“Community of Inquiry” and “Community of Practice” in Online Learning Communities

From E-Learning Faculty Modules

"Learning, it seems to me, is neither wholly subjective nor fully encompassed in social interaction, and it is not constituted separately from the social world (with its own structures and meanings) of which it is part." (Lave, 1991, p. 64)

“Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” (Wenger, 2009, p. 1)


Module Summary

In instructor-led online learning, in higher education, the sense of “community” is an important one—particularly in terms of how the instructor interacts with learners and learners with each other…and learners with professionals in the particular learning domain… At least two theorized approaches apply in this “community of learners” context: the “community of inquiry” and the “community of practice.” This work offers a light summary of some of the main concepts and practices.


Learners will...

  • review what a “community of inquiry” and what a “community of practice” is (based on the relevant applied theories)
  • consider what the respective roles are within the communities of inquiry and the communities of practice (and consider why)
  • review ways to build communities in a learning management system (LMS)
  • consider some theories that inform how people build social bonds (particularly in learning contexts)…and also what some of the implications of these theories are
  • consider the technologies in an LMS that enable social interaction and short-term and long-term relationship building…and some effective ways to harness these technologies for creating community

Module Pretest

1. What is a community of inquiry? What is a community of practice? What are some applied theories that inform on how communities of inquiry form and evolve? How communities of practice form and evolve? What are some of the mainline educational and other theories that inform understandings of both communities of inquiry and communities of practice?

2. What are some of the main respective roles in a community of inquiry? The main roles in a community of practice? Why?

3. What are some ways to build communities in a learning management system (LMS)?

4. What are some theories that inform how people build social bonds (particularly in learning contexts)? What are some of the implications of these theories?

5. What are some of the technologies in an LMS that enable social interaction and short-term and long-term relationship building? What are some effective ways to harness these technologies for creating community?

Main Contents

1. What is a community of inquiry? What is a community of practice? What are some applied theories that inform on how communities of inquiry form and evolve? How communities of practice form and evolve? What are some of the mainline educational and other theories that inform understandings of both communities of inquiry and communities of practice?

“…community means meaningful association, association based on common interest and endeavor. The essence of community is communication…” – John Dewey

In terms of human endeavors, from learning to innovation to self-development, community (the presence of others) is thought to play a central role. Community is thought to enhance people’s individual autonomy and agency, not necessarily diminish these. There are two main bodies of theoretical work that may inform online learning.

Community of inquiry.

A “community of inquiry” is conceptualized as a temporary coming together of a generally small group of people to (1) answer relevant questions, (2) solve defined problems, (3) share expertise and resources, and (4) engage in relevant research. The topics of inquiry may be based on a specific subject area or domain, or they may relate to related multi-disciplinary issues. Over time, the inquiries change with the interests of the group.

One researcher defines a CoI as the following:

“...a group of people, who are voluntary members with various expertise of equal value, who are jointly involved in a problem solving process based on the general principles of the scientific method and in a collaborative learning process; these combined processes facilitate the individual and collective construction of knowledge”. This double process constitutes, in our view, one of the fundamental characteristics of a community of inquiry.” (Jézégou, 2010, p. 6)

Theoretically, this model draws from theorizing and research into practical inquiry, communities of inquiry, critical thinking, situated learning, and others. It suggests that three main factors enable communities of inquiry to coalesce and function, with learning benefits for its members. These three elements include: cognitive presence (interactions based on goals and direction, learner reflection), social presence (engagement with participants, connectivity between learners), and teaching presence (designed teaching facilitation, learning contents). Various researchers have elaborated on the respective model. For example, teaching presence has been conceptualized as “the design, facilitation and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes” (Arbaugh, Cleveland-Innes, Diaz, Garrison, Ice, Richardson, Shea, & Swan, Feb. 29, 2008, p. 11; Arbaugh, June 2008).


This above image was created by Matbury and shared on April 28, 2014 on Wikipedia.

A simple “cycle of inquiry” has the following experience for learners: ask, investigate, create, discuss, and reflect. In the reflection, new insights are found, and new learning is captured. This cycle of inquiry, taking place in a social ecosystem, enhances the chances for both metacognition and enriched learning:

“The social spaces provided in online communities have demonstrated that metacognition, where students construct meaning and confirm knowledge in the presence of peers, has the potential to increase during online student discussions” (Akyol & Garrison, 2011a,b, as cited in Wicks, Craft, Mason, Gritter, & Bolding, 2015, p. 54).

For the learner, under the CoI model, the experienced sequence moves between the learner’s private world in which he or she reflects about the experiences and the learning and the external shared world with other learners, with whom the learner has discourse. The learning cycle includes exploration, integration, resolution, and triggering event, which leads to a change in awareness. The experiential cycle includes: deliberation (applicability), conception (ideas), action (practice), and perception (awareness). (Arbaugh, Cleveland-Innes, Diaz, Garrison, Ice, Richardson, Shea, & Swan, Feb. 29, 2008, p. 25). In a study of online and blended educational communities of inquiry, researchers have defined indicators of various aspects of the model (Akyol & Garrison, 2011), which may benefit coding.

