Dec 14 2018

Communities of Practice: A Professional Development Theory for the Digital Age

K–12 administrators should grow networks of teachers to facilitate the adoption of classroom technology.

In our digital age, social interactions are evolving as people increasingly turn to social media and other virtual spaces to connect. Researchers question if social media hurts or harms our ability to interact with one another, and so far the results are mixed

It is certain, however, that the internet has created new opportunities for connections and learning that otherwise wouldn’t have existed. This is especially true for professional development, where communities of practice grow networks of educators who come together to learn with, and from, their peers.

According to educational theorist Etienne Wenger-Trayner, CoPs “are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” This learning theory was first proposed in 1991 by Wenger-Trayner and cognitive anthropologist Jean Lave, but CoPs have existed for centuries — as long as humans have come together to share ideas on common goals. 

MORE FROM EDTECH: Five focus areas to ensure successful professional development for K–12 teachers. 

Communities of Practice Are Common for Professional Development

With this background, let’s consider the three necessary components of a CoP:

  • Domain: A CoP is defined by a common domain of interest and a shared purpose. 
  • Community: A group of people, with this shared purpose, engages in collaborative work and cooperation by sharing resources and ideas. Learners in these communities build sustained relationships and take on shared responsibilities.
  • Practice: CoPs are not isolated groups of people who share resources once or even twice; they are intentional, ongoing and collaborative.

CoPs exist all around us, and although we may not realize it, most of us are members of multiple CoPs. These can be thought of as formal or informal sustained communities

Companies use them for their impact on knowledge sharing: from monthly meetings of administrative assistants who share productivity tips to senior executives who gather to discuss market challenges and sales results. At the community level, a group of first-time mothers might meet at the local coffee shop to support and guide one another. 

In education, peer learning is essential. In this environment, CoPs aid professional development and can be constructed by a district or school, or by educators themselves. CoPs can meet in person or (as we see more often in today’s environment) virtually, where teachers have the ability to interact with others from around the world

However, it’s important that the CoP creates an innovative, fluid environment that provides teachers with structured and unstructured learning opportunities to explore, investigate and connect. In other words, CoPs need to be more than a Facebook page or Twitter thread for people who like the same thing. 

How to Build a Community of Practice

Education Twitter chats are an excellent example of how digital spaces can be used to form CoPs — allowing educators to work toward the common goal of professional development by forming participatory connections and sharing ideas, practices and tools. 

The same community of educators can be brought together for weekly or monthly chats identified by specific hashtags and facilitated by moderators who act as an expert resource on a certain topic or practice. They are centered on a common domain, are sustained and allow collaboration, thus meeting the criteria for a CoP.

CoPs are integral to ongoing formal and informal learning opportunities. When they live in the digital space, educators have access to creative and impactful interactions that lead professional development. 

With a new focus on social-emotional learning (SEL), media and digital literacy, computational thinking and cross-cultural skills, the ways in which we define student success are changing rapidly. 

In order to best equip students for college and career, educators must first master these same skills. By placing CoPs at the center of any professional development initiative, educators can help one another grow and learn, and ultimately make a lasting impact on students.


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