Diversity and InclusionEngagement

Day 1 – What is a community of practice

‘Man is by nature a social animal’ – Aristotle, Politics

By kudybadorota, downloaded from Pixabay.com 12/08/19

Welcome to the first post of the Developing Communities of Practice Coffee Course. In this post we will take a look at the various components that make up a community of practice, discuss why people take part and how they can benefit teaching practice and support the professional development of educators. 


What exactly is a CoP?

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What do you think a Community of Practice is? Add an image or some words to share with this community to the Communities of Practice Padlet: https://padlet.com/u1049980/nuh2xe5h2zgw

The term Communities of Practice (CoP) is relatively recent, however the concept has been around for a long time (Wenger, 2010).  So what then is a CoP? Wenger, McDermott and Snyder (2002) describe communities of practice as: ‘Groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis’ (p4). A CoP is connecting and collaborating with others to read, share, ask questions, and discuss a shared interest; it is social learning. (If you are interested in social learning theory you can read more about it in our coffee courses Facilitating Effective Discussions and Seven Key Concepts for University Teaching and Learning).  A CoP can take place anytime, anywhere, face-to-face, in online spaces or a combination of both and can involve people within and outside your discipline and institution. Online environments can provide opportunities for networking and collaboration that are flexible and are not limited by barriers to do with time and location.

How is a CoP different to a working party, committee or meeting? Unlike other types of work related groups, teams or committees, membership in a CoP is voluntary and it is the members themselves that determine the agenda, outcomes and lifespan of the CoP depending on who’s involved and the purpose or collective goals of the group. Because of this CoP create: ‘… a bottom-up, member-driven approach to engage in generative dialogue around learning and teaching practice’ (McDonald, 2014, p7). Perhaps you have been part of a community of practice, or maybe you would like to consider getting one started.

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Have you been part of a CoP? What went well and what were the things that made it successful? What didn’t work and why? Share your experiences in the discussion forum.

There are three essential elements to a CoP

    1. A domain of knowledge that creates a common ground and sense of common identity
    2. A community of people who care about the domain and create the social fabric of learning
    3. A shared practice developed to become effective in the domain

(McDonald, 2014, p69)

Benefits and Affordances. What’s in it for you?

By Pixel-mixer, downloaded from Pixabay.com 12/08/19


Do you tend to operate as a lone wolf or do you enjoy being part of the pack? Maybe you dabble in a little of both. Let’s look at some of the benefits to being part of a CoP and what’s in it for you as an educator.



Why fcus on communities of practice? Short-term value for members: help with challenges; access to expertise; confidence; fun with colleagues; meaningful work. Long term value for members: personal development; reputation; professional identity; network; marketability. Short term value for organisation: problem solving; time saving; knowledge sharing; synergies across units; reuse of resources. Long-term value for organisation: strategic capabilities; keeping abreast; innovation; retention of talents; new strategies.

Adapted from Cultivating communities of practice a quick start-up guide. (Wenger, 2002).

The complex and competing pressures of being an educator can sometimes become overwhelming. A CoP can provide a collaborative social environment to explore and solve complex issues of practice. Teaching can demand so much of you and it’s easy to get caught up in the needs of  students and requirements of your institution or department/area, such that you might find you haven’t been able to fully explore a problem, passion or particular interest. With a network of like-minded people engaged in shared practice a CoP can offer collegial support and assist in bringing time, energy and focus to something that really interests you, that on your own you just never had the capacity to explore.

“With communities of practice – I know I’m not alone.” -University of Southern Queensland Community of Practice member (McDonald, 2014, p7).

The Australian University Teaching Criteria and Standards set out to ‘clarify what constitutes quality teaching’ (Australian Government Office for Learning and Teaching, 2015). They are designed to be utilised for performance development review, career planning and progression. Criterion 6 constitutes evaluation of practice and continuing professional development. Knight, Tait and Yorke (2006) make the following points about professional development in higher education:

“Firstly, spaces need to be found for this activity, for the creation of shared meaning. Secondly, power relationships within activity systems need to encourage collegiality and participation. Thirdly, appropriate procedures and practices are needed; in higher education this is often represented by the capacious notion of ‘reflection’.” (p332)

Being part of a CoP can be an avenue for professional development and can improve your teaching by allowing for fresh ideas, cross pollination, critical feedback and reflection. Through CoP teachers can learn and share experiences and expertise, seek inspiration, solve problems and evaluate practice and literature. 

Where to next?

