Designing Professional Development/Communities
Communities of Practice 
What Are They? 
Communities of practice (CoP) in education are groups of teachers meet regularly to discuss their practice (Reich). CoPs need to meet three criteria: a shared domain of interest, a group of members who meet to share, and a common practice or profession. CoPs do not need to be formal, they can meet informally (Wenger 2006). Of all types of professional development the type which often produces the most meaningful results are CoPs (Wenger 2008).
The term was coined by two researchers from the Institute for Research on Learning, Palo Alto, California. Etienne Wagner, a computer and learning scientist, and Jean Lave coined the term in 1991. The term was first used in their study of apprenticeship and has since been applied to government, education, social service providers, and various professional organizations.
A new term "communities of interest" was created in the mid 1990s to differentiate between groups that shared a profession and groups that have a shared interest and meet but do not practice the topic they are learning. Communities of interest could include a group that meet to discuss movies, for this to be a community of practice the members would have to be involved in the film industry.
Building Communities of Practice 
There are many things teachers and administrators can do to develop communities of practice in their schools. Wenger, McDermont, and Snyder identified seven actions that can aid in the development of CoPs. The seven steps are:
1. Design for evolution 
while developing the community make sure to allow it to change and develop naturally. If a community is developed for too narrow a purpose (teaching a special program for example) it will quickly fall apart.
2. Open a Dialogue Between Inside and Outside Perspectives 
CoPs are more effective when they are not closed to ideas from outside their group. Insiders provide the bulk of ideas that the group uses but an occasional perspective from an outsider can make a huge difference.
3. Invite Different Levels of Participation 
There are three main levels of participation. Core members who fully participate and often provide leadership. Active members who participate and contribute regularly but don't take on leadership roles or guide the direction of the group. Peripheral members are the third group, they observe and listen but don't contribute. Peripheral members may step in and out of the group as it addresses topics that interest them. Each of the levels are needed for a group because people often move between them as the community evolves.
4. Develop both Public and Private Community Spaces 
CoPs generally meet in public places and have public discussions open to all members. CoPs should have the flexibility for all or some members to meet in private to discuss issues that they don't want outsiders to know about or that only effect a part of the community.
5. Focus on Value 
For a community to survive it must produce value. Membership is often voluntary so members need to feel that it is in their interest to continue to contribute and participate.
6. Combine Familiarity and Excitement 
The community should have regular events with an expected agenda, but should also have the flexibility to meet in irregular and member directed ways as well.
7. Create a Rhythm for the Community 
The community needs to establish a regular schedule of events and activities to survive. This is most important for the peripheral members who are only a part of the meetings occasionally.
Other Ways to Encourage CoPs 
In addition to the seven actions identified by Wenger, McDermont, and Snyder there are other ways that leaders can encourage CoPs to develop within their organization. First leaders want to create a positive atmosphere for CoPs by recognizing informal communities that already exist within their organization. Many schools have teachers who are already sharing without ever hearing of communities of practice. If a leader recognizes their contributions others may be inspired to emulate the group. The school leaders can also encourage the existing groups to expand to include more members. Leaders can also provide the resources needed for CoPs to develop. Comfortable functional meeting places and time are the two largest resources that CoPs need to thrive (Helm 2007).
Technology and Communities of Practice 
Wenger produced a report on technology supporting communities of practice. The technologies surveyed in the report are out of date (2001) but the report is still extremely valuable because it identifies thirteen ways that technology can affect CoPs.
1. Presence and visibility- websites and social networks can allow CoPs to maintain a common space and attract members.
2. Rhythm- Technology can aid in distributing schedules of events or even in holding events that might have been canceled because of a lack of meeting space
3. Variety of interactions- collaboration tools give members more opportunities to share ideas.
4. Efficiency of involvement- Virtual meetings can allow members to attend events that they would be otherwise unable to attend.
5. Short-term value- allowing access to archived events can give members just in time learning opportunities.
6. Long-term value- Members can build a library of materials from the past events.
7. Connection to the world- Communities can connect with other groups in different areas of the world.
8. Personal identity- Members can gain satisfaction by seeing their contributions on community pages.
9. Communal identity- Members of the community can build a personality for the group through forums and news feeds.
10. Belonging and relationships- profiles with personal information can lead to a deeper understanding and camaraderie than is normal between colleagues.
11. Complex boundaries- Technology can cause problems for a community because it can lead to problems with levels of access, and exclusion of non-core members.
12. Evolution: maturation and integration- Technology can inhibit evolution if the organization is tied too tightly to the structure of its online presence.
13. Active community-building- Members can be encouraged to participate more and provide feedback to the group through non-intrusive methods like online polling, comment sections on community documents, and feedback messages to leaders.
- Reich, G., & Bally, D. (2010). Get Smart: Facing High-Stakes Testing Together. Social Studies, 101(4), 179-184. doi:10.1080/00377990903493838.
- Wenger, E. (1999). Communities of practice: learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
- Wenger, Etienne; McDermott, Richard; Snyder, William M. (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice (Hardcover). Harvard Business Press; 1 edition. ISBN 978-1578513307. http://books.google.com/?id=m1xZuNq9RygC&dq=cultivating+communities+of+practice&printsec=frontcover&q=.
- Helm, J. (2007). Building Communities of Practice. YC: Young Children, 62(4), 12-16. Retrieved from Education Research Complete database.
- Supporting communities of practice: a survey of community-oriented technologies. By Etienne Wenger. Self-published report available at www.ewenger.com/tech, 2001.
External Links 
Dr. Wenger's website- *http://www.ewenger.com/theory/
Wikipedia Article- *http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Community_of_practice
Edutech Wiki Article- *http://edutechwiki.unige.ch/en/Community_of_practice