An earlier study of a blended faculty development community of inquiry found changes in intercommunications by the members:

”The pattern of social comments changed considerably over time within the online discussion forum. The frequency of comments reflecting affective and open communication decreased while those with group cohesion increased dramatically. A similar trend was not observed within the face-to-face transcripts. In terms of teaching presence, the percentage of comments coded for design & organization and facilitating discourse decreased over time in both the face-to-face and online transcripts while comments containing an element of direct instruction increased considerably.” (Vaughan & Garrison, 2006, p. 139)

Researchers have studied communities of practice to better understand how the respective elements—social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence—are indicated and therefore observable (Arbaugh, Cleveland-Innes, Diaz, Garrison, Ice, Richardson, Shea, & Swan, Feb. 29, 2008, p. 9). “Cognitive presence” has been defined as “the exploration, construction, resolution and confirmation of understanding through collaboration and reflection in a community of inquiry” (Garrison, 2007). “Social presence” is based on the ability to “project themselves socially and emotionally – as ‘real’ people” and also how much participants feel connected with each other through online means (Arbaugh, Cleveland-Innes, Diaz, Garrison, Ice, Richardson, Shea, & Swan, Feb. 29, 2008, p. 18). The elements of “teaching presence” include “instructional design and organization, facilitation of discourse, and direct instruction” (Arbaugh, Cleveland-Innes, Diaz, Garrison, Ice, Richardson, Shea, & Swan, Feb. 29, 2008, p. 13).

The CoI framework is considered useful for online designs:

”This framework has been used in instructional design to enhance learning outcomes in both online and blended courses. CoI provides a framework for facilitating meaningful online learning through three interdependent elements: social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence (Garrison et al., 2001). As such, CoI provides a framework from which to educate faculty on issues relevant to teaching and facilitating blended courses, as well as providing a framework within which faculty can create blended courses” (Wicks, Craft, Mason, Gritter, & Bolding, 2015, p. 53).

The community of inquiry framework though may be more effective for some disciplines than others:

”Our results found significant disciplinary differences, particularly regarding cognitive presence, in soft, applied disciplines relative to other disciplines. These initial results suggest the possibility that the CoI framework may be more applicable to applied disciplines than pure disciplines. Our findings suggest interesting opportunities for future researchers to consider how the individual elements of the CoI framework may influence and be influenced by academic disciplines and how the framework may need to be refined or modified to explain effective course conduct in pure disciplines” (Arbaugh, Bangert, & Cleveland-Innes, 2010, p. 37).

Another research work, informed by high-touch online learning (with high instructor interactivity), suggests that “instructor social presence” has an important effect on the community of inquiry and the learning environment, when designed appropriately. Based on a review of the literature, the authors suggest that adding “instructor social presence” to the CoI framework may have salutary effects (Pollard, Minor, & Swanson, 2014).

Community of practice.

In the original conceptualization, a “community of practice” (CoP) is formed when “a group of learners meet regularly to collaborate to construct and improve knowledge about a topic they care about (Wenger, 2011, as cited in Wicks, Craft, Mason, Gritter, & Bolding, 2015, p. 55). These gatherings are conceptualized as common practice from earliest Western culture in classical Greece with its “corporations of metalworkers, potters, masons and other craftsmen” (Wenger & Snyder, Jan. – Feb. 2000, p. 140) and are thought to have existed from antiquity. In another definition, a CoP is a gathering of people of different backgrounds and levels of expertise who coalesce around particular work, work-related identities, and shared endeavors (“joint enterprise”) (Nickols, 2003, p. 2).

Communities of practice involve people learning through interactive social participation, professional identity, and shared practice. In a review of the literature, there are various conceptualizations of communities of practice based on topics such as the closeness or cohesiveness of its members, whether or not projects are involved, how homogeneous or heterogeneous the communities are, whether the communities are co-located physically and geographically or whether they are distributed, how long such communities last, and other features.

By definition, membership in a community of practice “implies a minimum level of knowledge of that domain—a shared competence that distinguishes members from other people” (“Supporting communities…,” 2001, p. 2). The members work together to solve “authentic” or real-world problems.

Participation in a community of practice suggests “commitment to the domain” (Wenger, 2009, p. 1). The members of these communities engage in shared practice:

”Members of a community of practice develop a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems— in short a shared practice” (“Supporting communities…,” 2001, p. 3).

In communities of practice, there is a sense that “working, learning, and innovating” are unified (Brown & Duguid, Feb. 1991, p. 40) and mutually supporting, in work places. In communities of practice, learning itself is a “legitimate peripheral participation” per Lave & Wenger (1990). There is the added benefit of having the learning situated in its applied context in a community of practice.

Another considers two basic conditions for a community of practice: (1) “shared experience over time” and (2) “a commitment to shared understanding” (Eckert, 2006).

