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What Is a Community of Practice?

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Communities of Practice


Communities of practice are voluntary groups of people who, sharing a common concern or a passion, come together to explore these concerns and ideas and share and grow their practice. This chapter develops a theoretical framework for the idea of a community of practice. It investigates the reasons why this form of social learning, as described by Bandura, is particularly relevant to the higher education sector in the light of contemporary change and upheaval in society and the university world and an increasing emphasis on a scholarship of learning and teaching. The history and defining features of a community of practice, as developed by Wenger is explained as well as the more recent thought on landscapes of practice by the Wenger-Trayner partnership. Three particular examples from varied situations, including a virtual community of practice, are discussed to illustrate some of the key features of communities of practice. The chapter concludes with encouragement for higher educational institutions to champion the establishment of these communities.

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  1. 1.

    These are representative of the key dates of Wenger and Wenger-Trayner’s publications, but are not inclusive of all their textual and electronic output.

  2. 2.

    Etienne Wenger has partnered with Bev Trayner, a learning consultant specializing in social learning systems.

  3. 3.

    The scholarship of teaching goes beyond scholarly teaching and is driven by a desire to understand how students learn effectively and how teaching influences this process. Thus, it is student-focused. The scholarship of teaching has two main components. The first is the use of creativity to develop original materials … that can be used beyond the boundaries of an individual instructor. The second component, a systematic evaluation of teaching and learning, can involve both informal and traditional research on teaching and learning, or curriculum related issues. Both research approaches require in-depth understanding of the literature, critical reflection, and sharing through publication.

  4. 4.

    Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky (1896–1934) was a Soviet psychologist, and the founder of a theory of human cultural and social development. He is best known for his theories on how higher order thinking is developed in children and for proposing the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).

  5. 5.

    In education, scaffolding refers to the process of breaking learning into manageable steps with the teacher modelling and then stepping back and offering support. Bruner was first to use the term in the 1960s.

  6. 6.

    This can be accessed at

  7. 7.

    Constructivism is based on the belief that learning occurs as learners are actively involved in a process of meaning and knowledge construction as opposed to passively receiving information. Learners are the makers of meaning and knowledge. Constructivist teaching fosters critical thinking, and creates motivated and independent learners.

  8. 8.

    More details about this and other CoPs currently operating at the University of Southern Queensland can be found at

  9. 9.

    The Key Element Model aims produce the following elements in students:

    • Positive interdependence: Students organize themselves by assuming roles which facilitate their collaboration.

    • Promotive interaction: Students take responsibility for the group’s learning by sharing knowledge as well as questioning and challenging each other.

    • Individual accountability: Each student is held responsible for taking an active part in the group’s activities, completing his/her own designated tasks, and helping other students in their learning.

    • Social skills: Students use leadership skills, including making decisions, developing consensus, building trust, and managing conflicts.

    • Self-evaluation: Students assess individual and collective participation to ensure productive collaboration.


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Correspondence to Bernadette Mercieca .

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Mercieca, B. (2017). What Is a Community of Practice?. In: McDonald, J., Cater-Steel, A. (eds) Communities of Practice. Springer, Singapore.

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