How do I join or start a CoP, and what if it doesn’t go to plan? Stay tuned, the next 2 posts in this Coffee Course will explore how to create a community of practice and some of the challenges, misconceptions and possible solutions.

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If you are interested but haven’t yet taken part in a CoP why do you think that is, what are the barriers that hold you back? (we will be discussing some of the challenges in the final post for this Coffee Course so stay tuned). Share your thoughts in the discussion forum.

References and Futher Reading:

Australian Government Office for Learning and Teaching (2015) Australian University Teaching Criteria and Standards Framework. Available: http://uniteachingcriteria.edu.au/framework/indicative-criteria/indicative-standards-criteria/ 

Knight, P., Tait, J. and Yorke, M. (2006) The professional learning of teachers in higher education, Studies in Higher Education, 31:3, 319-339. Available: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03075070600680786

McDonald, J. (2014) Community, Domain, Practice: Facilitator catch cry for revitalising learning and teaching through communities of practice, ALTC Teaching Fellowship University of Southern Queensland. Available: https://altf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/McDonald-J_NT_Final-report_-2014.pdf

McLoughlin, C., Patel, K.D., O’Callaghan, T. and Reeves, S. (2018) The use of virtual communities of practice to improve interprofessional collaboration and education: findings from an integrated review, Journal of Interprofessional Care, 32:2, 136-142. Available: https://doi.org/10.1080/13561820.2017.1377692

Wenger-Trayner, B., Wenger-Trayner, E. (2015) Introduction to communities of practice: A brief overview of the concept and its uses. Available: https://wenger-trayner.com/introduction-to-communities-of-practice

Wenger, E. (2002) Cultivating communities of practice a quick start-up guide. Available: https://wenger-trayner.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Start-up-guide-EN1.pdf

Wenger, E. (2010) Communities of practice and social learning systems: the career of a concept. In Blackmore, C. (Editor) Social Learning Systems and communities of practice. Springer Verlag and the Open University. Available: https://wenger-trayner.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/09-10-27-CoPs-and-systems-v2.01.pdf

Wenger, E., McDermott, R. and Snyder, W.M. (2002) A Guide to Managing Knowledge: Cultivating Communities of Practice, Harvard Business School Press Boston, Massachusetts. Available: http://cpcoaching.it/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/WengerCPC.pdf 

25 thoughts on “Day 1 – What is a community of practice

  1. In th mid 2000s,a colleague and I formed what we’d now call a CoP; it was an interdisciplinary group that wanted to work on a common issue, which in the first iteration was small-group (tutorial) teaching. Over the course of a semester we met regularly to design, with input and suggestions from the fresh perspective of our peers, a tutorial that we delivered and then deconstructed in the group. Hearing how different disciplines saw the role of tutorials, and discussing how various learning activities were effective for these purposes enriched our own practice, with many of us adapting ideas from one discipline (eg. literature) to quite another (eg. science).

    This is now well over 10 years ago, but the feelings of collegiality engendered by everyone’s trust in each other and willingness to share and learn remain with me. It is still a highlight of my tenure at my university, and the relationships formed then continue.

    The strength from our point of view was in the multiple disciplines represented. It is one of the few ways in which many of us can be exposed to how (and why) others do things differently and to see WIIFM (what’s in it for me/my teaching) or more aptly, what here can I use and how.

    1. Hi Laurie,
      Great to hear about your positive experience with the interdisciplinary group you were involved with, and that the benefits have stayed with you after all this time. What was the process like getting the group started and involving people from different disciplines? You mentioned that the first iteration met throughout a semester, I’m curious to know if yourself or anyone from that group continued to meet beyond the semester or went on to form new/other CoP groups?

      1. Hi Amandas
        Our L&T centre helped us: once we’d floated the idea to let people know both WHAT and WHY it was, we provided staff with a list of topics (including ‘other’) where we could realistically effect change to identify what they were most interested in working on and/or what they found produced the most difficulties. These were from our own conversations with people and the questions the L&T centre dealt with. We chose the ‘top’ item and then the hardest part was finding common time: we tended up running two groups. Both were very rewarding and they were also very different.

        1. Thanks Laurie it does sound very rewarding, and it’s great to hear that the T&L centre at your institution was able to support you in getting the CoP off the ground- food for though for those of us working in other institutions.

    2. Laurine, how did you sustain the effort in your CoP? One way seems to be food and drink. I have participated in “Talk about Teaching and Learning” (TATAL) in support of people applying for HERDSA Fellowship. The TATAL tradition is to have a cake at each meeting.

