My main question by the end of my last module post was something like:
What features are essential for platforms which are hosting a PLC?
This module follows up on that question.
Recall that this quarter is all about investigating ISTE Coaching Standard (CS) 4: Professional development and program evaluation. For Module 2, I’m looking specifically at ISTE CS 4b – design, develop, and implement technology rich professional learning programs that model principles of adult learning and promote digital age best practices in teaching, learning, and assessment.
Communities of practice
Communities of practice, as defined by Wenger (1998), is not a theory of learning that is specific to adults. As I understand it, it’s a theory of learning that can be applied to all ages. (Though more recent reformulations of communities of practice – i.e. Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder, 2002 – focus on their applicability to the workplace, which can be assumed to be adult-focused. See Cox (2005) for more on the different formulations of communities of practice.)
In short, Wenger’s (1998) conceptualization of a community of practice is a group of people who develop and use a shared repertoire of tools to mutually engage in the pursuit of a joint enterprise. “Learning” is a form of identity development and done through learning to participate in the community – through developing a shared meaning of what the community is and what it means to participate. What it means to participate is inherently flexible and under constant re-negotiation; thus, participants are continuously learning by virtue of participation in the community.
According to Schlager and Fusco (2003):
Researchers and reform advocates consistently cite participation in communities of practice as an integral factor in achieving effective, sustainable professional development systems. … The recognition that communities of practice can play important direct and catalytic roles in teacher learning has spurred great interest in how to harness the power of communities of practice in the context of systemic school reform and professional development projects. ( p. 206)
For clarity, I should note that one critique of communities of practice – and therefore, implicitly, the related body of literature – is that Wenger (1998) and Wenger et al. (2002) conceptualize communities of practice in sufficiently different ways. Based on these differences, Cox (2005) suggests that people using communities of practice pick one formulation of the theory and stick with it; I suspect that much of the communities of practice literature uses the two conceptualizations without distinction. On a different note, Schlager and Fusco (2003), draw a distinction between communities of purpose and communities of practice, claiming that professional development communities are often better defined as communities of purpose; they also elevate the question “what counts as a community of practice?”
All this to say, unless indicated otherwise, I now approach the mention of communities of practice with the assumption that those speaking of it aren’t making a distinction between the two conceptualizations of it; and I wonder if there is a justifiable argument to be made for carefully combining the two conceptualizations in a way that better fits the communities that can form in professional development. Or to put it a different way, is there a way to justifiably redraw the boundaries of “what counts” as a community of practice, which draws on both conceptualizations, so that we can better “harness the power” of communities of practice in PD contexts?
Platform features that support online communities
The above critiques and questions aside (for now), and working from the assumption that communities of practice can support teacher learning in PD, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Wenger et al. (2002) actually made a list of seven “online facilities that are among the most useful to communities”:
(1) A home page to assert their existence and describe their domain [compare to joint enterprise] and activities.
(2) A conversation space for online discussions.
(3) A repository for documents, including research reports, best practices, and standards.
(4) A good search engine to find things in the knowledge base.
(5) A directory of membership with some information about members’ areas of expertise in the domain.
(6) In some cases, a shared workspace for synchronous electronic collaboration, or to enhance teleconferences with visuals.
(7) Community management tools… These might include the ability to know who is participating actively, which documents are downloaded, how much traffic there is, which documents need updating, and so forth. (p. 197)
I also found two other lists: one from Feverbee (2012), and one from Serrat (2017). It is unclear to me how these two resources generated their lists, and Serrat’s (2017) references appear to be incorrect/incomplete. However, I found no other resources to compare to Wenger et al. (2002).
Out of curiosity, I color coded the lists for like elements (I took liberties with what I counted as the “home page” element).
The observations which I think are worth pointing out are:
- there are only two features that show up on all three lists: a discussion space and a list of members.
- if a feature showed up on only two lists, it did show up on Wenger et al.’s (2002) list.
- “notifications” only showed up on Feverbee’s (2012) list.
My top three most important features
- Member tagging
- Two levels of threaded conversation
Notifications is one of my top two essential features of communication platforms; the other being member tagging, which is related to notifications, and not on any of the lists. I agree with Feverbee (2012) that “members need to be notified when people have responded to their posts. This keeps members coming back. It sustains activity.” And tagging supports conversation by directing someone’s attention to a specific place.
I can’t say this feature is essential… but I think it’s extremely valuable: at least one extra level to threaded conversations. I think we can assume that most platforms have a commenting feature, which is the first level of threaded conversations – someone can make a post and that thread contains the post with its comments. So the extra level I’m referring to is being able to reply to a comment, giving you a second level of threaded conversations in that post. I think having at least two levels of threaded conversation is helpful because it supports linked (but possibly diverging) conversations by keeping conversations/responses more organized.
I couldn’t find a more recent academic list, but I do suspect that notifications and member tagging would make the cut on a list of essential elements of community platforms, and I suspect that I’m not the only one who sees multiple levels of threaded conversation as beneficial. I wish I could find a more recent academic resource on the topic, and without a formal study, I wonder what I would learn if I compared common features of the most popular social networking sites.
It would still be worth considering what activities people in PLCs engage in that make the PLCs successful, and then generating my own list of platform features from there (like I mentioned in my Module 1 blog post). Towards that end, Pappas’ (2016) blog post 8 Tips To Build An Online Learning Community would be a good resource to refer back to.
Bond, M. A. (2013). Constructing Guidelines for Building Communities of Practice for Supporting Faculty Professional Development in Electronic Environments (Doctoral dissertation, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University).
Cox, A. (2005). What are communities of practice? A comparative review of four seminal works. Journal of information science, 31(6), 527-540.
Feverbee. (2012). Essential elements of community platforms [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.feverbee.com/essential-elements-of-community-platforms/
Pappas, C. (2016). 8 tips to build an online learning community [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://elearningindustry.com/tips-build-online-learning-community
Schlager, M. S., & Fusco, J. (2003). Teacher professional development, technology, and communities of practice: Are we putting the cart before the horse? The Information Society, 19(3), 203-220.
Serrat O. (2017) Building Communities of Practice. In: Knowledge Solutions. Springer, Singapore. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-981-10-0983-9_61#Fn3
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge university press.
Wenger, E., McDermott, R. A., & Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice: A guide to managing knowledge. Harvard Business Press.