CoP Paper Analysis – What is a Community of Practice & how can we support it?


Hoadley, C. (2012). What is a Community of Practice and How Can We Support It? Theoretical Foundations of Learning, (814), 287–300.


  • A Community of Practice (CoP) is one of the most important concepts in social or situated learning theory (learning is unintentional and can occur through observation or direct instruction)
  • The term CoP has been used as a framework for learning and a methaphor for how instruction should take place
  • The term CoP is usually associated with Lave and Wenger but the term was also used by Brown and Duguid worked with Lave and Wenger (1991) and can be traced back to Julian Orr (1990) and even earlier to Edward Constant (1987)
  • Over time the term has evolved from a descriptive one to a prescriptive one
  • There are two types of definitions of CoPs – a feature-based definition and a process-based definition
  • Feature-based definition
    • a community that shares practices, where learning is a relational property of individuals in context and in interaction with one another
    • e.g. Photocopy repairmen co-constructed knowledge through the construction and sharing of stories and through joint problem-solving, they were able to learn more about the photocopier than they could from the manual – learning was situated in the context of problem solving
    • knowledge and learning are embedded in cultural practices
    • Constant (1987) highlighted CoPs as a unit of analysis to examine knowledge – he concluded the”range” of knowledge can be described by looking at communities of people who share practices and the practice is important because it identifies knowledge with something people “do” as part of their culture, profession or avocations.
    • the community of practice is “an intrinsic condition foor the existence of knowledge” – very different from the school orientated notion of knowledge in the head
    • learners may appear to know something but they fail to apply that knowledge to a context that is different to the one where they learned the skill – this puzzling defect at an individual level becomes sensible when looked at as a property of a grouop of people who all share certain practices – “practice fields” – learners have a practice that is shared by people at a similar stage of learning
    • Summary: the anthropological view of knowledge and situated learning identifies knowledge as a property lying somewhere between individuals and cultures, involving practices in context and highlights the importance of learning being situated in authentic practice fields
  • Process-based definition:
    • constant process of legitimate peripheral participation takes place
    • learners enter a community and gradually take up its practices, over time they take up more and more of the group membership and centrality, and more and more of the central practices of the group
    • 3 educational implications
      • in the CoP view, learners must have access to experts and must perceive themselve as members or aspire to be members of the community in which expert practices are central
      • if learners are to enculturate themselves by joining a CoP, it must already exist with some sort of common history and an identity
      • there must be space in an educational system for legitimate peripheral participation – if a student wishes to lurk more in a class before identifying enough with it to speak, they need to have a space in which it is legitimate to be on the periphery of the classroom discussion
  • Communities of Practice V Knowledge Communities
    • since Constant and Lave and Wenger popularized the term communities of practice, the term has been altered in 2 ways
      • the first shift has been from CoPs that form naturally to one that can be created and fosterd by a teacher, manager, community officer etc.
      • the second change is the introduction of technology platforms which support or foster communities of practice
      • knowledge-building communities and CoPs are often classed as the same thing but this isn’t the truth – knowledge building communities are intentional, the goal of the community is explicitly on learning and building knowledge. In a CoP learning is an incidental, instrumental aspect of the process (e.g. the photocopy repairmen)
      • the second difference between the two is the source and nature of authenticity – a knowledge building community may be investigating questions that arise from a teacher’s initial agenda whereas in a CoP that emerges naturally, the learning goal tends to develop over time depending on the community’s function and role in society
      • the third difference is how much the core practice or value of the community is a learning practice as opposed to some other authentic professional or livelihood related practice
      • Andriessen (2005) attempted to create an umbrella term to include all communities that support or generate knowledge – “knowledge communities
      • several feature of knowledge communities were identified
        • whether or not they have a common purpose
        • whether or not they have a committment to a shared deliverable
        • whether there is a defined membership
        • the formaility or informality of the group
        • composition
        • degree or interaction or reciprocity
        • whether the community has a strong identity
        • whether to crosses or lies with formal organisations
        • whether it is geographically distributed or not
        • what degree of interaction in the group is technologically mediated
      • 2 correlated sets of characteristics – connectivity and institutionalization
      • from these he created 5 clusters
        • low connectivity, high institutionalization – interest groups, groups of people with a shared interest
        • moderate activity, low institutionliztion – Communities of interest, informal networks
        • high connectivity, low institutionalization – CoPs
        • high connectivity, high institutionlization – strategic communities
        • low connectivity, high institutionalization – gap in the knowledge communities literature
    • Technology and Communities of Practice
      • (Wenger, White, Smith 2010)
      • the technologies which have been the primary focus of education and communities of practice researchers are ICT
      • How can technology support a CoP?
        • Content
        • Process
        • Context (CPC – Hoadley and Kilner 2005)
      • Content:
        • representational abilities of technology
        • the ability to store and manipulate information in a variety of formats
        • to transmit representations across distance or allow time-shifting
        • the ability to suppot human representational capacity
      • Process:
        • to ability to scaffold a particular task, activity or sequence of actions
      • Context:
        • the ability to shift the social context of the user
      • Educational designers mights ask how technology might support either the formation or continuation of a CoP in which desired learning takes place? 4 techniques:
        • linking others with similar practices
        • providing access to shared repositories
        • supporting conversation within a community
        • providing awareness of the context of information resources
      • these four techniques follow four of th target areas in Hoadley and Kilner’s (2005) C4P Model of CoPs
      • the see the structure of an online community of practice as consisting of four factors supporting a common purpose – the 4 C’s (content, conversation, connections and information context)
      • 1st technique
        • sharing a practice is not enough, they must have connectivity
        • Social network tools can help with these “connections” – this may include locating other people who share similar practices, e.g. set up a Facebook group where people gradually join and develop individual relationships with others in the community and they “friend” each other an use the feature like the NewsFeed to deepen the relationship through greater awareness of each others lives etc.
      • 2nd technique
        • a repository of simple infomation that is used by the community in its practices rather than the knowledge of the community
        • e.g. a CoP of university students in a writing course may use a wiki as a shared repository for references and drafts of papers
        • this would be a way of supporting content
      • 3rd technique
        • supporting conversation
        • e.g. bulletin board, commenting tools for blog posted that are protected by passwords for members , online video-conferencing tool, discussion forum, wiki, course management system or simply telephone and email or a virtual world like Second Life to ogenerate a context in which people can communicate
      • 4th technique
        • e.g. an online bookstore might provide automated recommendations that would helpa member of a community uncover what sort of books ae typically read by the same people
        • this is helping establish the information context for shared information resources
      • these are not a full list but instead the more commonly applied techniques

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