      I ran the “Internet Reality Check” in Canberra for a few years. This was a discussion group about Internet public policy. We met in a pub. I found that we could get a free meeting room, if we ordered drinks and dinner. I did try making people wear silly hats, for team spirit, but that did not last long.

      1. Well, I do tend to use food as a tool, in my teaching too! I think we did all bring things at various times (community again) , but it was the joy (and I use the term advisedly) of talking with like-minded people who shared an interest in making our teaching ‘better’ – or perhaps richer and deeper – that kept us together. We all left each session with something new… even just that, in explaining to others why we do what we do, we understand it better ourselves.

        Flexibility and openness is key, I reckon: the nature of the group shapes its path, and like the Sussex pig, it won’t be druv. A current CoP has taken quite a different direction from that I envisaged when I enticed people to join: but it’s been extremely valuable. I chose a room close to coffee and bring chocolate each time (a food group and the best learning aid) and now others are spontaneously varying the repast!

  2. My experience being part of a CoP is with colleagues in my Division working on course redesign. Things that made it successful and were effective: It was organised a bit under the radar, we laughed a lot, we were all genuinely motivated to improve the course, and we met over a period of 6 months often during our lunch hour. It allowed us to build trust (food was part of it) and grew in our appreciation of each other’s strengths. The outcome for our learners was a more cohesive set of workshops that were more explicitly aligned with Learning Outcomes. The biggest challenge was convincing management of the value of the time investment. Involvement more broadly across the ANU – my main barriers are time and needing to learn greater consistency.

    1. Hi Imogen,
      I love the power of food bringing people together 🙂
      I’m interested to hear that you were able to see a positive outcome for learners yet the challenge of convincing management that it is a valuable investment remained. Were you able to bring management around and was there anything in particular that helped to convince them?

  3. A Community of Practice is like a book club: something you feel you really need to participate in, but never seem to have the time. 😉

    I have been a member of many CoPs, working on aspects of IT policy. What worked well was to have a mix of people from different organizations. After we discussed the issue, individuals would take the bits they liked and recommend their organization adopt them. What didn’t work was having an agenda, or timetable, as everyone was a volunteer and we could not agree on everything.

    CoPs in the educaiton field have not worked so well. What seems to be lacking is the confidence of individuals they can effect change, and a lack of effective professional organizations in support.

    1. Hi Tom,
      I agree that time seems to be a major challenge. Did your IT policy CoPs meet during business hours, or were they scheduled around them?
      I guess it makes sense that individuals don’t feel they can effect change if their organisations are not supportive in the endeavor. What was the success rate like in organisations actually taking on the recommendations of those members form the IT policy CoPs you mentioned?

      1. The IT policy CoPs met mostly after hours, usually early evening. It is hard to determine the success rate of this approach. Was it we were influencing the agenda in our organizations, or simply reflecting what they were already doing? Some group members did not tell their organizations they were part of the group. I was open about it, taking my intern along, mentioning it to my boss, and in public presentations. But one journalist called us a “cabal”, which sounds sinister.

  4. My closest experience to a CoP would be these Coffee Courses. After all, we are an interdisciplinary group, drawn together by a common interest, with a goal to become more effective through our interactions.

    Like others have identified, being time-poor and lack of institutional support are perhaps the biggest barriers.

    1. Thanks Bhavani. I agree, I have also found these coffee courses to be a great way to learn and share with people from different disciplines (and different institutions).

    2. Hi Bhavani, glad to hear that! I have learned a lot and met lots of great people through the coffee courses myself. I participate in some CoPs through professional organisations like ASCILITE (https://ascilite.org/) and time and lack of support are major barriers for us in being able to contribute sufficient time to see the programs through and have some concrete outcomes from our participation (such as writing journal articles and conferences papers together, or organising events). But I have gotten so much from the interpersonal side of these CoPs, like meeting new people, establishing professional networks, and learning about how things are done at other institutions. Maybe I need to measure this as being as important as more official “deliverables”!

      1. Same for me, Bhavani. My closest experience with a CoP would be these Coffee Courses 😀
        My previous employer, a large language college, did make sure all its teachers connected and collaborated – across the 23 (!) different languages we taught. I taught English as a second language, but learnt so much from colleagues who taught e.g. Japanese or Swedish. All thanks to our didactics team, who organised brainstorm sessions, mentoring programs for new teachers, Pecha Kuchas, ‘visit a colleague’s class’-weeks, etc. But participation was mandatory, so I guess we can’t call this a CoP! (Still, it was really great!)

