Cohorts, Community and Consensus

The community of practice is enjoying a bit of a moment in educational design. I see it as a kind of pedagogical flipside to the sage on the stage. Etiene Wenger is credited with defining the concept:

Being alive as human beings means that we are constantly engaged in the pursuit of enterprises of all kinds, from ensuring our physical survival to seeking the most lofty pleasures. As we define these enterprises and engage in their pursuit together, we interact with each other and with the world and we tune our relations with each other and with the world accordingly. In other words, we learn.

Over time, this collective learning results in practices that reflect both the pursuit of our enterprises and the attendant social relations. These practices are thus the property of a kind of community created over time by the sustained prusuit of a shared enterprise. It makes sense, therefore, to call these kinds of communities communities of practice.  (Wenger, 1998, p. 15)

As the author acknowledges, the concept draws on or describes existing and very old models of community learning – the atelier and the workshop, as well as less formal groupings of working and learning people. The academic equivalent might be the garden of Epicurus, and the school of Athens.

In online learning, we need to be cautious to critique accepted common practice, and ensure that we aren’t letting the technology drive the pedagogy. Often, modes of practice are accepted uncritically, as properties inherent in the techology (i.e., the notion that technologies impose separation or create connection; that things that we click are ‘interactive’). We must also, I’d argue, be cautious not to – well, let the pedagogy drive the pedagogy. Pedagogical fads can become like Maslow’s hammer (Kaplan’s law of the instrument): when you have a shiny, new hammer, everything suddenly needs a nail.

(more thoughts to go here….)

A related note on guidance and moderation.

In the past, good forums have been tightly moderated, usually by an owner-manager of the space, and a team of volunteer members. This is still practiced in some online spaces. A set of guidelines is established according to the purpose and spirit of the group, covering content, style, and use of language. This typically means that forum threads must be topic-specific, off-topic discussions are relegated to a chat session or separate subforum, and obstreperous personalities are quickly placed under control. Often, new members must demonstrate their bona fides during a probationary period where their ability to post is limited.

In the social media space, this model of management has given way to laissez-faire policies that appear to be driven by democratization. Platforms like Twitter have thus created the impression that the web ought to be a free-for-all; attempts at moderation are decried as silencing ‘free speech’, even when debates are around technical issues and unrelated to politics. Conflict drives engagement drives advertising revenue; community is sacrificed at the altar of profit. The ethos of ‘inclusivity at all costs’, of course, is a veneer; actual inclusivity and accessibility usually well down the list of priorities.

The challenge for education is when an understanding of online culture built in social media shapes the management of and participation in educational community spaces. Participants bring an adversarial personal style developed in the wider web into institutional social spaces, and the result is discord rather than discourse; spaces cluttered with irrelevancies and ire.

Openness and access are inherently good, but with rights come responsibilities. Civic responsibilities need to be learned, valued and applied. Discussion around social media and often centers on the dichotomous issues of censorship and silencing bad actors, but even a group of well-intentioned participants needs to learn to navigate online social relationships if discourse is to thrive. Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner mention the absence of leaders as one of the ‘myths’ in communities of practice; this is true of online communities of practice, too, and it’s a myth that needs to be addressed if educational online spaces are to thrive.


See also: Consensus Decision Making



Howlett, C., Arthur, J. M., & Ferreira, J. A. (2016). Good CoPs and bad CoPs: Facilitating reform in first-year assessment via a community of practice. Higher Education Research & Development, 35(4), 741-754.
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice : learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E. (2015). Introduction to communities of practice. A brief overview of the concept and its use.