The theoretical backgound of coPs can be found in social learning. The term communities of practice was first coined by Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave in 1991. These communities are groups of people in organizations that form to share what they know, to learn from one another regarding some aspects of their work and to provide a social context for that work. Such groups have been around ever since people in organizations realized they could benefit from sharing their knowledge, insights, and experiences with others who have similar interests or goals. Richard McDermott defines a community of practice as “a group of people who share knowledge, learn together and create common practices. Communities of practice share information, insight, experience and tools about an area of common interest.” Communities of practice solve their problems through networking and sharing their experiences by means of a voluntary, informal gathering and sharing of expertise. Communities of Practice should not be confused with teams or task forces. A task force ties to a specific assignment. Once that assignment is completed, the task force disbands. A team ties to some specific process or function. A team is structured so as to deal with the interdependencies of different roles in that function or process. In team, roles and tasks often vary; in a CoP they are generally the same. “In their teams, they take care of projects. In their networks, they form relationships. In their CoPs, they develop the knowledge that lets them do these other tasks.” Etienne Wenger, (1998).
Communities of practice have some characteristics that make them different from teams or task forces: The nature of a Community of Practice is dynamic, in that the interests, goals, and members are subject to change; CoP forums are designed to support shifts in focus. CoPs create opportunities for open dialog within and with outside perspectives; they welcome and allow different levels of participation; for example, the core group who participates intensely in the community through discussions and projects, typically taking on leadership roles in guiding the group; the active group who attends and participates regularly, but not to the level of the leaders and the peripheral group who, while they are passive participants in the community, still learn from their level of involvement. Other characteristics of coPs is that they develop both public and private community spaces; while CoPs typically operate in public spaces where all members share, discuss and explore ideas, they also offer private exchanges. Different members of the CoP coordinate relationships among members and resources in an individualized approach based on specific needs. CoPs focus on the value of the community and they create opportunities for participants to explicitly discuss the value and productivity of their participation in the group. They combine familiarity and excitement since they offer the expected learning opportunities as part of their structure, and opportunities for members to shape their learning experience together by brainstorming and examining the conventional and radical wisdom related to their topic. Cops also find and nurture a regular rhythm for the community as they coordinate a thriving cycle of activities and events that allow for the members to regularly meet, reflect, and evolve. In coPs, the rhythm, or pace maintains an anticipated level of engagement to sustain the vibrancy of the community, yet it is not so face-paced that it becomes unwieldy and overwhelming in its intensity. (Wenger, McDermott & Snyder 2002).
Regarding the benefits of communities of practice, they encourage people to work more effectively or to understand work more deeply among them focusing on a particular specialty or work group. Education professionals find coPs very useful because in these small groups of teachers who work together over a period of time and share extensive communication, they develop a common sense of purpose and a desire to share teaching, learning, related knowledge and experience which in the end benefits students. The coPs offer professionals a learning environment that provides authentic learning contexts and support both collaboration and interaction which is highly required nowadays. In other words, professonals learn more effectively since they have to deal with real problems and complete authentic tasks (Wenger, 1991). CoPs are also useful because they also include a social interaction with the real practitioners who work with them and assist their learning. Such collaboration leads to an elaboration of strategies that can be discussed and further enhance the interaction through which the members learn something through experiences of interactions (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002).
How they Communicate
Communities of Practice communicate mainly through face to face meetings and computer mediated technology. The new communications media, provides new possibilities for collaboration and distributed working supporting the existence of coPs in different environments. With the rapid internationalization of business that can spread the distribution over national boundaries posing problems of cultural and temporal as well as physical distance, Computer Mediated Communications technologies (CMCs) support distributed international Communities of Practice. As a result of the internationalisation of business and the development of enabling technologies, there has emerged the notion of Virtual (online) Communities of Practice (VCoP), where members make use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to share stories, knowledge and practices. Tools for creating user-generated content (UGC) also provide the basis for communities of practice. Wikis, for example, support active content creation. CoPs update wikis frequently and edit their content to achieve greater accuracy and depth. If coP intranet users read a wiki page and see something that is incorrect or out of date, they can update the information, so the next member to visit the page gets better information. A coP member who uses an intranet, and who is a subject-matter expert who others frequently ask for information, can create a wiki page, making their information public. Forums and blogs are another way in which coPs communicate. Forums let members share information with communities that are interested in specific topics. Participants can either ask questions or contribute answers to questions. Blogs enable coPs to communicate with a wide audience about topics that interest them. Frequent readers of blogs are often highly interested in the bloggers’ topics and, via blog comments, can engage in discussions with the communities viewing the blogs.
My own views
In my context, which is the language learning context, coPs provide a good language learning environment in the sense that CoPs connect so many people. This allows the members to interact with other people who are usually out of their reach, which gives language learners opportunities to find the real audience with whom they can use the target language in a real, natural communication. Using chats, for example, learners learn some language aspects crucial for communication, which sometimes it is difficult to learn in the traditional language class room
(Toyoda & Harrison, 2002). In addition, interaction in the target language provides opportunities for learners to comprehend message meaning, produce modified output, and attend the target language form which helps them develop their linguistic systems. There are now many virtual language communities of practice in which teachers and learners gather in an online space where they communicate and interact with each other. Such virtual space includes real-time forums where they contribute ideas based on their backgrounds and experiences that in turn stimulate responses from other members. The least proficient members learn from the interactions of the more fluent ones. Another extra point gained from learning through coPs is that the language learners also learn other skills such as computer and information skills, communication skills, and organizational skills. By being active in the virtual language activities, they become accustomed to working with computers and Internet. They learn how to start, interrupt, or end a conversation, and the engagement in the virtual discussions gives them exposure to lessons on how to interact with others and manage an organization.
It is important to remember that communities of practice are not a recent invention. Such groups have been around ever since people in organizations realized they could benefit from sharing their knowledge, insights, and experiences with others who have similar interests or goals. CoPs have been playing a key role in sustaining the knowledge of different types of organizations long before we started to focus on them. And as knowledge increases in importance, they will continue to play this critical role whether we pay attention to them or not. Communities of practice are here to stay.