In early days when communities of practice were set up with communications technologies, researchers worked to clarify how these might instantiate. For example, it is sufficient to be connected by email networks, whether or not they have an explicit shared agenda (Wenger & Snyder, Jan. – Feb. 2000, pp. 139 - 140). They describe what communities of practice actually look like in terms of messaging (“Has anyone dealt with a customer in this situation?”) and activities. For example, Wenger (2009) listed the following: “problem solving, requests for information, seeking experience, reusing assets, coordination and synergy, discussing developments, documentation projects, visits, (and) mapping knowledge and identifying gaps” (p. 2).

When online communities of practice are used with a particular learning focus in mind, there are multiple frameworks and design approaches that may be applied to turn these into knowledge building communities:

”First, the C4P framework is described as a way of understanding how knowledge is created and disseminated by participants in a community of practice. Second, we discuss ways in which technology provides added value for learning in these environments using the DDC (Design for Distributed Cognition) framework, and link this to the particular goals of a knowledge building community” (Hoadley & Kilner, 2005, p. 31).

The C4P framework focuses on “purposeful conversation around content in context” with C4P as “shorthand for content, conversation, connections, (information) context, and purpose” (Hoadley & Kilner, 2005, p. 33). The Design for Distributed Cognition framework focuses on designing not only for individual cognition but for group and social cognition.

”The design for distributed cognition framework identifies three classes of advantages that technology can provide to learning environments: a representational advantage, where information technology provides access to novel representations of information in support of learning; a process advantage, where technology supports or facilitates learner tasks or activities; and a social context advantage, where technology shifts the social context in which the learning takes place, changing either relationships between people or relationships to self” (Hoadley & Kilner, 2005, p. 35).

Professional associations have harnessed communities of practice to support the informal learning of their members (Gray, 2004). Organizations may create social interaction mechanisms to enhance the “sense of trust and mutual obligation” between interactants in the community to encourage the sharing of knowledge to benefit the organization, its new hires, its work, and other innovations (Lesser & Storck, 2001, p. 831). There is research on what motivates people to share knowledge or not in virtual communities of practice (Ardichvili, Aug. 2008, p. 550). People in an organization tend to treat knowledge like a “private good” instead of a “public one”; reconceptualizing such knowledge in this latter way may ensure “moral obligation and community interest” in sharing (Wasko & Faraj, 2000, p. 155). For teams to work together to solve ill-structured open-ended problems, there has to be a sense of “safety and trust” within the community of practice and a clear sense of others’ intentions (such as focusing on problems without a sense of blame) (Johnson, 2001, p. 50). Some researchers have theorized what elements may contribute to online knowledge sharing, including: “organizational structure, ease of use, perceived usefulness, identity-based trust, benevolence-based trust, competence-based trust, career advancement, sense of community, (and) value congruence” (Sharratt & Usoro, 2003, p. 192). In communities of practice, some may affirm people’s professional identities but others may convey “a strong sense of marginalization and alienation” (Bathmaker & Avis, 2005).

‘’’Maintaining communities of practice.’’’ While these communities may form in an ad hoc or organic way, there are methods for supporting communities of practice as they evolve. A core concept is to design for “aliveness,” or human dynamism, so approaching such communities in a “contrive(d)” or “dictat(ing)” way does not work (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, Mar. 25, 2002, p. 1). The authors share insights on how to design for aliveness.

"The goal of community design is to bring out the community's own internal direction, character, and energy. The principles we developed to do this focus on the dilemmas at the heart of designing communities of practice. What is the role of design for a "human institution" that is, by definition, natural, spontaneous, and self-directed? How do you guide such an institution to realize itself, to become "alive?" From our experience we have derived seven principles:
1. Design for evolution.
2. Open a dialogue between inside and outside perspectives.
3. Invite different levels of participation.
4. Develop both public and private community spaces.
5. Focus on value.
6. Combine familiarity and excitement.
7. Create a rhythm for the community." (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, Mar. 25, 2002, p. 2)

Historically, corporations and business organizations did not promote communities of practice because these exist across formal work units and were somewhat seen as disruptive.

Over the years, as more research emerged to the organizational benefits of the work of communities of practice, organizations started adding communities of practice as a priority. This has also meant that organizations have been willing to invest financial and technological resources into CoP with the expectation of ROI and value (Millen, Fontaine, & Muller, 2002, p. 1). Some companies have used communities of practice and their knowledge to enhance the applied and situated relevance of work-based trainings (Stamps, Feb. 1997), in part because of the tacit information captured from CoP. CoPs enable employees to use practical insights from their everyday work to solve workplace challenges and enhance organizational learning (Brown & Duguid, 1991).

Wenger (June 1998) describes an emergent forming of CoP in businesses:

”Within businesses: Communities of practice arise as people address recurring sets of problems together. So claims processors within an office form communities of practice to deal with the constant flow of information they need to process. By participating in such a communal memory, they can do the job without having to remember everything themselves” (Wenger, June 1998, p. 3).

The extant communities of practice may have varying relationships with the official organization: unrecognized, bootlegged, legitimized, strategic, and transformative (Wenger, June 1998, p. 5). In other words, such organizations may be invisible and not seen as having much organizational impact all the way to being “capable of redefining its environment and the direction of the organization (Wenger, June 1998, p. 5).