  5. I have been a part of a CoP based around teaching and learning. This was a weekly catch-up over a coffee. Initially, the group was really successful and we shared our experiences, supported each other and discussed strategies to engage students. New staff found this particularly helpful. Guest speakers were sometimes arranged where the group was interested in ‘hearing from an expert’ related to the issues we discussed. This group was very diverse and ever increasing in size.

    A driving factor in the cessation of this group was the size (15+). It was difficult in the 30min timeframe for everyone to get a chance to share/speak. This then led to several small group discussions. The other key factor was the research agenda of some participants. This overtook the conversation at times and many felt they lost the space for general discussion around teaching and learning.
    I would be very interested in reviving this group!

  6. I’d never heard this term before, but I now realise I’ve been a member of a few CoPs! A new one in our school (Literature, Languages and Linguistics) is quite official but loosely structured; my colleague Leslie Barnes has founded a peer-to-peer teaching observation program, where you can elect to be paired with someone from another area of the school, to observe one another’s class once or twice, and to meet and discuss teaching over coffee. It’s not really a mentorship program because the observations are mutual, but more of a balanced opportunity to learn more about how others teach, and share strategies. We also write one another a small report, from which quotes can be used for promotion or HEA applications. I’m from the French program and paired with a colleague in Screen Studies, and it’s been so enlightening to sit in on such a different class. The coffee element makes it social, too!

    1. Hi Gemma,
      Thanks for sharing your experience of the peer-to-peer observation program you have been part of it sounds wonderful. I have been involved with a similar thing in the past and always learnt so much, not only from the feedback about my teaching but also from observing someone else. In your observation program, I was wondering if you go in with something specific that you are observing to give feedback about, and if so how do you decide/agree upon that?

      1. Hi Amanda,
        Good question- our organiser Leslie put together a two-page sheet we could fill out, with different sections to reflect on (subject matter, organisation, rapport, etc.) but stressed we didn’t have to follow those guidelines if it didn’t work for our particular observation. I’ve found myself using certain parts of the form and then giving freer feedback beyond that (which there is room for at the end). It’s been a great system so far!

  7. Years ago I set up a CoP for HDR students. It gave us all a chance to learn more about being a HDR student, preparing for conferences etc. Yes, like many of the others, it involved food and guest speakers. It was an invaluable time to network and to learn from each other in an informal setting.

  8. Hope I’m not too late to contribute here …
    I joined a CoP in applied statistics about 5 years ago, when I joined ANU. One of its characteristics is that it functions virtually exclusively as a face-to-face group, sometimes with coffee, sometimes without. As a number of people have commented, the prospect of coffee has been a useful way to sustain the effort. Depending on where I was coming from I faced 30 to 60 minutes additional travel time which was a bit of a barrier, particularly when a busy week was ahead. Nonetheless the success of this CoP could be measured by the fact that it has been going for over a decade, with different individuals involved at different times. At its outset I don’t think its members would have called it a CoP as it involved academics from one unit only, but gradually this has evolved.
    I’d also like to mention RLadies (rladies.org), an example of a CoP with international scope but local application. This CoP is for users of the statistical software R and it has a mission around inclusivity and gender-diversity. The Canberra chapter kicked off at the beginning of the year. We’ve got the food and drink sorted 🙂 and membership from a range of organisations has also been achieved.

    1. Hi Alice,
      Not too late at all, these coffee courses are self-paced so people are free to engage when it suits them best.
      10+ years is definitely a sign that something worthwhile and valuable is taking place within that applied statistics CoP. I wonder if its enduring success can also be attributed to the fact that it has been allowed to evolve and that different individuals have been coming in and out (offering fresh ideas and perspectives)? I just had a look at the RLadies website that one looks amazing- so great to hear about these communities!

  9. An example of a CoP I was a member of that has worked well is my laboratory research group. We meet regularly to discuss what we working on, all focused within our niche area of science. We have a chance to share new findings on our projects, ask for input when we are unsure of what patterns we are seeing and have support from each other as mentors and peers.
    When I was in my honours year, I was a part of an informal CoP. It was formed around a university anthropology society, and members could meet whenever they needed to in our shared common room to discuss anything they were having trouble with in classes or any anthropological concepts that they couldn’t quite grasp. It was great in that it was informal, so you felt you could share honestly without fear of judgement or it reflecting bad on your grades etc. But because it was so informal, there were no set meeting times and you just had to show up and hope that someone would be there to assist you or chat. It also meant that there was no ‘check’ as to whether the information provided or dispersed was accurate. So while it was useful, it still meant that there were flaws in the process or that you had to be careful what information you were putting out there or taking away.

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