Virtual Communities for Learning

Contributors: Linda Polin, Jeremy Roschelle, and Judi Fusco

Technology can be designed to enable safe, purposeful, distributed social spaces. What we do in those spaces can support or hinder learning. One model for virtual communities that makes learning central in the process is the Community of Practice (CoP) framework (Lave & Wenger, 1991). CoPs allow people of varying understanding and sophistication to develop and manage individual and collective identity, share experiences on a topic or within the practice, and support continued learning and development. Today’s technology applications and appliances enable a virtual community of practice (VCoP) to transcend physical location as a barrier. Moving beyond co-location allows the cultural reproduction and advancement of the practice and practitioners through participant-organized social networks beyond the limits of, and in complement to, more institutional, face-to-face, and hierarchically organized opportunities to learn, such as schools and even conferences. While many of these features can be manifested in online classes, the literature on CoPs broadens the experience to include informal spaces and practices online as well.

To fully realize a VCoP, certain features are necessary, such as: a time scale encompassing the past and future for members, a process of enculturation to bring new members in the community so the community can continue and reproduce itself, shared beliefs and practices among members, a managed tension between participation and reification, and enough members (critical mass) so that personal goals can be set and accomplished. To attract, engage, and retain active members, the community must also have a vital commons that clearly reveals ongoing social and practical interactions. The community must be alive and look alive. Typically, this is accomplished through a large committed core of expert and near expert users who will engage with each other in visible ways in the community space.

Healthy CoPs don’t just advance the skills and knowledge of their members. By engaging new members and encouraging diversity in membership, CoPs support the introduction of new ideas, new ways of doing things, new tools, all in the service of improving the practice. Thus, a CoP is not about helping novices reach a final, static state of practical expertise. Rather, a CoP helps experts as well as novices develop within a slowly evolving and improving practice. A healthy CoP is a place where everyone can and does learn. In this way, the practice as well as its practitioners improve over time and professional generations.

Because virtual communities are not tied to a specific location, members can participate from within their own practical context and engage over an extended time frame. For professionals who are isolated (such as teachers), a virtual community can have a major impact on their professional learning and practice. Yet it should be underscored that it is not sufficient to simply find and connect like-minded learners, in a social sense. Rather, a CoP must connect peers to knowledgeable others who can help further develop novice and even expert practice-based identity — whether a youth engaged in study, a professional trying to learn, or someone actively pursuing an avocation. Connecting people to each other at any time and any location is a potentially powerful force to reduce isolation and help improve the innovation process for the practice as well.

The power that comes from connecting technology, community, and learning is a reflection of the evolution of two elements: member identity and the practice itself. A strong CoP aligns social relationships and real growth in members’ knowledge, skills, and opportunities.

Transformative Potential

Technology Can Expand Membership and Transform Communication and Networking

Large, dynamic, healthy learning communities are prodigious venues for the creation for social capital among members. Typically we see this in formal professional communities whose conferences and sponsored journals support a network of practitioners with varying experience, from varying contexts, and with varying special interests. However, historically these are slow moving, slow changing, and often ‘closed’ circuits of engagement. Web-based technologies can open up and enlarge CoP membership, which in turn can support a broader range of sub-interests or specialties. Web-based technologies can speed up the communication of scholarly work and thereby make collaboration opportunities easier to establish and maintain. And perhaps most critically, web-based technologies support social networking processes that help people move beyond their personal socio-professional networks to find other people relevant to their efforts as practitioners.

VCoPs Can Empower Members and Dramatically Scale Impact

Virtual learning communities can serve a broad range of learners and purposes, and include participants from “K to Gray”. Most communities focus on one type of stakeholder, such as youth (e.g., Whyville), professionals (e.g., Tapped In or ILF), or those engaged in systematic pursuits of activities or personal interests (e.g, Raverly, games, fitness, or to gain understanding of medical conditions). Virtual communities need a purpose, focus, or practice. For NSF’s Cyberlearning program, virtual learning communities related to STEM discipline are an obvious interest. An added value of virtual communities is that they can more easily provide support for the “long tail” of people’s interests. They can also support those interests that are important but less popular than typically found in formal school, where it’s not possible to support all interests due to lack of time or economic incentive.

