Communities of Practice

CommunityThe concept of Communities of Practice (CoP) was originally introduced to describe communities of people who are interested in discussing and developing a shared practice of any kind (Wenger, 1998). Originating in studies of apprentices, it proved to have immediate relevance to education, both in inducting students into existing or new CoPs, and in describing and encouraging teaching and research communities.

What are the key ideas?

Three crucial characteristics of Communities of Practice are:

  1. Domain: members all share a domain of interest
  2. Community: members regularly interact through activities and discussions, supporting each other and sharing information, and by so doing build relationships
  3. Practice: members are all active practitioners in a certain field

Underpinning this is the idea that practitioners learn through experience in a social context. This conjures elements of social constructivism, particularly the idea that knowledge is co-constructed through interactions among people of varying levels and types of experience to create something unique.

CoP emerged at a time when online communities were beginning to draw attention from educators, and the two have often been coupled in the literature (Weller, 2011; Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner, 2015). Much attention has been given to online CoPs on a very large scale, in contexts like connectivist MOOCs, but a virtual CoP can exist at any size.

How can Communities of Practice be applied to higher education?

students in labFor taught students, the concept of CoP has been used in a wide variety of ways. On one end of the spectrum, Zimitat (2007) shows how bespoke software was used to simulate CoPs, based on evidence from ‘real’ CoPs within certain professions. Morton (2012) used CoP as a heuristic to analyse to what degree final-year architecture undergraduates exhibited CoP behaviours that were commonplace in professional CoPs. Tate and Jarvis (2017) meanwhile suggest the active cultivation of virtual CoPs as a way to induct novice members into a community of practitioners at all experience levels. And on the other end of the spectrum, Gardner et al (2015) engaged undergraduates in real research projects being conducted at their university, finding that students found this very challenging, but emerged with a stronger sense of science practice and appreciation of the community that they had begun to join.

While a large part of the post-graduate researcher experience is the induction into a CoP (within the institution and in the wider community researching in their specialism), this process isn’t always acknowledged or explicitly fostered. Wisker et al (2007) describe this issue and how one university attempted to tackle it by building online CoPs among Phd students studying at a distance and their supervisors. Similarly,  Dondlinger and Jones (2008) applied to social constructivist concepts to build a CoP for their on-site doctoral candidates. Finally, Guerin et al (2015) took this from another angle, exploring a CoP for those who support students in their doctoral writing.

The CoP model has also been used to support academics in their teaching and supervision. Herbers et al (2011) and Laksov et al (2008) describe initiatives to develop teaching practice on the departmental level with CoPs, and Hill and Vaughan (2017) show how CoP influenced the formation of a university-wide community of research degree supervisors.

Why should I consider Communities of Practice?

  • student groupSocial constructivist learning and life skills: The learning benefits of students working on authentic projects with others, sharing experience, reflecting on practice and consciously developing their knowledge and skills are well evidenced in the educational literature. But these experiences can also prepare students for doing all of these things more effectively in their working life, whether in a research context or elsewhere. Technologies that support and evidence collaboration can make the implementation of group projects more dynamic, scalable and transparent. Examples at Durham: Teachers-in-training use Video for reflective practice to reflect on, discuss and develop their teaching skills; the Transitions into HE project brought together students and staff from across the University to create an online community inducting new students into their departments and colleges.
  • Inducting students into existing CoPs: Communities of practice already exist in many forms, such as research groups, informal relationships across departments, professional bodies and international research projects. An awareness of the CoPs in their discipline is a good start for students, but (particularly for post-graduate researchers) the CoP model can be used to mindfully move students from the outside to the inside in ways that both support and challenge them. Example at Durham: The Business School’s Alumni Network connects practitioners from around the world, actively facilitating the sharing of practice and learning, and connections between novices and experts.
  • Forming new CoPs for colleagues–and recognising existing ones: An awareness of the CoP model can help to identify the need to actively foster new communities among academics, whether focused on teaching or research, and to sustain and grow existing communities. Examples at Durham: The Learning and Teaching Network and Teaching Fellows Network are both communities of practice that regularly bring together staff with common interests and shared practice from across the University.

What should I be aware of?

  • The model: Keep in mind that all three characteristics should be present to sustain a CoP. For example, a close-knit group of students might all have the same domain of interest (e.g. learning module material…or earning a passing mark), but if they are not involved in an ongoing practice (e.g. a project, extended experimentation, research around the same topic) the experiential learning and reflection of a CoP will be lost. Similarly, academic staff in a department may be researching and teaching around similar interests, but if they seldom interact the lack of community limits their capacity to learn from each other and continue to grow their practice.
  • app iconsThe right tools: Online communities of practice are ideal for dispersed groups, including students on a module or programme. However, it is not always easy to find the right tool for a particular community. In a teaching context, the lecturer may want to consider:
    • tools students will need to share their interest (e.g. findings from labs or research, elements of a project to put together)
    • tools students will need foster community (e.g. discuss their research and findings, talk about where they’ve gotten stuck or breakthroughs)
    • tools to reflect on their practice (e.g. log of what they’ve done, reflective writing)

As always, your faculty learning technologist would be happy to discuss the best digital tools to develop your community of practice.

References and further reading

Dodlinger, M.J. and Jones, J. (2008) ‘Situating Educational Computing Doctoral Students in a Community of Practice: A Rubric-driven, Online Portfolio System’, International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 3, 19-30.

Gardner, G.E., Forrester, J.H., Jeffrey, P.S., Ferzli, M. and Shea, D. (2015) ‘Authentic science research opportunities: how do undergraduate students begin integration into a science community of practice?’, Journal of College Science Teaching, 44(4), 61-65.

Guerin, C., Carter, S. and Aitchison, C. (2015) ‘Blogging as Community of Practice: Lessons for Academic Development?’, International Journal for Academic Development, 20(3), 212-223.

Herbers, M.S., Antelo, A., Attling, D. and Buck, M.A. (2011) ‘Improving Teaching Through A Community of Practice’, Journal of Transformative Education, 9(2), 89-108.

Hill, G. and Vaughan, S. (2017) ‘Conversations about research supervision – Enabling and accrediting a community of practice model for research degree supervisor development’, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 24 November 2017, 1-11.

Laksov, K., Mann, S. and Dahlgren, L.O. (2008) ‘Developing a Community of Practice around Teaching: A Case Study’, Higher Education Research and Development, 27(2), 121-132.

Morton, J. (2012) ‘Communities of Practice in Higher Education: A Challenge from the Discipline of Architecture’, Linguistics and Education: An International Research Journal, 23(1), 100-111.

Tate, N. and Jarvis, C. (2017) ‘Changing the Face of GIS Education with Communities of Practice’, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 41(3), 327-340.

Weller, M. (2011) The Digital Scholar. Bloomsbury Open Access.

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge University Press.

Wenger-Trayner, E. and Wenger-Trayner, B. (2015) ‘Communities of practice a brief introduction’. Retrieved from Wenger-Trayner website:

Wisker, G., Robinson, G. and Shacham, M. (2007) ‘Postgraduate Research Success: Communities of Practice Involving Cohorts, Guardian Supervisors and Online Communities’, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 44(3), 301-320.

Zimitat, C. (2007) ‘Capturing community of practice knowledge for student learning’, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 44(3), 321-330.






Transitions into HE

Video for reflective practice

Related pedagogies


REVIEW DATE: February 2018