CoPs in an organization engage in the “creation, accumulation, and diffusion of knowledge in an organization” (Wenger, June 1998, p. 5). CoPs play an important role in terms of enhancing the learning capabilities of an organization:

”Communities of practice structure an organization's learning potential in two ways: through the knowledge they develop at their core and through interactions at their boundaries. Like any asset, these communities can become liabilities if their own expertise becomes insular. It is therefore important to pay as much attention to the boundaries of communities of practice as to their core, and to make sure that there is enough activity at these boundaries to renew learning. For while the core is the center of expertise, radically new insights often arise at the boundary between communities. Communities of practice truly become organizational assets when their core and their boundaries are active in complementary ways:” (Wenger, June 1998, p. 6).

A community of practice is a “social learning system” (Wenger, 2000). Meaning-making in a social context happens through interrelating with others as well as by producing

“physical and conceptual artifacts—words, tools, concepts, methods, stories, documents, links to resources, and other forms of reification—that reflect our shared experience and around which we organize our participation. (Literally, reification means “making into an object.”). Meaningful learning in social contexts requires both participation and reification to be in interplay. Artifacts without participation do not carry their own meaning; and participation without artifacts is fleeting, unanchored, and uncoordinated” (Wenger, 2000, p. 1).

In the CoP interactions, people are strengthening their senses of identities especially in terms of organizations, professional roles, and expertise / knowledge. They are also reaffirming their “learning citizenship” (Wenger, 2000, p. 14).

Stages of development for a community of practice. The stages of development as defined by Wenger (June 1998) include the following: potential, coalescing, active, dispersed, and memorable. The potential stage has individuals facing shared problems but not working together with “shared practice.” The coalescing phase has members coming together and “recognizing their potential.” The “active” stage is the one in which members co-create practice by “engaging in joint activities, creating artifacts, adapting to changing circumstances, renewing interest, commitment, and relationships”. The “dispersed phase” shows diminishing member intensity, but “the community is still alive as a force and a center of knowledge.” In the fifth and last stage, the CoP, the community “is no longer central, but people still remember it as a significant part of their identities (Wenger, June 1998, p. 3).

Virtual communities . With the popularization of communications technologies, these communities of inquiry and practice migrated online, allowing physically distributed collaborations. In some ways, these communities maintained some of the former features from physical space; in other ways, they evolved some of their own characteristics.

“Every group that shares interest on a website is called a community today, but communities of practice are a specific kind of community. They are focused on a domain of knowledge and over time accumulate expertise in this domain. They develop their shared practice by interacting around problems, solutions, and insights, and building a common store of knowledge.” (“Supporting communities of practice: A survey of community-oriented technologies,” March 2001, p. 1)

Online learning communities. Learning communities are conceptualized as social groups in which there is a culture of learning individually and collectively. Learning communities do not have expert knowledge situated in one individual but is shared among group members:

”Rather, knowledge is distributed amongst the group members, each of whom uses their knowledge and skills to contribute to the group endeavor. Not only are groups able to accomplish more, but it has been argued that this type of learning leads to deeper understanding of content and processes for the group members (diSessa & Minstrell, 1998, as cited in Rogers, 2000, pp. 1 - 2).

So online learning communities entail facets of communities of inquiry, communities of practice, virtual communities, and some of their own features. To summarize, learning communities are about acquiring knowledge and skills. In such communities, the members have varying levels of expertise and experiences. In some, the members may have very differing interests, with some wanting to remain as amateurs and with others as novices in the domain but wanting to be experts; then, too, there are experts, who are there looking to share their expertise, build reputation, and maybe find inspiration for new approaches, techniques, and technologies. Each member brings something of value to the group although if the Pareto principle holds, only 20 percent of the population actively participates and contributes, and 80 percent merely lurk or engage passively.

Of course, online learning communities in online courses will require 100% participation and some threshold of member contributions for both community health and for passing grades. In formal online classes, learning communities also often have defined learning objectives and project standards. The faculty member is the resident expert along with graduate teaching assistants; there may also be practicing experts in the field that act as members as well. Things of value may include social facilitation capabilities, information, access to resources, social connections, language skills, technological skills, and others. In online learning communities, individuals and groups may engage in separate projects. There are some works in the research literature that define how to create and maintain such communities for efficacy. One research team suggests that communities of learning should not be separate from professional communities (Schlager & Fusco, 2003) but should integrate professionals and practitioners.

In the broad Web, online learning communities also exist. These may spring up based on any number of factors: social technologies, shared interests, charismatic individuals, an online course, hard problems, new and old technologies, and others. There may be ties with professional organizations, corporations, non-profits, institutions of higher education, and other formal organizations. Some communities may be seeded with money. These may attract amateurs, hobbyists, and dabblers. Others may be elite invitation-only communities of individuals who meet to share expertise and for the camaraderie; some groups may contain individuals with a mix of backgrounds to collaborate around complex unstructured problems. Some may be spinoffs from professional practices. Others may be mixed groups with varying levels of expertise, such as developer groups. Some may attract individuals from various age groups.