As an example, consider the massively successful “robotics” programs that are introducing hundreds of thousands of learners to STEM each year, e.g. USFIRST. The execution of these programs is entirely dependent on local mentors and coaches who form and support teams. These coaches typically have no prior experience in educating youth about engineering, and yet without their participation and involvement in helping to solve the real and local problems for their teams, the program would surely fail. Training a massive cadre of volunteer engineering mentors and coaches is not affordable through institutionalized professional development, so robotics programs rely heavily on coaches forming professional learning communities that are self-supporting. Through development of virtual learning communities, coach- and mentor-based informal learning programs can be scaled to support students to learn in these activities. Thus, the transformative potential of virtual learning communities, in part, is the potential to rapidly increase the quality of volunteer STEM coaching and mentoring at a massive scale, without the cost of an enormous hierarchical training program.

A second successful virtual community for learning is TakingITGlobal, an online worldwide youth community started by high school activist Jen Corriero. It is is now in its 12th year, and is a fully realized NGO uniting and supporting youth who are thinking globally and acting locally to make a difference in their region on issues of education, environment, health, civil rights, and more. It originated as a social activist community and continues to operate in a community of practice model. The site connects youth with others, expertise, tools, and spaces for sharing, planning, and helping. [‘Give more specifics about how it has been transformative, specific contributions made.]

A third example is the MathForum at Drexel, a highly successful online resource and mentoring site for improving math learning, teaching, and communication. The Math Forum engages teachers, researchers, parents, students and others interested in mathematics. The Forum is explicitly organized as a community rather than a source of answers. From “problem of the week” to homework help, student members are encouraged to problem solve and pose questions with the help of peers, near peers, and mentors. Teachers are also supported in the further development of their own expertise, in sharing materials, and just talking about and thinking about mathematical ideas.

New Tools and Methods Could Transform The Field’s Understanding of Learning Structures, Activities, and Impact

A second area of transformative potential is the development of a better understanding of how people learn in virtual communities. To harness the power of virtual communities for learning, we need to better understand how, when, and why virtual communities do, and do not, advance learning. We have case studies of successes documented through (time-consuming) ethnographic methods, but we do know know how representative such (usually small-N) cases are. Nor can we extrapolate from these few cases a robust understanding of learning that could help other groups understand whether they are succeeding, or what they should do to succeed. Virtual communities can be instrumented to collect data about user interactions with others and with artifacts in the community, and a variety of tools and techniques — such as social network analysis and uptake analysis — can be used to determine if groups or individuals are engaging in activities that often lead to learning (or not) or that lead to some sort of desired community goal (or not). Such analysis could transform our understanding of the learning structures, activities, and impact of virtual communities.

Such a data-driven approach is nascent and necessarily involves interdisciplinary experts in various fields (such as data-mining, scientific visualization, virtual communities, AI, and learning) to determine the necessary instrumentation for data collection in the virtual community infrastructure, to develop and refine methods, and to develop services and tools to help community leaders, members, and other interested stakeholders better understand the activities of a virtual community. Our improved understanding will further inform the development of new tools and services to 1) broker new relationships, 2) document learning (e.g., in portfolios), 3) help users contribute content, 4) facilitate discussions, 5) provide assessments of knowledge, and 6) make suggestions for next steps in community membership and learning.


In ten years we see these headlines and newstories:

The New Key to College Admissions: Participation in a Learning Community

It used to be that three things mattered in getting into college: grades, test scores and “extracurricular activities”. These were measures, roughly, of students’ aptitude and their willingness to work hard. But today, college admissions officers most want to know: How did a student participate in learning communities — did they make steady contributions? Did they use learning communities for their own goals? Did serve as a mentor to other students in a learning community? The reason is obvious: the best colleges and universities are great learning communities, and thus the best applicants will be those who are most prepared to contribute and benefit from a learning community. Thus, when considering applicants, a candidate’s accumulated VLC badges (needs link to gamification) and certifications — many of which are now accredited by rating agencies such as VTS — are one of the first things an admission officer examines. (add section on social capital perhaps)

It’s exciting to see the importance of virtual learning communities for students increasing. We see similar occurrences in communities for teachers. Teachers who belong to virtual communities get recognition for their interactions in the communities. In virtual communities for teachers, they make and manage their reputations and help others and learn. Just like colleges, schools want the teachers who have connections and experience in these learning communities.

