What are communities of practice?
A community of practice is a network of people who exchange knowledge about a common profession. Members of the community exchange best practices and share evidence and results while supporting each other on a personal level. Good examples of these communities are the LinkedIn groups that can be found for nearly any profession.
While communities of practice are common and valuable in the working world, too often the interactions within a course are designed to apply only to that course, rather than prepare the student for the broader discussion within the profession that they will encounter after leaving school. That's why I focus on forming communities of practice within my online courses.
A gradual approach to communities of practice
While there are various ways to promote communities of practices in online courses, I find discussion forums are the easiest to start with. When I design my discussion forums for my classes, I use a gradual design approach that spans the entire semester. The idea is to use the forum to facilitate a pathway toward communities of practice for the students.
First, I start off with introductory forums in the first one or two weeks of the semester. The purpose of the introductory forums is for students to get to know each other and to find common interests and goals. By finding commonalities, students can become more comfortable and familiar with each other. Over the next few weeks, students engage in fact-finding, problem-solving forums that ask them to solve problems by finding and sharing information. In these forums, they share their findings and discuss solutions to realistic problems with each other. The goal of these types of forums is to have students gather information on topics of interests and create a knowledge base together. There are several ways to increase student enthusiasm and participation levels. For these forums, I make sure to do the following:
In the second half of the semester, students engage in the more critical-thinking and opinion-gathering forums. By this time, students are more comfortable with one another and are more willing to express their opinions to one another and to the group at large. The primary purpose is to encourage students to engage in rich discussions of topics and various contexts related to their lives. These forums are some of the most popular among students. For instance, in my computer classes, some of the topics are information privacy, electronic monitoring at work, and identity theft. In these forums, students will give opinions, take sides, and interpret and argue for appropriate resolutions in real-world cases.
Finally, toward the end of the semester, my students engage in trusted, support discussion forums around peer coaching and collaborative assignments. For instance, students may be asked to critique a classmate's final project draft. They may also give feedback on another student's paper topic. In addition, students may be asked to participate in a “collaboration” forum in which they have to give others advice, tips for completing final assignments, and emotional support. Over the years, I've found that students most often will give each other tips for completing assignments and emotional support. One student wrote so pointedly about the collaboration forum, “I'm glad to have the opportunity to open up about my fear of finishing my paper on time. I'm not really great at writing and this helps me to work through it and get support from others in the class.”
Other technologies for hosting communities of practice
I also use technologies beyond the LMS discussion forum to host communities of practice. In my computer class, the students also participate in one to two wiki assignments. For those assignments, students self-select into groups to research and create webpages on a topic. By working together, students learn cooperatively by teaching each other.
Other common technologies used for communities of practices include LISTSERVs such as Google Groups and microblogging platforms such as Twitter. To acclimate students to these technologies, I create shorter assignments for students to learn about them. For LISTSERVs, I ask students to find and subscribe to a LISTSERV in their subfield of interest. My students will often research the LISTSERVs of organizations and associations in their field. Finally, students reflect on and share their LISTSERV experience with their classmates. For Twitter, I ask students to search Twitter for discussions on topics of interest. They can do this easily by typing in their topic in the search bar and then observing the hashtags displayed in the dropdown box on the search bar. By letting Twitter's search engine supply the topic keyword and its extensions, students can see what current discussions are going on.
While the discussion forums in my classes are based on around information- and technology-related topics, the relationships formed around these experiences can benefit my students for years to come. Even if the relationships don't last that long, my students realize the value of a supportive environment and become better equipped to foster these types of professional relationships on their own. Exposing my students to this level of social networking fulfills my commitment to their professional and personal growth as informed citizens.
Angela Heath teaches online computer courses at Baptist Health Systems in San Antonio, Texas.