What are some ways to design online learning communities that motivate participants to take on the hard work of learning and to share what they know with others? Building on Wenger (1998), J. Rogers suggests the following structuring inclusive activities for learners to take on central roles and to “tap into the background/experience/knowledge” to do the work. Further, he suggests the importance of building work that may be successfully achieved, with mentoring and support. There should be opportunities to reflect on the work and learning during the process. There should be “development of multiple viewpoints.” Also, learners should be encouraged to explore and evaluate “the artifacts within the community,” among others (Rogers, 2000, p. 9).

There are more contemporaneous terms for different types of virtual learning communities. A collaborator” consists of mutual learners who collaborate around science explorations, for example.

Required social technologies. Researchers have explored how technological factors affect virtual communities. One approach involves defining which activities are most important to communities and then pursuing the technologies that enable those aims (Schoenfeld, 1996, p. 11).

In one conceptualization, communities of practice are built around the following elements: ongoing integration of work and knowledge, work, social structures, conversation, fleeting interactions, instruction, knowledge exchange, and documents (Wenger, as cited in “Supporting communities…,” 2001, p. 12). To support such communities via the Web and Internet, then, the underlying technologies have to provide enables to interact in those required ways.

From a community of inquiry approach, an important aspect of collaborative learning involves social presence, which is “associated with the degree of participation and social interaction amongst them” and “a critical variable for learning,” so the technologies and social practices have to enable individuals to create their social identities through “purposeful communication” and “relationships” (Kreijns, van Acker, Vermeulen, & Buuren, 2014, p. 5). The communications have to be sufficiently thick to convey people in their complexity. Indeed, there are creative applications of communities of inquiry for learning, such as in a simulated town of River City experiencing a disease outbreak in a multi-user virtual environment (with learners interacting and problem-solving as digital avatars) (Ketelhut, Nelson, Clark, & Dede, 2010). Another research work has found that communities of inquiry have been built recognizably on Multi-user Virtual Environments (MUVEs) (McKwerlich & Anderson, 2008) and in blended learning contexts.

These broader online learning communities may be built on or across various social media platforms, on learning management system technologies (including those built for massive open online courses or “MOOCs”). For example, various online learning groups may connect around shared social imagery, shared social slideshows, shared social videos, or other digital artifacts that may be shared. These online learning communities may be blended, with some physical F2F meet-ups. For many, the members may have individual handles or pseudonyms, which allow people to interact without publicly revealing personally identifiable information (PII).

Precursors or antecedents for human sharing of knowledge depend on individuals’ levels of trust (Usoro, Sharratt, Tsui, & Shekhar, Aug. 2007), and the technological features of a shared communications system need to reinforce users’ “knowledge sharing orientation” to facilitate this (Usoro, Sharratt, Tsui, & Shekhar, Aug. 2007, p. 2).

Finally, at a more micro-level, multimedia and different modalities of communications are seen to enhance intercommunications and collaboration.

Social norms for online learning communities. Operationalizing online learning communities (of inquiry and of practice, and others) requires finesse. In online learning communities, the values and practices of the field are usually brought into play. In communities of practice, individuals are being acculturated into professional and social practices, so the actions within such groups are critical to this acculturation process.

Some common project types in learning communities are “jigsaws,” with respective individuals and groups handling particular facets of an issue…or project…or design…and then sharing their work with the larger community.

In “a classroom community of inquiry,” under democratic norms, there is a competing and negotiated sense of authority in the discussions (Brubaker, 2012). This requires instructors to be reflective in their teaching. Brubaker (2012) suggests three major themes in creating a course-based community of inquiry:

”(1) constructing relations of mutual interdependence,
(2) deriving legitimacy from mutually recognized sources,
(3) communicating about the problem rather than the people” (Brubaker, 2012, p. 244; numbers added by the module author)

The instructor has to encourage learners to find respected sources of information about which to interact (for validity) and to work to encourage critical thinking among learners (Brubaker, 2012, p. 245).

Why join communities? Members are the lifeblood of a community, and there need to be a sufficient number to create social momentum and cohesion. Because of the competition for people’s time and attention, groups are in high competition with others for members. People choose whether or not to be members of communities of inquiry / communities of practice / virtual communities / online learning communities for a number of reasons. Some of the reasons are as follows:

  • Their friends are members. Or their social needs may be met in the communities, with a sense of camaraderie, warmth, humor, and fun.
  • The groups align with their interests (professional, personal, learning, and other).
  • They may express aspects of themselves in the communities. For example, their ego and achievement needs may be met in such communities.
  • They have a particular problem they need to solve (or question they need to answer), and members of that community can provide help in that direction.
  • The price of joining the community is not too high, and there is not a price to be paid for being passive or lurking.
  • There is interest in continuing learning in a field to prevent skills and knowledge decay.
  • There may be excitement with new projects and new learning. The work of the group may be “hard fun.” In other words, the talents and skills of the individual are fully challenged, and there is a high reward in the process. (Think Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research on “flow.”) The most elite communities are those with members with high expertise and recognition-in-field who are engaged dealing with complex problems and currently-unsolved challenges.
  • Having a role in a community may provide a sense of social affirmation. It may involve access to people and resources, and social capital.
  • The community may provide a sense of competition, to encourage an individual to do his / her best work.
  • The community may have a positive reputation, which may burnish the social credentials of the individual.