Community-based Breakthroughs in Practice

As professional communities trend closer to hobbyist and other informal but serious communities, they increasingly focus on the practice rather than the practitioners. We see a greater engagement with systematic experimentation, thoughtful critique and review, redesign and collaboration, and application of new tools. As a result expertise and innovation are no longer only the provence of university and center based research. As field-based solutions and improvements are tried, retried, vetted, and given life and audience through virtual communities, education, as a practice, steadily improves. Some communities in particular are noted for their work on specific issues or particular aspects of practice. Large, successful practice communities are recognized for their innovations in pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment. Communities, rather than universities, become the hub of action, where collaborative work among developers, researchers, vendors, and practitioners is supported, sustained, and recorded.

Diagnostic Tools for Online Communities Inform Educational Assessment Practices

Capture and analyses of interaction data and user content from online community interactions makes it possible to identify indicators of understanding and competence in work processes not just in work products. These low cost, easily obtained indicators encourage the development of diagnostic techniques that provide timely feedback on group problem solving work as it unfolds in the community. Taken up and refined by the field of evaluation, assessments that make use of such indicators help move the practice of educational measurement beyond a reliance on multiple choice tests scores to more authentic, situated analyses of student and teacher thinking in action.


We definitely live in an attention economy, so how do we draw the engagement to yet another social space among the many, many spaces and communities people are members of already?

Although social network analysis and the concepts of communities of practice and social capital are helping us make progress, the field needs better tools and methods of analysis for analyzing the quality of a virtual learning community and the role of individuals within it.

While toolkits for casual social networking are becoming commonplace — and offer an increasingly standard array of features for managing profiles, posting status, sharing photos, and the like — too little is known about the specific elements that support and advance learning within a virtual community.

While many virtual learning communities will be outside of institutional structures, formal and informal learning could productively interact. How can societies combine the best of more emergent communities of practice and more instituationally aligned online social spaces?

Who pays for the cost and resources behind stable, reliable online communities, from the initial costs of infrastructure through the continuing costs of security, maintenance, and staffing (e.g., moderators)?

How do we manage the policy implications of access and participation for students and teachers?

What do we need to consider in supporting and sustaining communities that serve a diverse sociocultural community?
How do we create a space where NOT knowing the answer but having the question, or not having the question but having the need to know, are valid participation drivers? How do we support risk taking of that sort for members?


Yes, we’ve heard the talk forever now about teacher professional learning communities and social media, but it hasn’t happened sustainably and at scale.

And there are good reasons why. Many teacher “communities” are fairly flat. They lack useful diversity. If you look at the examples on this page, a hallmark of these successful large-scale communities is the amount of variation in expertise, experience, and perspective in their members. Math Forum and US FIRST bring together students, teachers, professional practitioners, and other mentors. TakingITGlobal intentionally mixes developing and first world regional contexts, older and younger students, experienced organizers and enthusiastic novices. Also, in all three settings the communities have set the table with common topics to engage with immediately. Teacher communities that function as Q&A sites don’t invite return visits. Like or Yahoo Answers, you go there to get some info and then you’re done. A healthy strong community is a network of relationships; it offers members many reasons to come back to it; it’s engaging beyond addressing an immediate problem. It extends your identity as a practitioner-member. And this, this engagement quality, is the difficult piece of community building.

How do we protect intellectual property in a community?

How do we know the identity of the people we’re talking to and whose work we’re viewing in an online community?

We should worry about how learning in communities can be democratic, as self-organizing communities exclude people, too. How can we be sure that all students and teachers have equal access to such participation? [whoever put this up can address it. I don’t have much to say here. I don’t see a community guaranteeing access to everyone.]


Goff, N., Pearlman, M., Schmucki, L. (2011). What are the opportunities and challenges of creating online communities of practice for educators? Summary report.

Kim, A. (2000). Community building on the web. Berkeley, CA: Peachpit Press.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Preece, J. (2000). Online communities: Designing usability, supporting sociability. NY: Wiley.

Riel, M. & Polin, L. (2004). Learning communities: Common ground and critical differences in designing technical environments. Chapter 3 in Barab & Kling (eds.) Designing Virtual Communities in the Service of Learning. NY: Cambridge University Press.

Renninger, A. & Shumar, W. (2002). Community building with and for teachers at the Math Forum. Chapter 3 in Renninger & Shumar (eds.) Building virtual communities: Learning and change in cyberspace. NY: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E., White, N., & Smith, J. D. (2009). Digital habitats: Stewarding technology for communities. Portland, OR: CPSquare.