About my research

My research was set in the context of the European Commission’s eTwinning initiative and it looked specifically at the use of eTwinning Learning Events (non-formal learning). It examined how the community influences the development of teachers’ competence in online collaboration and discourse, and it considered the contribution of social aspects and online moderation.

I am very grateful to my supervisor, Dr. Julie-Ann Sime from Lancaster University, and to my eTwinning soulmate, Tiina Sarisalmi, for their invaluable support. And to my examiners, Prof. Marilyn Leask from the University of Bedfordshire and Dr. Don Passey from the University of Lancaster, for their valuable advice.
Keywords: online learning communities; community of inquiry; online collaboration; content analysis; social presence; social ties; teacher training

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Online learning Communities

A book by Barab, Kling and Gray (2004) on virtual communities for learning contains many papers relevant to my research, including one by Riel and Polin (2004) called 'Online learning communities: Common ground and critical differences in designing technical environments'. They note that the term community has become somewhat of a cliché in the world of online learning, confirming what several other writers have said including Grossman and Wineburg (2000) who noted that: 'Groups of people become community, or so it would seem, by the flourish of a researcher’s pen.  In this sense, researchers have yet to formulate criteria that would allow them to distinguish between a community of teachers and a group of teachers sitting in a room for a meeting.' (p.6).  

Riel and Polin suggest a rather long definition of community that encompasses: variety in terms of participants age, experience, etc; culture defined by norms, values and routines; artefacts produced from joint activity and individual sensemaking; and multi-generational, in terms of members coming and going. They caution that communities are not always healthy contexts for learning. They may be dysfunctional, enforce conformity, closed to new participants, scattered and isolated. And in these cases, learning may be more problematic: 'simply labelling a group as a community neither ensures that it functions as one, nor that it is a beneficial, cohesive unit in which learning will take place readily' (p.18). These sound like very wise words and ones that we as researchers would do well to remember.

Riel and Polin  propose a typology of three 'distinct but overlapping forms of learning within communities' (p16):
  • Task-based: groups of people working together intently over a limited period of time on a particular product. Focus is often on diversity of experience to solve particular, challenging problems through collaboration. Participation is often mandatory, for example as part of a course, and the output a one-off (not meant for further revision).

    Whereas I can recognise such a grouping and see it as a rather loose community, I feel instinctively that it is too prescriptive to limit this type to fixed products.
  • Practice-based: usually based around a profession or discipline, these groups focus on sharing and developing good practice. Participation is usually voluntary. The focus is on knowledge in use rather than on the process of knowledge development. The group is dynamic and lives through several generations of members. Products (stories, procedures, routines, etc) represent work in progress, the reification of the group's knowledge and are meant for further revision.

    This is the classic Community of Practice as proposed by Wenger. It represents the cornerstone of many modern-day knowledge management strategies for organisational learning.
  • Knowledge-based: here the focus is on the use and reuse of knowledge in a never ending cycle, as proposed by the likes of Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) and Brown and Duguid (1991). Products are produced only so far as necessary to express the current state of thinking and to help the dialogue and knowledge development to continue through further cycles. As such reports are meant to invite comment and revision. In such communities, there is considerable focus on the process of knowledge development and group collaboration.

    We can see examples of knowledge-based communities in research. The problem is often, however, that in order to attract sponsorship and funding they are obliged to produce useful products and cannot simply continuing developing knowledge in isolation from practice (quite right too!)

Learning organisation, represented by the intersection of the three types of community (Riel and Polin, 2004, p.40)

I find these typologies to be useful in identifying perhaps extreme examples of communities, however in the majority of cases examples of working communities for learning are a hybrid of all three types; effectively collaborating in joint activities, producing useful outputs related to practice and helping to advance the state-of-the art in domain knowledge.

I am wondering into which category I would place the recent Learning Event that I followed. It was tasked-based in that it focused on completing specific activities in a limited period, producing outputs that were one-off and including a group of teachers that was fixed over the duration. On the other hand, the outputs were only the by-products of the process of learning and the focus was on knowledge development - though this was at the individual, rather than the group level. Similarly, emphasis was placed on concrete practice and real life contexts, so in this respect the community was practice based. Perhaps this only serves to illustrate the fragile nature of the classification scheme proposed by Riel and Polin.


Barab, S., Kling, R. & Gray, J. (Eds.) (2004) Designing for virtual communities in the service of learning, Cambridge University Press.

Brown, J. S. & Duguid, P. (1991) 'Organizational Learning and Communities-of-Practice: Toward a Unified View of Working, Learning, and Innovation'. Organization Science, 2 (1), pp.40-57

Grossman, P., Wineburg, S. & Woolworth, S. (2000) What Makes Teacher Community Different from a Gathering of Teachers?, Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, University of Washington. (ONLINE - http://depts.washington.edu/ctpmail/PDFs/Community-GWW-01-2001.pdf - accessed 10.07.2010)

Nonaka, I. & Takeuchi, H. (1995) The Knowledge-Creating Company. New York, Oxford University Press, Inc.

Riel, M. & Polin, L. (2004) 'Online learning communities: Common ground and critical differences in designing technical environments', in Barab, S., Kling, R. & Gray, B. (Eds.), Designing for virtual communities in the service of learning, pp.16-50, Cambridge University Press


  1. Hi, Brian, Re project-based learning, Susanne Justesen's dissertation "Navigating the paradoxes of diversity in innovation practice:a longitudinal study of six very different innovation processes - in practice" and Inkeri Ruuska's "Social structures as communities for knowledge sharing in project-based environments". I took a whack at some of the technology issues in a blog post on the overlap between communities and project teams with respect to technology stewardship: http://technologyforcommunities.com/2010/05/digital-habitats-for-project-teams/

  2. Hi John, thanks for the link to your blog post. Great to read the discussions taking place on the differences/similarities between communities and projects.

    Intuitively I feel that what makes a group a community is the basic human socio-emotional satisfaction that one gets from establishing relations with like-minded people. As you say, passion, devotion, identification, all these powerful feelings come into play.

    PS: enjoying your book by the way!

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