Empirically, there is research that shows that postgraduate learners may benefit from participation in communities of practice to enable their achievement of professional success (Wisker, Robinson, & Shacham, Aug. 2007), in other words, transitioning from an educational environment to a professional one.

The impetus for communities to form will change over time, and as they change, group cohesion will change, and memberships will change. People have a lot of competition for their time and attention, and once a bond no longer provides perceived benefits or potential future benefits, people will move on.

In general, communities exist for a time. Members enter, and they leave. Many (all) communities will eventually sunset.

Exploring the community models and frameworks. While the “communities of inquiry” and the “communities of practice” concepts have become fairly widely accepted, this is not a blanket acceptance. There have been studies that have probed human motivations for engaging in communities of practice, such as one based on theories of the human construct of self-identity (Handley, Sturdy, Fincham, & Clark, May 2006, pp. 644 - 645). A study found that the three elements of the CoI and their sub-elements changed in importance over time in an online course. In terms of “cognitive presence,” integration occurred at a fairly high rate, but much less “triggering event” and “resolution” Akyol, Z. & Garrison, D.R., 2008, p. 10). For example, in terms of social presence, open communications started high but diminished over time; affect rose from the early part of a course but ultimately diminished to below starting levels, and group cohesion started low but rose gradually over time (Akyol, Z. & Garrison, D.R., 2008, p. 9). In terms of “teaching presence” over time, the “design & organization” seem to play a small role consistently over time. “Direct instruction” increased over time, and “facilitating discourse” was more prevalent early on but diminished somewhat over time (Akyol, Z. & Garrison, D.R., 2008, p. 12). Of the three main components of the CoI framework, social and cognitive presence ranked high over time while teaching presence started comparatively low but did increase over time (Akyol, Z. & Garrison, D.R., 2008, p. 14). This research work has some intriguing insights for follow-up.

Researchers have studied what a “teaching presence” looks like for online learning based on three aspects: “design and organization, facilitating discourse, and direct instruction” (Anderson, Rourke, Garrison, & Archer, Sept. 2001). Their work and that of others has helped bridge the abstractions of models to the applied and lived worlds of people and communities. How they are instantiated for online learning varies. Some of the models are under direct critique, such as the Community of Inquiry framework (Xin, 2012). There is agreement that design of “structure and leadership” are important for online learners to “take a deep and meaningful approach to learning” (Garrison & Cleveland-Innes, 2005, p. 133). The sense of “instructor immediacy” (Baker, 2003, as cited in Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007, p. 168), a factor of teaching presence, is an influence for affective and cognitive learning. Based on an empirical study, another team has suggested that “learning presence” be added to the community of inquiry model (which has “social presence,” “teaching presence,” and “cognitive presence” already, with nuanced definitions of each) (Shea, Hayes, Smith, Vickers, Bidjerano, Pickett, Gozza-Cohen, Wilde, & Jian, 2012, p. 93).

Another angle involves exploring how well the CoI framework supports learner development of metacognition through interactions, both as individuals and as groups, given metacognition’s critical role in learner self-regulation and communal regulation (Garrison & Akyol, 2013, p. 84). Prior research found that U.S. college students going through a CoI-based course require a powerful sense of “online learner self-regulation,” which the authors call “learning presence”; without this, online learners do not adjust well to the varying qualities of teaching, social, and cognitive presence (Shea & Bidjerano, 2012, p. 316). The authors suggest that vetting learners for online learning is an important step:

”In view of the small effect sizes found, however, one should be cautious to infer that in environments where teaching presence and social presence are entirely absent, learners can acquire cognitive presence by themselves. Teaching presence and social presence remain key predictors of learners’ ability to attain cognitive presence. Still, we should be cognizant of the fact that the degree to which the latter are achievable is conditional upon prior individual difference characteristics. Our findings may have particularly relevant implications for online admission policies. Given the expected variability in teaching quality in such online programs as well as anticipated sense of social disconnect for some students, selection criteria for entry in such programs should be extended to assess that the candidates have attained the prerequisite levels of self-regulatory maturity.” (Shea & Bidjerano, 2012, p. 324)

In a comparative study between CoIs in both online and blended learning environments, the researchers found that “in both the online and blended course a community of inquiry developed and students could sense each presence. However, the findings revealed developmental differences in social and cognitive presence between the two course formats with higher perceptions in the blended course” (Akyol, Garrison, & Ozden, Dec. 2009, p. 65). This suggests that the teaching and learning modality has an effect on how the community of inquiry construct is perceived by learners.

