase. Phase 2 employed three strands of data collection: five students completed an online diary, the online interactions of seven students were captured on a discussion board and three students were interviewed. Data were analysed using a form of pattern matching.
Findings. Students were able to develop essential elements of communities of practice: mutual engagement, joint enterprise and shared repertoire, though this was not uniformly seen. Particular issues emerged for the online community, including enabling access to the online environment to support mutual engagement. The development of trust was also threatened by difficulties of presenting identities online. Joint enterprise was hampered by the online situation, although the virtual classroom proved essential for supporting endeavour. Not all students were committed to their groups. There was some evidence of group members developing shared repertoire, as routines of group working emerged. Professional understanding and computer skills were also enhanced.
Conclusion. The framework can be applied to supporting online learning internationally amongst students and has applicability to professional groups. Those intending to employ the framework should ensure that students can gain access to the community and have the computer skills to engage. Course design should be considered to ensure support for developing the essential components of communities of practice.