In a different research study, learners in an online CoI learning environment were

“uncomfortable expressing themselves in an online environment and felt a lack of freedom to disagree with class members. Demographic data showed that students preferred a sense of community but were not so fond of collaborative assignments that are essential for building the community they desire. Since collaborative assignments demand a greater degree of communication and ability to bring problems to an adequate resolution, it is plausible that inhibitions in expressing oneself may become more pronounced when more collaboration is required” (Lambert & Fisher, Spring 2013, p. 1).

Certainly, the various models and frameworks for community building are evolving and changing. The CoI framework has been fairly stable and robust, even in the face of some light criticisms and rebuttals (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2010).

2. What are some of the main respective roles in a community of inquiry? The main roles in a community of practice? Why?

Communities of inquiry as well as communities of practice are thought to emerge, with unplanned and ad hoc starts. In some of the research literature, these communities may be urged along by individuals who have seen such group potentials. Of late, there are suggestions that such communities may be formally formed and supported to achieve particular ends. No matter how these communities originate, there are not any real assigned roles per se in either community type. People may choose to self-appoint themselves into particular roles, but their actual roles may depend on what others in the community think.

In virtual online learning communities that may be built on a community of inquiry framework or on a community of practice one, there are likely much more formal role assignments and defined expectations.

In communities of practice, Jean Lave described “a cyclical process of newcomers becoming old timers and working with other newcomers as apprentices to share the learning” (Lave, 1991, pp. 81 - 82). These are roles: “newcomers,” “old timers,” and “apprentices.” This language may be considered quite dated but a little charming nonetheless.

3. What are some ways to build communities in a learning management system (LMS)?

For fully online courses, there are some practical ways to build community (writ large) and communities (both ad hoc and formal ones).

Building community generally involves several endeavors:

  • Provide opportunities for learners to socialize and to get to know each other with assignments, such as meet-and-greets on the discussion board or in a synchronous web session.
  • Model civility and politeness. Praise and encourage kind communications and other acts in the online course.
  • Be inclusive of all participants, and apply procedural justice in the equal treatment of all the members.
  • Create group assignments that encourage learners to interact with each other in ways that encourage both individual and group co-learning. Encourage collegiality.
  • For asynchronous online discussions, to promote learning and constructive interactivity, going with an online protocol has been found to be preferable over going with less structured assignments (Zydney, deNoyelles, & Seo, 2012, p. 77).
  • Provide many opportunities for learners to interact constructively. Offer multiple non-lean channels through which they may express their personhood and identities, and also interact and collaborate. Allow learners to maintain a level of privacy, though. For example, if the learners are not interested in using live video, then offer other options to communicate (such as voice-only interactions). Also, if there is a project on a social media platform with public settings for the account, do not force a public engagement for those who do not want to use publicly identifiable information (PII) or to show their work in a public venue. Offer an alternate way to learn the same materials and engage with peers.

In terms of building communities in online learning, it first helps to consider the “layers of communities” concept. This is the idea that there are micro, meso, and macro communities. At the micro end may be dyads or triads of small groups of learners who connect based on various reasons. At the meso and macro levels, people generally connect more around defined interests and objectives.

To support the building of these communities, all the above apply, but there may be additional approaches.

  • If learners have shared reasons to connect—such as learning interests or shared scholarships or some other reason—the instructor may make an email or web conferencing or other introduction.

These are very preliminary ideas…and there is a lot of room to improve on these.

4. What are some theories that inform how people build social bonds (particularly in learning contexts)? What are some of the implications of these theories?

To provide a simple response, social network analysis and some of its attendant approaches to human interaction may be informative. In brief, network analysis would suggest that people interact around shared interests and “homophily” (people connect with others who are like them). People tend to socialize with others from their similar social background. People may bond for varying periods of time based on both their own internal needs and the larger environment. People do have limits to how many people they may engage socially (in part per Dunbar’s number), and relationships are not costless. (More will be shared later, with citations.)

5. What are some of the technologies in an LMS that enable social interaction and short-term and long-term relationship building? What are some effective ways to harness these technologies for creating community?

Learning management systems (LMSes) are built in different ways but with the aim of helping instructors teach and learners to engage in the learning. While many LMSes are supposed to be agnostic in terms of learning theory, they create enablements that may seem to show preferences for one approach or another (whether intentionally or not). LMSes today also integrate various third-party tools, including those that enable content integration, social media platforms, and so on.

It is possible to separate LMS communications tools that enable social interaction as those that enable “synchronous” interactions and “asynchronous” interactions.

“Synchronous” tools include web conferencing tools, web meeting tools, whiteboards, text chats (often with emoticon features), and text-tool features.
“Asynchronous” tools include discussion or message boards, email systems, wiki pages, texting systems, and others. Recording technologies like screen capture and authoring tools and audio recorders also enable asynchronous exchanges.

Of course, there are tools that enable both synchronous and asynchronous interactions, depending on their usage. For example, email messaging may be in real time (synchronous) or in staggered or asynchronous time.

Most LMSes enable integrations with social media platforms. Such social media platforms may be of the following types and more: microblogging, social networking sites, crowd-sourced encyclopedias, video sharing, slideshow sharing, image sharing, blogs / weblogs, multimedia sharing, and others. Remember that social media has “social” as a core feature.

While the definitions of a “short-term” vs. a “long-term” relationship are up for debate, a simple approach may be to consider relationships “short-term” if they are for the duration of a project or even a course or a learning sequence. Long-term relationships may be those that extend through a learning sequence for an undergraduate or graduate degree and into professional life. Clearly, LMS tools are designed more for the length of a shorter learning sequence, and social media platform tools are designed more for longer time spans, even beyond a formal learning sequence.

Of course, LMS course shells may be set to not sunset for decades, and people’s access may be extended over long periods of time.

What are some effective ways to harness LMS and social media tools for creating virtual community? Some basic ideas follow.

Technology Concerns

(1) All learners should have equal access to all the technology tools and access to trainings on how to most effectively use those tools

(2) While there are public channels, there should also be private ones, for people to take their conversations elsewhere, without having to share in a broadly public way.

(3) The communications channels should not be so lean that learners’ desires for self-expression and connecting with others are constrained.


(4) There should be clear objectives in the socializing, and there should be clear norms of mutual respect, consideration, care, and politeness among the learners and instructors.

[One of the main arguments for this is that “social capital” is necessary for healthy societies. “Social capital” is defined as the networks of interrelationships between people in a group, and this helps individuals to function well in the group.

”Social capital is the glue that holds a community together; it is the shared knowledge, understanding, skills and offers of help needed to achieve shared goals, or help someone solve a problem... Unlike financial capital, social capital is usually not tangible and it is hard to measure. Consequently the concept is frequently not well understood and its power may be under valued (sic). Communities that are rich in social capital tend to communicate well, their members spend time together, they help each other, and members contribute to the collective common good. For example members expect to offer help in return for receiving help from others. In other words, they expect to reciprocate for acts of kindness either by paying back directly to the person who helped them, or helping someone else in the group or by contributing to the community as a whole – a concept known as generalized reciprocity” (Preece, 2004, p. 297). Polite and considerate treatment of others strengthens community.]

Social Norms

(5) The communities should be “safe” ones where learners are not ever ridiculed or made to feel threatened.

(6) There should be broad inclusiveness—of people with different personalities and concerns and abilities.

(7) People’s works and sharing should be given due credit. Those who participate should benefit from their hard work.

These are a start, but there are certainly many additional constructive practices.


How To

How to effectively build online learning communities will depend on a number of factors. The research literature has some tentative suggestions. Some simple extrapolated ideas follow:

  • Be observant about problems that a population is working to solve, and see if there is possible emergence of a community of inquiry or a community of practice around that issue.
  • Enable potential members of this community with the proper communications technologies.
  • Work with the group to define issues of interest. See what objectives the group values.
  • Promote a culture of learning. Support exploration and discovery. Value analysis.
  • Support the creation of distributed leadership.
  • Identify respected ways to know and criteria to vet new information.
  • Value all voices in the community. Support interpretation. (Do not privilege certain points-of-view without considering all ideas or without applying the community standards for assessment.)
  • Create norms of mutual respect, civility, and collaboration.
  • Select the proper technologies to enable the various functionalities that the group desires.
  • Enable the group to have access to the resources they need for their work.
  • Make sure that people who originate new ideas and who contribute much are rewarded.
  • Ensure that there are a mix of people with varying levels of backgrounds and skills with the topic. Ensure that there are reasonable points-of-entry for various individuals.

These are some basics. Readers are encouraged to explore the research literature on their own.

Possible Pitfalls

While researchers have made inroads into how to design community in online learning for learning value, there has not been any one-size-fits-all approach. Leadership in communities of practice and communities of inquiry tend to be distributed. Those who would create learning communities online need finesse to moderate effectively.

Researchers have suggested that learning communities are more relevant and beneficial for some types of learning than others. Not all learning benefits from virtual community. Some tasks are better solved with lean teams or dyadic researcher pairs or other combinations; some tasks may be better solved by singular individuals.

Also, online virtual communities that align for various purposes require inputs like resources, technological supports, leadership, and other elements. These are not costless endeavors.

As researchers have noted, it is not interactivity alone among learners (and each other) and instructors that creates learning value.

Also, as this research shows, there are challenges to measuring various aspects of virtual communities. Also, there are gaps in the research literature and room for new insights.

Module Post-Test

1. What is a community of inquiry? What is a community of practice? What are some applied theories that inform on how communities of inquiry form and evolve? How communities of practice form and evolve? What are some of the mainline educational and other theories that inform understandings of both communities of inquiry and communities of practice?

2. What are some of the main respective roles in a community of inquiry? The main roles in a community of practice? Why?

3. What are some ways to build communities in a learning management system (LMS)?

4. What are some theories that inform how people build social bonds (particularly in learning contexts)? What are some of the implications of these theories?

5. What are some of the technologies in an LMS that enable social interaction and short-term and long-term relationship building? What are some effective ways to harness these technologies for creating community?


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